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Fashionably Late Olivia Goldsmith Classic Olivia Goldsmith – a vibrant and witty novel about fashion, family and what happens when having it all isn’t as easy as you thought.She’s got the designer label, but she hasn’t got the designer genes…Wherever she goes, Karen Khan is fashionably late. She can afford to be: the star of the New York fashion scene, with her own company, a handsome husband and a deal that could make her millions, she is the apple – and the envy – of everyone’s eye.But, at forty, is she too late for the ultimation in creation? Motherhood is proving to be elusive – as elusive as her own parentage – and as difficult as the cut-throat business of couture. Yet Karen is not one to take no for an answer, and late is better than never… OLIVIA GOLDSMITH FASHIONABLY LATE Copyright (#ulink_e1f24666-55ed-58a3-aa9f-1462671e6bf6) HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/) First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 1994 Copyright © Olivia Goldsmith 1994 Olivia Goldsmith asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books. HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication. Source ISBN: 9780006479727 Ebook Edition © MAY 2015 ISBN: 9780008154073 Version: 2015-06-16 Contents Cover (#u7a1a2af1-dd5c-552b-8da4-9f52c2463cd9) Title Page (#u0680de58-6a65-5d04-a2e8-95128fd612d4) Copyright (#ulink_59579f37-85a8-504b-9e51-5c59b53d17cb) Part One: Designer Genes (#ulink_acc34e40-fc3e-5643-ad10-8c3905b83eb1) Chapter One: Reaping What You Sew (#ulink_6d13fbc8-ef13-530a-88c9-ac601541c05a) Chapter Two: Barren Karen (#ulink_79637bdf-8d0d-5e29-aebd-8c531dff5a8a) Chapter Three: Cut from a Different Cloth (#ulink_f5d14aef-d69c-5741-b7de-6320b6afd8e5) Chapter Four: The Cutting Edge (#ulink_6d14403b-6dab-53fa-b42f-204d4adab990) Chapter Five: Hard Labor (#ulink_4c4d7af1-79c9-5958-9d42-b711bd7bfe3a) Chapter Six: Fashion Cents (#ulink_e3a128c4-8d0d-540a-b025-e60756c716c2) Chapter Seven: Cut and Dried (#ulink_d5c6a17f-4ec2-5d03-94a8-6442a05ba4bd) Chapter Eight: Everyone Has One (#ulink_5e51398b-10d4-5cf4-91e6-718dbeecbd22) Chapter Nine: Dressed for Success (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten: Out of the Closet (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven: Marriage à la Mode (#litres_trial_promo) Part Two: Hemming and Whoring (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve: Fashionable Collection (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen: Hemming It Up (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen: Dressing Her Wounds (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen: A Friend in Tweed (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen: What’s My Line? (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen: Dollars and Scents (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen: Dialing for Daughters (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen: The Waist Land (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty: Whirling Dervitz (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One: Tongue in Chic (#litres_trial_promo) Part Three: Slaves to Fashion (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two: An Affair to Remember (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three: By a Thread (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four: Rags to Bitches (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five: Paris When It Sizzles (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six: Womb for Rent (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven: Fashion Plays (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight: Pulling the Wool (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine: Slaves to Fashion (#litres_trial_promo) Part Four: A Real Mother (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty: Thread Bare (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One: Cut on the Bias (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two: In Stitches (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Three: Case Clothed (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Four: Fashion of the Times (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Five: A Stitch in Time (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Six: Nothing as it Seams (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Seven: Clothing Allowances (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Eight: For Whom the Belle Tolls (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Nine: What’s in a Name (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Forty: A Horse With No Name (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Forty-One: A Friend Indeed (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Forty-Two: Fashionably Late (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgments (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Also by the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Praise (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) This novel is entirely a work of fiction. Though it contains incidental references to actual people and places, these references are used merely to lend the fiction a realistic setting. All other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. PART ONE (#ulink_73185953-175a-58a7-8d2a-5bce068d0f95) Designer Genes (#ulink_73185953-175a-58a7-8d2a-5bce068d0f95) He who only sees fashion in fashion is nothing but a fool Honoré de Balzac CHAPTER ONE (#ulink_c991af3c-24e6-5c84-9043-40bbf9f8f9b3) Reaping What You Sew (#ulink_c991af3c-24e6-5c84-9043-40bbf9f8f9b3) Fashionably late, Karen Kahn and her husband, Jeffrey, walked past the flash of photographers’ lights and into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. Karen felt, for that moment, that she had it all. Tonight was the annual award party and benefit held by the Oakley Foundation, and Karen was about to be honored with their Thirty-Eighth Annual American Fashion Achievement Award. If she couldn’t arrive fashionably late here, where could she? Stepping through the lobby and into the Deco brass elevator, alone together for the last moment before the crush began, Karen looked at Jeffrey and couldn’t repress a grin. Soon, she’d be among the crème-de-la-crème of fashion designers, fashion press, and the wealthy society women who actually wore the fashions. Despite all of her hard work, despite dreaming that this could happen, Karen could hardly believe that she was the woman of the moment. ‘It’s taken me almost twenty years to become an overnight success,’ she wisecracked to Jeffrey, and he smiled down at her. Unlike Karen, who knew she was no more than ordinary-looking, Jeffrey was handsome. Karen was aware that tuxedos make even plain men good-looking, but she was still taken aback by how much they did for a looker like Jeffrey, who was both sexy and distinguished in his formal clothes. A lethal combo. The gleam of the black satin of his peaked lapels set off his thick pepper-and-salt hair. He was wearing the cabochon sapphire shirt studs and cuff links she had given him the night before. They perfectly matched the washed-denim blue of his eyes, as she knew they would. ‘Not a moment too soon,’ he said. ‘It’s important to schedule your Lifetime Achievement Award before your first face-lift.’ She laughed. ‘I didn’t know that. Lucky it turned out that way. Although if I had the lift first, I might still be considered a girl genius.’ ‘You’re still my girl genius,’ Jeffrey told her, and gave her arm a squeeze. ‘Just remember, I knew you when.’ The elevator reached their floor. ‘And now, see how it feels to really hit the big time,’ Jeffrey told her. Before the stainless and brass Art Deco doors opened, he bent down and kissed her cheek, careful not to spoil her maquillage. How lucky she was to have the kind of man who understood when a kiss was welcome but smeared makeup was not! Yes, she was very lucky, and very happy, she thought. Everything in her life was as perfect as it could be, except for her condition. But maybe Dr Goldman would have news that would … she stopped herself. No sense thinking about what Jeffrey called ‘her obsession’ now. She’d promised herself and her husband that tonight was one night she’d enjoy to the utmost. As the elevator doors rolled aside, Karen looked up to see Nan Kempner and Mrs Gordon Getty, fashion machers and society fund-raisers, standing side by side, both of them in Yves Saint Laurent. ‘You’d think they could have put on one of my little numbers,’ Karen hissed to Jeffrey, while she kept the smile firmly planted on her face. ‘Honey, you’ve never done glitz like Saint Laurent does,’ Jeffrey reminded her, and, comforted, she sailed out and air-kissed the two women. One was in an oyster white satin floor-length sheath with gold braid and a tasseled belt – a lot like curtain trimming, Karen thought. Perhaps Scarlett O’Hara had been at the portieres again. The other was in black lace shot with what looked like silver, though, since it was on Mrs Getty, it must be platinum, Karen joked to herself. Both women took their fashion seriously: Nan Kempner had once admitted in an interview that as a girl she had ‘cried and cried’ at Saint Laurent’s when she saw a white mink-trimmed suit too expensive for her allowance. The legend was that Yves himself had come down to meet the girl who cried so hard. The foyer was already crowded with the usual backdrop of men in exquisite black wool and women in every sort of fabric and color. Funny how men always clung to a uniform. Only the Duke of Windsor had the fashion nerve to wear colored formal wear; midnight blue rather than black. But if men didn’t display much overt fashion, they certainly controlled this world. Despite her success, and the success of a few other women designers, Karen knew that the business was owned and controlled by men. And most of those in control were here tonight. In addition, tonight there was a larger-than-usual gaggle of paparazzi. Fashion seems to have become the new entertainment, Karen thought, not for the first time, but it still surprised her. There was rarely a fashion event that didn’t draw a wild mix of society, Hollywood, and the rock world. She controlled herself and didn’t do a Brooklyn double take as she was pushed against Sly Stallone, who was there with his latest model. Paulina the Gorgeous stood beside her husband, Ric Ocasek. Clint Eastwood stood beside Frances Fisher, who looked great for a woman who’d just dropped a baby. The Elle Halle camera crew were also there, apparently busy trying to get a shot of Christie Brinkley. Billy Joel didn’t seem to be with her, but David Bowie was there, with Iman. And that, Karen thought, was only in the foyer. An enormous noise came from the ballroom itself, which was where Karen and Jeffrey were headed. In a matter of moments, Karen greeted Harold Koda from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, Enid Haupt, one of the wealthiest and most charitable of the New York doyennes, Georgina Von Etzdorf, another designer, and bald-headed Beppe Modenese, who worked to polish the Italian fashion industry’s image in the United States. They passed Gianni Versace, standing next to his sister and muse, the impossibly blonde Donetella. And still Jeffrey and Karen hadn’t yet made it to the ballroom. This event was definitely going to be a success, Karen thought, and she was happy not only for herself but for the fashion business in general. ‘Well, the gang’s all here,’ Karen smiled. ‘At least they didn’t give a party for me where nobody came.’ Before she had a chance to exult, they were interrupted: ‘Oh my, if it isn’t Kubla Kahn,’ said a waspish voice behind them. Karen winced, turned around, and was staring into the wizened face of Tony de Freise, another Seventh Avenue designer, but one whose star was fading. ‘It’s Karen Kahn,’ Jeffrey corrected. ‘Yeah, and it’s a hell of a pleasure dome she’s decreed,’ Tony sneered. Looking around, he paused, and his mouth tightened. ‘They did this for me once. Don’t let it go to your head. They just build you up to tear you down.’ He shrugged and turned away. ‘See you on the slopes.’ Karen sighed, but tried to keep her smile visible. There was professional jealousy in every business, but there seemed to be a little more jealousy in fashion. Karen wasn’t sure why that was. Belle, her mother, had once described politics back in the teacher’s room at grammar school by saying, ‘The fighting is so dirty because the stakes are so low.’ Perhaps the fighting in the fashion world had become so dirty because the stakes were so high. In the eighties, fashion had become global; the take was bigger than ever before, and it seemed as if the knives had been sharpened. ‘Well, that was a pleasant omen,’ Karen whispered. ‘I feel like Sleeping Beauty at the banquet when the Bad Fairy appeared.’ ‘Oh, forget the Bad Fairy,’ Jeffrey told her. ‘No one pays attention to Tony anymore.’ ‘Yeah. That was his point.’ Karen realized all at once that this new visibility would also make her more vulnerable. Other designers could take shots at her now. There were those rare few who continued to go their own way. Bill Blass, probably richer than any other American designer (with the exception of Ralph Lauren), was always friendly, open, and noncompetitive. He’d been one of the first of the established fashion moguls to be nice to Karen. If his talent wasn’t huge and his clothes were sometimes uninspired, he’d be the least offended to hear it. Geoffrey Beene, a true original, was another who went his own way. His clothes were inspired, an example of true artistry, and perhaps that was one of the reasons he was an iconoclast and always above the fashion fray. In school, Karen had learned a lot by simply looking at Geoffrey Beene’s designs. Karen smiled and decided to shrug off the de Freise incident. Now she’d have to face the rest of the mob. She and Jeffrey walked into the ballroom and were engulfed by their own competitors and co-workers. There are nice people here, Karen reassured herself. Then she saw Norris Cleveland. Karen tried to spend most of her time and energy in the workroom, out of the gossip and back-biting arena. She also tried not to compare herself or her work to anyone else. But if there was one woman in the business she disliked, it was the one approaching her right now. Norris Cleveland was, in Karen’s opinion, worse than a bad designer. She was the kind of designer who gave fashion artists a bad name. She was lazy and derivative; the worst of her clothes were either dull or unwearable, but … The ‘but’ was that Norris had a genius for having friends in the right places and getting her parties, quips, nights on the town, and her newest line placed in all the right newspapers, magazines, and television shows. Of course, calling them her clothes was an act of charity: Norris stole a little from here and a little from there. Lately, it seemed Cleveland had been imitating Karen’s style. The worst part was that she even copied badly! But Karen was determined not to let anything or anyone spoil the night. She smiled at Norris, or at least she bared her teeth. Norris was as bad at business as she was at design, but a few years ago she had married Wall Street Money and her company had been saved by a new inflow of cash. If the word on the Avenue was true – that Norris’s husband was getting tired of both writing checks and of being referred to as ‘Mr Cleveland’ – it did not seem to have dimmed Norris’s smile tonight. She came at Karen with her arms open, revealing her painfully thin body encased in a sheath of yellow jersey. Now, as Norris made a kissing noise at each ear, Karen heard cameras begin to click. Somehow cameras always followed Norris Cleveland. Karen wondered if they were real press, or simply ringers on the society designer’s payroll. ‘Congratulations, darling,’ Norris said, in that breathy, exclusive-girls-school monotone that was so prevalent among the ladies who lunched – a sort of Jackie Kennedy Onassis with emphysema. Norris had always been pleasant to Karen, but on some deeper level, she could feel the woman’s envy and distaste. After all, Karen was nothing but an upstart. ‘I’m so pleased for you.’ Yeah, right. Norris then turned to Jeffrey and put her hand on his arm. ‘You must be very proud,’ she said to Jeffrey, and for some reason, when Norris said it, it sounded like an insult. Cameras flashed again, and Karen wondered if she’d be cropped out of the picture when it ran in Town and Country. Jeffrey just laughed. ‘Norris! What a dress!’ was all he said. She kept smiling. ‘Well, you’re not the only ones celebrating tonight. Have you heard? I’m about to launch my perfume.’ God, how much money did her husband have to throw away? Karen wondered. A perfume could not be launched for less than ten or fifteen million dollars. A good launch cost triple that. And only the good ones lasted. Karen hated the perfume business. It was a cash cow for a lot of the fashion merchants, and had been since Coco Chanel invented the deal, but it was well known that it had brought only money and pain to Coco. Still, it would be perfect for Norris. Without feeling a moment’s guilt, she could sell packaging with her name on it to desperate people who vainly hoped for romance. ‘Best of luck,’ Karen murmured, and was delighted when Jeffrey moved her forward. ‘I hate her,’ Karen told her husband out of the corner of her mouth. ‘She knows that,’ he answered. Karen and Jeffrey moved smoothly through the crowd. It was wonderful, even hard to believe. Everyone said hello to her. She was definitely the Cinderella at this ball. And if she had spent most of her life on her knees in her workroom, tonight was the reward, the recognition for all that work. ‘Serious Money ahead,’ Jeffrey whispered, and nudged her. ‘A pillar of the community.’ Bobby Pillar, the guy who had singlehandedly created a new television network and was now launching his own shopping channel, was moving toward them. Karen had met him once or twice before, but now, beaming, he approached her, his hand outstretched. ‘The It Girl!’ he cried, and instead of shaking her hand, he hugged her close. She was surprised, but after all, he was Hollywood. Always trendsetters, they’d given up air-kissing in the nineties – it was replaced with full frontal assault. Now Bobby surveyed her proudly, as if she was an invention of his own. ‘So? When are you going to create a line for me?’ Karen shrugged, but smiled. There was something hamishe about Bobby. He was warm, familiar, and very, very Brooklyn. ‘Not tonight,’ she told him. Bobby laughed. ‘We ought to talk,’ he said. ‘You ought to see the kind of numbers I’m talking about.’ Jeffrey said his hello, someone else greeted Bobby, and then Karen and Jeffrey were free to wander off. When they were out of earshot, Jeffrey turned to look back at Bobby. ‘Can you imagine?’ he said, outraged. ‘The guy is selling schlock jewelry and polyester pull-on pants. I don’t care if he’s desperate to upgrade, he’s not dragging your name down. Look what happened to Cher, and she just did an infomercial.’ Karen shrugged. ‘Still, it’s nice to be asked.’ She certainly didn’t consider the attention an insult. Her husband was a cutie, but he was also a snob. Of course, he could afford to be – his family was wealthy, German Jews with more than enough money in Manhattan real estate. He’d gone to private schools and had always been part of a more glittering world than she had. He’d always been sought after while Karen was just a girl from Brooklyn. She wasn’t interested in socialites. The people in the room tonight – the ones who actually attracted her, who fascinated her – were the other designers. She wanted to talk with them. Yet those she respected always made her feel shy. And although tonight she was being recognized by them, there was not a lot of camaraderie in the fashion world. While she admired Valentino’s gowns, and sometimes appreciated the exuberance of Karl Lagerfeld, she couldn’t imagine hanging out with them. They spoke at least four languages, knew all the best restaurants in all the best cities, owned palazzi and villas, and went to the opera for fun. Karen couldn’t imagine them seeking out her company to split a Diet Coke and a rice cake. Three of the fashion ‘walkers’ congregated against the doorway. John Richardson, Ashton Hawkins, and Charles Ryskamp were successful in their fields. Cultured, attractive bachelors, they accompanied society women to events like this when their own husbands were too busy or too tired or too dead. No matter what their age, it seemed that society women required events to go to, escorts to take them, and dresses to wear. Sometimes Karen wondered at it, but it did sell gowns. Slowly she and Jeffrey continued to make their way through the crowd to their table, where Defina Pompey was standing, tall and majestic as an ebony column. Karen and Defina had worked together for more than a decade. Fifteen years ago Defina had been the hottest runway model of the season and now, even with Linda Evangelista standing not too far behind her, Karen could see why. Her friend was still gorgeous, more beautiful than Beverly Johnson or Naomi Campbell on their best days. Today, when it was truly unchic to do a show without several black models, it was hard to remember that it was this woman who had broken ground for all women of color. Defina was deep in conversation with a painfully skinny, intense young woman dressed in black and an elegant Italian-looking man – Defina had a gift for languages and spoke flawless Spanish, Italian, and French, but she still knew how to communicate with the homeboys. Defina looked across the table and flashed a smile at Karen. She was wearing a white silk jersey gown that Karen had designed for her. With it, Defina wore the wrap jacket that did great things for any woman who wanted to camouflage a thickening middle. Defina, in the days since she’d left modeling, had broadened and matured in all senses of the words. ‘May I introduce you to someone who would like to meet you?’ Defina asked smoothly. She turned to the Italian and dismissed him with a ‘ciao’ and a gracious smile. Then she sidled over to Karen, the little black fashion wraith fighting the crowd behind her. ‘This one is so green she actually thinks Calvin and Anne Klein are related. Should we tell her they’re married, and Kevin is their son?’ Defina suggested, sotto voce. The wraith got closer, extended a skeletal arm, and put out her bony hand. ‘Karen, meet Jenna Nuborg. She’s a freelance fashion writer who would like an interview. I told her you’d love to.’ Defina had put a little too much emphasis on the word love though only Karen would pick it up. Defina knew how much Karen hated to be bothered by the fashion reportorial tyros. God, they could be stupid and annoying. As if that wasn’t enough, they were most often oversensitive and quick to take offense. But Karen had no illusions: it was the fashion press who had put Karen here tonight. After years of effort, Karen had managed to survive in the cut-throat world of haute couture, but it wasn’t until Jeffrey had insisted on hiring Mercedes Bernard to do their public relations work that Karen had really broken from the pack and become a national, and perhaps almost an international, name. ‘Do you mind if I ask you some questions?’ the Nuborg woman asked. Her voice was as thin as her arms. This was no time for an interview, but before Karen could think of a pleasant way to put the woman off, the girl continued. ‘What, in your opinion, is the sexiest part of the female body?’ she asked. Defina, standing behind the reporter and towering almost a foot over the Nuborg’s head, smirked at Karen. ‘Her mind?’ Karen asked, as if the question had been a riddle. The girl didn’t smile. Too intense for that! ‘What is your biggest unfulfilled desire?’ she asked relentlessly. Karen’s smile faded. Without thinking, she moved her hand to cover her stomach, as if to shield her empty womb. She remembered Dr Goldman tomorrow. She blinked, paused, and told herself to get a grip. Before Karen could begin to answer or make an excuse, tall, pale Mercedes Bernard floated over. ‘Jenna. It is Jenna, isn’t it?’ the PR woman was a genius at remembering names, and while the pre-party arrival noise crescendoed around them, there in the glittering ballroom of the Waldorf, Mercedes began to detach the Nuborg mollusk from Karen’s side. ‘Perhaps later would be a better time for this,’ Mercedes was saying, her cool but pleasant smile already in place. Mercedes projected an aura of noblesse oblige. Though she spent her business life trying to cadge publicity and snag the best coverage from a host of egomaniacal fashion editors and journalists, she managed somehow to retain her dignity. The industry ‘poop’ on her was that ‘Mercedes bends but never stoops.’ The Nuborg turned once more to Karen. ‘Which is better: elegance without sex appeal or sex appeal without elegance?’ Karen opened her mouth, but Mercedes’s long white hand took the reporter by her bony, black-clad shoulder and firmly turned her away. Karen sighed with relief. She knew that some day she would have to sit down and pretend an interest in those clichéd questions, but at least she didn’t have to do it right now. Later, she would kill Defina – but she’d be careful not to spoil the white dress. ‘Where do they get those questions from?’ Defina asked innocently, wrinkling her brow. She looked over at Karen. Then she got serious. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I was just fooling around. I didn’t know she would …’ ‘That’s okay. It’s nothing,’ Karen told her. Defina widened her eyes. ‘Smile pretty at Nuclear Wintour,’ Defina told her, and Karen flashed a grin at Anna Wintour, arguably the most powerful woman in fashion publishing. Anna was shrewd and tough and glamorous and difficult. She had a lot of nicknames, but Mercedes, the most literate among them, always called her ‘The Wintour of our Discontent.’ Needless to say, Mercedes only said it behind Anna’s bony back. At the next table, Karen could see Doris and Donald Fisher. He had started The Gap stores, and he, along with Peter Haas Senior of the Levi Strauss family, probably pushed more denim than anyone else in the world. With them was Bill Wolper of NormCo, the fashion conglomerate that was more successful than anyone else in the market. Everyone knew that big-time fashion wealth had come from the mass market. The real money had never been on Seventh Avenue. As Jeffrey reminded her over and over, ‘Henry Ford got rich making Fords, not Lincolns.’ It was only in the last dozen or so years that top-of-the-market Seventh Avenue American designers – who made Lincolns – had built enormous empires. And they had done it by moving out and down. Lincolns had been downgraded to Fords – bridge lines – for the malls. People like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and a half-dozen others had created fashion empires larger than any that had come before. Now Karen stood on the brink of an opportunity potentially as vast. And sometimes it frightened her. But the faces around her table were all supportive ones. Aside from Jeffrey and Defina, she could smile at Mercedes, who had brought an obviously gay male friend. Mercedes came from the generation that always had male escorts for social events. Everyone knew Bernard was a lesbian (though no one ever mentioned it). Only Defina had the nerve to once refer to the woman as a ‘Mercedes diesel.’ Casey Robinson, their vice-president of marketing, sat next to Mercedes and he was with his gay companion Ray. Karen sighed again and had a flash of gratitude that she had met and married Jeffrey early on in her career. So many women in her business bemoaned the lack of heterosexual men in the industry. Karen smiled at Casey, Mercedes, Defina, and the others. All of the people at the table tonight had helped her get there. When she learned she’d earned the Oakley Award, Karen had decided to have these people surround her and share in her success. She had not invited her family. They hadn’t contributed in the same way, and somehow their presence always complicated things. Just this once, Karen had decided to keep the night for herself, to share the event with her mother and sister only after the fact. She felt a little guilty about it, but as her friend Carl had explained, ‘The choice is between inviting them and spoiling your evening, or not inviting them and having a great night but feeling guilty. I say go with the guilt! Guilt is like a muscle. Learn to use it.’ As if the thought of Carl had conjured him up, Karen saw her tall, fat, balding friend making his way toward her. The table wouldn’t be complete without Carl. Since the days at South Side High School, back in Rockville Center, Long Island – which both she and Carl still called ‘Lawn Guylind’ – he had been her biggest cheerleader. Actually, her only cheerleader. Certainly, neither her mother nor her younger sister were supporters of Karen’s dream to make beautiful, fabulous, comfortable clothes. Belle was too practical, too critical for dreams, and poor Lisa, younger than Karen, needed support and couldn’t give any. Only Carl, with his crazy optimism, his sense of humor, and his mother’s sewing machine, had supported Karen’s ideas. He was her earliest fabricator and ally. Now his bulk crossed the last part of the Waldorf dance floor and he enveloped her in his big embrace. ‘Brava, brava, brava!’ he boomed, and smacked kisses on both her cheeks. ‘Grazia,’ Karen responded, exhausting all of her Italian vocabulary with that single word. It had been agony for her to learn French, which Jeffrey had insisted she do for her career. Karen was no Defina when it came to languages. She still spoke English with the heavy, adenoidal tones of Nostrand Avenue (where her family lived before her father could afford Rockville Center). ‘So how did you achieve this enormous success?’ Carl asked in a mock announcer voice, holding up a butter knife from the table setting as a faux microphone. ‘I guess I just kept my nose to the grindstone for a long time,’ she answered, too modestly and sweetly. ‘Oh, is that what made your nose like that?’ he asked. ‘Let’s get a picture of it.’ Carl popped out a tiny camera. He handed it to Jeffrey. ‘Yo, Defina. Get over here! I want a picture with the stars of the evening.’ Defina smiled and obliged, but Karen saw Jeffrey’s expression tighten. Why hadn’t Carl asked her husband too? Sometimes Carl could be incredibly undiplomatic. Karen was always aware the Jeffrey could be made to feel like an appendage, when the truth was he had made all her success possible. But to Jeffrey’s credit he obligingly held up the camera and squinted. ‘The Three Musketeers and their mid-life crisis,’ he said as he flashed the picture. ‘Isn’t that a book by Dumas?’ Carl cracked. ‘I think so,’ Defina said. ‘But I can never remember if it’s Dumas père, Dumas fils, or Dumas the Holy Ghost.’ ‘Hey, guys, you’re confused,’ Karen explained. ‘Even I know that it’s Casper the Holy Ghost.’ Jeffrey shook his head at their foolishness. ‘Could you behave like celebrities instead of tourists for just one evening?’ he asked. ‘Speaking of celebrities, I saw John Kennedy Junior in the lobby,’ Carl whispered. ‘I nearly passed out. I swear, he is a real and present danger to the gay community. The boy could cause cardiac arrest.’ Carl began breathing hard with actual or feigned excitement. It was difficult to tell with Carl. ‘Oh, to be Daryl Hannah for just one night!’ he cried. Karen rolled her eyes at him. ‘Behave,’ she warned. Carl was obsessed with the Kennedys, or pretended to be. He was probably the only person in the country who could name all the Kennedy cousins of this generation. It was a parlor trick he did, kind of like naming the wives of Henry the Eighth or the seven dwarves, except it took a lot longer. By now most of the people in the ballroom had taken their seats, and Carl joined the Karen Kahn team at the table. He picked up a glass and when one of the waiters brought champagne, he cleared his throat and got serious. ‘Let us all toast this year’s winner of the coveted Oakley Award,’ he saluted. Karen was touched. Then, on cue, everyone at the table pulled out a slice of toast and lobbed them across the table at her – even the sedate Mercedes. Then they all collapsed in giggles. All except Jeffrey. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he said. He obviously hadn’t been privy to the gag. ‘A food fight at the Waldorf Astoria?’ He shook his head while Karen couldn’t stop laughing. Tears came to her eyes and she had to use a napkin to make sure she didn’t blot her mascara. Suddenly the mistress of ceremonies, Leila Worth, began speaking from the podium set at the corner of the stage. ‘If I may ask for your attention,’ she cooed over a sound system that had to be set on supermax to be heard over the braying and whinnying of the mavins of couture. The fashion crowd was a loud one. At last they settled down. The next part of the evening was a blur to Karen. There were the inedible couple of courses of food and the blah, blah, blah of several speakers who talked about the Oakley Awards and the industry and fund-raising. There was the buzz of conversation that rose to an almost unbearable din between each speaker, and the predictable music – some Lester Lannin knock-off band. Then the lights dimmed and Leila Worth got back behind the podium. ‘Tonight we are gathered to honor an American fashion great.’ Goose pimples ran up Karen’s arms and down her back. Was that her? She looked down at her plate of untouched chicken divan and wild rice. She was a fashion great? She didn’t know if she was thrilled, embarrassed, or upset. Maybe all three. Did Coco Chanel, Karen’s idol, feel ambivalent when she was fêted? Probably not, but then Chanel was a fashion great. Karen sat there feeling like both Miss America and an imposter. She tried to focus again on Leila’s words. After all, you didn’t get a Lifetime Achievement Award every day. ‘In the last twenty years, American fashion has become the fashion of the world,’ Leila was saying. Karen wondered how the French and Italian designers in the room felt about hearing that! If it wasn’t completely true, it was more true than it had ever been before. America was the place that had created a system that could move a designer’s vision out to virtually every corner of the world. It had taken three decades, but the Oakley Awards had been one of the mechanisms that had focused the attention of the fashion magazines and buyers on American designers. Leila could be excused the hyperbole. ‘Nobody represents American fashion, nobody knows American women, better than the designer we are here to honor tonight. In the last decade, the continuous flow of beautiful, luxurious, and wearable clothes has never stopped coming. No one has a greater mastery of form, a deeper understanding of the subtleties of color, and no one has been more industrious or creative in her search for the right material, the unique material, the original material, as Karen Kahn. Here are some examples.’ The spot focusing on Leila went black, and from out of the wings the parade of tall, gorgeous women began. Leila’s disembodied voice continued, describing some of the designs and their importance or originality. Now, in the semi-darkness, Karen knew what to do with her eyes. She drank in the spectacle – a collection of the work she had done in the last decade. Karen nodded at the big-shouldered sheath dress and matching knit jacket, the unconstructed blazer and sleek cropped pants, even the bias-cut silk knit evening gown, though evening wear had never been her strongest suit. The clothes on the models moved, they reflected the light, and they seemed both a decoration and an organic part of the beautiful bodies they draped. That was the trick, the riddle, that Karen was always trying to solve – how to conceal, reveal, and yet also be a natural extension of a woman’s body. With most of these clothes, she thought, she had succeeded, and just for once, for this delicious moment, she could sit there and be happy with her work. She was no wunderkind – hell, she was hitting middle age – but if she felt that she’d been overlooked for years, now that she was finally being recognized she’d just consider it fashionably late. Karen could sense that the audience felt her vision, and when the last number – the previous season’s rich cocoa cardigan and legging outfit in wool with a simple chiffon undertunic – swirled off Leila called out her name. Karen rose effortlessly and walked across the gleaming empty dance floor to the stage. The ovation sounded thunderous, but so was the sound of her own heartbeat in her ears. She hoped her hair looked all right; she knew that the satin pants and cashmere jacket she was wearing, the latter trimmed in satin banding, would catch the light and throw it back to the audience. She ascended the steps and turned toward the audience. The spots blinded her, but she was prepared and tried to look out at the darkness behind them without wincing. Leila hugged her, and the applause surrounded the two of them, a clichéd tableaux from every award ceremony that had ever come before. Karen looked over the room full of everyone who was anyone in the fashion world. ‘Thanks, friends,’ she began. Jeffrey and she were getting ready to leave when Willie Artech approached their table. Willie was another designer, slightly younger than Karen, who also had been juggling an emerging Seventh Avenue business. About five years before he had been the hot guy, but underfinancing and missed delivery dates – an absolute mortal sin in the rag trade – had taken the luster off his name. So had AIDS. He stood there now, alone, in a tuxedo that was far too big for his wasted frame. ‘Congratulations, Karen,’ he said. He raised a glass unsteadily. ‘We who are about to die salute you.’ Everyone at the table, most of them in the process of gathering their things, stopped. ‘I’d hoped to get the award tonight, but homosexuality isn’t as fashionable as it once was.’ He shrugged. ‘Res ipsa loquitur. That’s Latin for “the facts speak for themselves.”’ Willie grinned, his head skull-like. ‘Pretty appropriate, don’t you think? A dead man speaking a dead language.’ His voice dropped, and he bent his head. ‘This was a hard night. I’d hoped to win. I don’t have any children. I would have liked to leave behind something that would make sure I’m remembered,’ he whispered. ‘I’m sorry, Willie,’ Karen murmured. Carl stood up. His lover had died just two years ago. ‘Let’s go, Karen,’ he said. Jeffrey, who had been off to fetch coats, returned and helped Karen into hers. The table broke up, leaving Willie standing unsteadily alone. Defina took Karen’s arm. ‘Don’t take it personally,’ she whispered. ‘You know how it is with gay men designers: it’s always “chére, chére la mére.” And tonight you got hit with his mother stuff.’ Despite Defina’s attempt at comfort, it was an unpleasant ending to a wonderful night and Karen felt an immediate stab of guilt. Somehow she knew how Willie Artech, the spectre at the table, felt. ‘Jesus,’ Carl said as they exited the room. ‘In the face of eternity, who could care so much about an award?’ But Karen, clutching the Oakley plaque, her hand once again protectively over her belly, could understand how someone might. CHAPTER TWO (#ulink_b7e2183d-82ca-58d8-93d8-b6762694e952) Barren Karen (#ulink_b7e2183d-82ca-58d8-93d8-b6762694e952) The day after she received the Oakley Award, Karen sat numbly in Dr Goldman’s waiting room, trying to cope with his verdict. Irreparably infertile. Somehow, she’d known all along. From the first, through all the tests, all the drugs, all the examinations, despite Jeffrey’s own doubts and his regimen of doctors, she’d known it was her and she’d known her condition was irrevocable. It was odd, but the moment the doctor gave her the official news, Karen flashed on the idea of finding her real mother. But perhaps that wasn’t odd. Perhaps that was typical of barren female adult adoptees, she thought. How would she know? How many of us are there, she wondered? Are we a significant enough demographic lump to be charted as some baby-boomer subset? Have we already appeared on Oprah? Is there a twelve-step program or a support group for us? She felt right now as if she could use some support. This was the punishment she got for being so happy only the night before. The Oakley Award, the glittering crowd, the happiness, all receded until it seemed as if it had happened some other year, or some other lifetime. It was dangerous to have been that happy. Here was the final proof. After almost thirty months of trying, of unspontaneous, prescribed sex, painful, humiliating tests, medical specialists, and counseling, it had long been clear that something serious was wrong. Nothing to be so surprised about, she told herself. This was not unexpected. Here, at last, was the final verdict: irreparably infertile. No more searches for specialists, vaginal thermometers, doctor’s appointments in the middle of the day just at the exact moment she was ovulating. No more pain, expense, and bother. No more hope. It stunned her. Was it the hopelessness that put the idea of finding her real mother into her head? Karen didn’t know where the longing came from – this craving to feel whole that now a baby would clearly never satisfy. She hadn’t thought much about her real mother before – but now the need to search for her hit Karen in the stomach with a force that was almost nauseating. She thought of Willie Artech – from all the events of last night, only his image didn’t seem to recede. Didn’t Jeffrey often accuse her of focusing on the bad things? Well, she couldn’t help what she focused on. Right now it was Willie Artech, dying, and wishing for children to make sure he was remembered. But she didn’t want a child in order to be remembered – not exactly. It was more to connect her to the thread of life, to transform her and Jeffrey from a couple to a family. Well, for whatever reason she wanted a child, it wasn’t going to happen. Perhaps that was why, instead, she wanted her mother. Her real mother. So here she sat in the ever-so-tastefully-decorated Park Avenue fertility clinic beside four women, all but one mirroring the pain and fear in her own eyes. Funny how they called the place a fertility clinic when only the sterile ones come here, she thought bitterly. Sterile and rich ones, she reminded herself. Dr Goldman had already cost what? Six or seven thousand? And this was how it ended. She winced. Money couldn’t cushion this blow, except to give you a glove-leather Barcelona chair to sit in while you tried not to lose your composure and your lunch right there, all over the Axminster carpet. She felt like a completely different woman than the one who had been on the stage at the Waldorf only fifteen hours before. What had all of that meant? No memory of glory could lessen this pain. She knew that she couldn’t tell her mother. Not either fact: that a baby was out of the question or that she wanted to search for her own natural mother. As always, Belle’s feelings came first. Belle was the punch line of that old mother-daughter joke: when the mother finds her daughter dead on the floor, a suicide, she cries out, ‘How could she do this to me?’ Oh yes, Belle would make a pity party out of this one. Belle only wanted to hear about Oakley Awards. She was comfortable around achievement, not failure. Worse yet, Belle had been urging Karen and Jeffrey to have children for more years than Karen liked to remember. It would be awful now to have to admit that Belle was right. We should have tried to have a baby sooner, Karen thought. But I’ve been so wrapped up in my career. Carving out a place in the fashion world had been no day at the beach. And then, once I got a foot in the door, how could I not follow through? When my stuff really took off, with all the work, the success, and the travel, there just hadn’t been time. Babies, I figured, could always come later. Except now they never would. Karen felt a stab of pain somewhere around her nonfunctioning female parts. Guilt? Phantom ovulation? She reminded herself that the doctor today had said that her infertility was not wholly age-related. ‘It’s quite possible that you’d never have been able to bear a child, although your condition is aggravated by age.’ Perhaps my guilt at waiting so long to try to conceive is misplaced, she told herself, and tried to believe it. Not that her mother would ever believe that. Her mother would be more than eager to tell her not only that it was all her own fault but also that Belle had warned her. Belle wasn’t always right, but she was right often enough and vocal enough about it so that she seemed unassailable. Belle was a smart mother, but not a comforting one. Karen felt tears rise in her eyes, although she never cried. Instead, she took a steadying deep breath and blinked. At her age she was experienced enough to know that very few people had anything close to a good relationship with their parents, but at this moment she longed for a bosom she could weep on without constraint, blame, or guilt. No wonder men came to women for comfort: the lure of the breast was powerful. Yet Karen would never go to Belle for solace. Maybe it was no accident that Belle was so flat-chested. No lure there, Karen thought. Well, if men go to women for comfort, where do women go? To their girlfriends. Karen had three: Lisa, her sister; Defina; and Carl, who was not anatomically female but could certainly pass for one in almost every other way. But Defina was still celebrating last night; Carl, though always ready to listen, was all the way over in Brooklyn; while at this moment Lisa was out on Long Island with Belle, waiting for Karen’s arrival. Karen sighed. Her stomach still felt as if it were about to heave. There would be no comfort until she got home to Jeffrey late tonight. And maybe not then. Because while he always reassured her on other issues, this was one he was too intimately involved in to be counted on. Their shared baby-making odyssey had tried his patience to the breaking point and put more of a strain on their marriage than she’d like to admit. ‘Mrs Kahn?’ there was a question in the nurse’s voice, and Karen knew she’d have to act as if the room wasn’t spinning around her. But could she get up from the damn chair without blowing chunks across the glossy magazines on the coffee table? Maybe it would pass for morning sickness. More like mourning sickness, Karen realized. The woman sitting beside her, the only one not appearing frightened, the one who was very obviously pregnant, turned her blonde head and raised her almost transparent eyebrows. She was reading the style section of the New York Times, which carried a long report on the Oakley Award. Yes, she was putting it together, Karen could see. Yes, I am Karen Kahn. That Mrs Kahn. Great, Karen thought. Now she’d get to read about this visit in tomorrow’s Liz Smith column. She could just picture the item: ‘What top Seventh Avenue designer was seen at New York’s chicest infertility clinic?’ She looked back at the pregnant woman beside her. There ought to be a law that infertility clinics sent their success stories elsewhere instead of flaunting them in front of us, the barren ones, Karen thought. There also ought to be a law that famous people, or even semi-famous ones, could not be stared at when they were in moments of extreme pain. Karen sighed. Yeah, and while she was at it, why not pass a law against childhood leukemia and racial cleansing? This was the downside of celebrity, Karen. Live with it. Get up, she told herself. Don’t puke, don’t trip, and don’t give this albino breeding bitch a chance to ask if you can get maternity clothes for her at wholesale. Somehow Karen’s knees found the strength to propel her upward and she crossed the room in three long strides. Karen was a big girl, tall, with long legs, and – despite constant dieting attempts – she was far from thin. That was why she knew how to design clothes that minimized thighs and camouflaged waistlines. Now, she clutched her layered cashmere sweaters and matching shawl around her as if they were armor. ‘Yes?’ she asked the nurse who gave her a professionally bright smile as if it didn’t matter that this was the worst day of Karen’s life. The best night, followed by the worst day. Twenty-four rocky hours. ‘That will be seven hundred and forty-three dollars,’ the woman said pleasantly, without shame. Karen unzipped her De Vecchi bag and pulled out her checkbook. She fumbled for her Mont Blanc but couldn’t find it. The nurse, still smiling brightly, slipped her a Bic. Karen noticed her own hands were shaking. She tried to write out ‘7’ on the amount line and it looked more like a snake that had been mashed on the roadway than a number. It was hopeless. She tore the check out and into two pieces, threw the cheap pen on the desk, and chucked the pigskin checkbook back into her bag. ‘Bill me,’ she said, and her anger gave her enough energy to make it through the door to the elevator and down into the lobby of the building. How could they make you pay to get this news? Her lip trembled, but she wouldn’t cry. She never cried. She walked out of the building and onto Park Avenue. The awning over the door was flapping in the wind and a fine rain had begun to spray everything the brown-gray color, like wet wood smoke, that painted New York on its bad rainy afternoons. Perfect, she thought. I’ll never get a cab to Penn Station in this. I should have taken a limo, just like Jeffrey had suggested. But Karen hated to keep the driver waiting. It wasn’t that she was cheap – it was simply an embarrassment to her. The idea of a bus or, worse yet, the subway, made her so dizzy she thought she might fall onto the wet concrete. New York is unlivable, she thought, and every place else is worse. I should have gotten the limo and taken it. Not just to here and the station, but all the way to Long Island. What the hell is wrong with me? I can’t give myself a break. Karen Kahn, woman of the people. That’s my father’s influence. Karen felt a wave of self-pity wash over here, and with it all her reserve of strength was gone. ‘Please,’ she said aloud. ‘Please.’ And her prayer was answered. A taxi pulled up to the canopy and two men stepped out, leaving it vacant for her. She got into it gratefully and took a deep breath. ‘Penn Station,’ she told the driver, who was dressed in the native garb of some Third World country that she would not be able to identify on a map. He nodded and she hoped he had a clue how to find their destination. She leaned back into the impossibly uncomfortable seat. What an irony it was that her one prayer had been for a taxi. Just my luck, she thought. Major unanswered wishes in my life and that’s the one I make when the Wish Fairy is feeling generous. Too bad I hadn’t wished for a baby. She glanced at her wristwatch, a chunky antique gold man’s Rolex – the only thing that made her big wrist look small. The cab was crawling through the usual midtown war zone. She’d never make the 4:07. She would be late. Well, what else was new? She habitually ran late. Fashionably late. Jeffrey always told her she tried to do too much. But after all these years, Belle still got in a frenzy whenever Karen was tardy. That’s what Belle called it and through pursed lips expostulated: ‘There is no need for tardiness.’ Sometimes Belle sounded exactly like a second-grade teacher, which was exactly what she had been when she first met her husband. But once they adopted Karen, Belle had never taught again, at least not professionally. She had taught Karen how to dress; how to make hospital corners on sheets (‘Fitted sheets are for lazy women’); how to properly polish good leather shoes; how to wax her legs; how to set a table; how to write a thank-you note; how to correctly sew on a button; and a million other small but unforgettable life lessons. In some ways, Belle was born to teach. Maybe that was her problem as a mother, Karen thought. Belle only had the two of us to work on. It got too concentrated, too intense. She should have spread it around among a class of thirty children every year. It certainly would have taken some of the pressure off Karen and her younger sister, Lisa. But if Belle had worked, would Lisa have been conceived at all? Karen stopped herself. There I go, blaming my job for my infertility. Karen reminded herself again that the doctor had said the problem was not entirely age-based; that it was probably congenital. How had he put it? That ‘it was aggravated by age.’ Well, she was aggravated, all right. Karen couldn’t put the idea out of her mind that if only she and Jeffrey had tried earlier, if they had put just a little of their effort into reproduction instead of into the business, they might have succeeded. She was famous – infamous really – for never taking no for an answer. ‘If you don’t take no, you’ve got to get a yes,’ she often told her staff. But she’d have to take a no on this. Of course, they could try to go the petri dish route. But Karen knew that Jeffrey would be opposed, and she was herself. After all, with all the unwanted babies, all the hungry and homeless in the world, how could she justify spending thousands just to try to perpetuate her genes? Somehow, it didn’t work for her. Not that there were any guarantees, anyway. If only I’d tried earlier, Karen thought. If only I’d … That’s crazy, she told herself. That’s the backlash of guilt women feel if they can’t do everything perfectly. Look at Connie Chung. Is she busy hating herself this afternoon? You’ll drive yourself meshuggah with this, so stop it. The taxi jerked to a halt behind a bus that was belching black smoke and also had one of those annoying John Weitz ads staring at her. The cab was still three long blocks from Penn Station and they were the three cross-town blocks of Thirty-Third Street that would be hell on a rainy Friday. Fuck it, Karen murmured to herself, and leaned forward, putting her face close to the hole in the bulletproof plexiglass partition that separated her from the driver. ‘How much to drive to Long Island?’ she asked. ‘JFK?’ he questioned with a voice that rose in a hopeful Pakistani-like lilt. ‘No. Rockville Center. On Long Island. Only a little further than JFK,’ she lied. But she was desperate. Still, she wondered if she had enough cash. One of the perks of success: Karen hadn’t been in a bank in years. Her secretary got her cash, but Karen perennially ran short of it. She’d made a habit of tucking folded hundred-dollar bills into the zipper compartments of all her purses. Emergency money. She opened this one and, sure enough, there was the hundred. She took it out, unfolded the crisp creases, and showed it to the driver, slipping part of it into the little scoop for the fare. He eyed it hungrily and turned off the meter. ‘How we go?’ he asked. The accent didn’t really sound Pakistani. And that odd bolero jacket he was wearing was interesting. If it was done in a faille … Anyway, he wasn’t Pakistani. Maybe Afghan. They drove camels, not Buicks, didn’t they? ‘Through the Midtown tunnel, then the LIE. Not too far,’ she lied again. Well, it would probably take less time to get to Rockville Centre than it would to get across Manhattan. And she just might, with luck (and if they beat the traffic even by only a few minutes), make it to Belle’s house in time for dinner. To her relief, the driver agreed. Karen directed him to turn east instead of west and leaned back on the thinly cushioned plastic seat, clutching her hands over her perpetually empty womb. It will be okay, she told herself. Jeffrey will understand. He won’t be too disappointed and we can start to talk about adoption. We may be a little old for the Spence-Chapin agency’s standards but Sid could probably arrange a private adoption, or know lawyers who do. Money would be no object and they would have their baby. It will be all right, Karen told herself. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. The approach to the Midtown tunnel was utter chaos – Karen imagined it looked like the final evacuation of Saigon. The cabbie lurched behind a huge eighteen-wheeler and jockeyed into position. The fumes were unbearable. Karen watched as all that metal tried to insert itself into the narrow tunnel opening. It was a lot like the medical procedures she’d been through lately, she thought with pain. Not that they’d done any good. She sighed. As the taxi began to inch its way into the mouth of the tunnel, the radio with its ghastly music cut off. Karen, grateful, closed her eyes against the glare of the tunnel lights and waited while the double-lane procession of vehicles made their escape from New York. At last the cab surged out of the Midtown tunnel toward the LIE. The misty rain was turning to a deluge, and in less than twenty minutes Karen knew that the VanWyck Expressway would be flooded, as would the BQE. The infrastructure of the city was falling to shit. ‘Hurry,’ she told the driver, trying to beat both the rain and the rush hour. ‘Hurry,’ she said aloud again, and tried to believe that once she got to her mother’s it would all be all right. CHAPTER THREE (#ulink_31bf9a9c-33bb-57f0-841b-ae4370acbf83) Cut from a Different Cloth (#ulink_31bf9a9c-33bb-57f0-841b-ae4370acbf83) Karen Kahn, nee Lipsky, had been adopted by Belle and Arnold Lipsky when she was already three-and-a-half years old. That was late for an adoption. She had very few memories of her early childhood and none of that time before she lived at 42–33 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn with Belle and Arnold. She wasn’t sure if that was normal or not, but she figured that the trauma of leaving one home for another would be enough to produce early amnesia in any child. She knew, vaguely, that she’d been fostered out, but her real memories began with Belle: Belle pushing her down Ocean Avenue toward Prospect Park in a stroller. At almost four years old, Karen must have been too big for one, but perhaps Belle had wanted to pretend that Karen was still a baby. Perhaps Karen herself had wanted to pretend it. What she could remember clearly was the stroller, its blue and white stripes and the silly bobble fringe on the sunroof. With it, she remembered the bells of the Bungalow Bar ice cream man, and the fascinating little house – complete with shingled roof – on the back of his truck. She remembered her mother handing her that first creamsicle, and the pleasure she got not just from the taste but from the contrast of the bright orange ice and soft, white creamy center. From around that time she could also remember an early morning visit to the Botanical Gardens: the lilacs had just come into flower and she had darted among several enormous bushes, delighted by the smell of the flowers and the exquisite colors that the purple fountain of blossoms made against the satiny green leaves. She had laughed and run from bush to bush – until she glanced around and noticed that Belle was nowhere to be seen. Karen remembered how, once she was alone, the bushes took on an ominous look, hunching over her menacingly, and she had begun to cry. When Belle found her, she had scolded Karen both for running ahead and for crying. Belle Lipsky was not, perhaps, the ideal maternal figure. Small-boned and thin, she was always immaculately groomed and dressed in coordinated ensembles. She wasn’t pretty – her features were too sharp, too pinched – but she was what people back then called ‘well put together.’ Karen had always been proud of how Belle looked, her attitude. Karen particularly remembered Belle’s hats – already de trop back in the fifties, Belle had been loath to give them up, and Karen, back then, had thought they were the height of elegance. But the hats, like all of Belle’s clothes, were ‘for looking, not for touching.’ From her earliest years, Karen knew that she was expected to keep Belle’s and her own clothes clean and her room neat. Belle was a neatness fanatic and their Brooklyn apartment had been as sterile as Belle’s reproductive system was. Belle and Arnold had been married for only a year when they adopted Karen. It had always been odd and embarrassing to Karen that she was older in years than her parents’ marriage, but they seemed not to discuss it, and so neither did she. Once Belle had joked that Karen had just come into the family fashionably late. Karen knew better than to ask questions. In fact, she had been taught to discuss nothing unpleasant or upsetting. Questions about her adoption were discouraged. Growing up had been all about keeping still, keeping clean, and keeping quiet. Arnold was himself a very quiet man and both he and Karen knew that if there was any talking that was going to be done it would be done by Belle. Belle was not, by any means, a neglectful mother. It was just that there were certain areas she had interest in and others that left her cold. There was much they did together. She read aloud to Karen. (After all, she had been a school teacher.) They took walks together, and shopped for clothes. Karen was always dressed to perfection, at least until she began to assert a taste very different from Belle’s. But up to the time she was eleven or twelve, she and her mother made weekly forays to downtown Brooklyn and ransacked Abraham & Strauss. More exciting to Karen were the special Saturdays when they went into Manhattan. Then they tore through S. Klein, Altman’s, Orbach’s, and Lord & Taylor’s before stopping for lunch at the Fifth Avenue Schraft’s, where Belle always ordered a celebratory Shirley Temple for Karen and a whisky sour for herself. They had been good companions on those trips and Karen had learned not only to wait patiently while Belle tried on a myriad of outfits, but also to critically appraise them at Belle’s request. Sometimes she wondered if that’s where her interest in clothes began. Had she always had a talent for fashion? Or had Belle developed it? Because, back then, Belle had always listened soberly to Karen’s assessment. If Belle was obsessed with shopping, Karen became equally engrossed in fashion. She collected dozens of paper dolls, and designed clothes for all of them, but paper wasn’t real, wasn’t sensual. She loved the feel of real fabrics and the numberless combinations of colors and textures. To this day, Karen believed that fashion began with the cloth, that within the fabric was the center from which she spun every outfit. Unlike Belle, she didn’t want to own clothes; she just liked looking at them and being around them. Karen felt as if she had grown up with her head tucked under a rack of clothing, surrounded by Belle’s rejects and selections, and that from her earliest times nothing had interested her more than the drape of a fabric, the contrast of piping, and the way a seam was cut. Back on Ocean Avenue, Karen had longed for access to Belle’s closet, a walk-in that was off-limits to her. In it, Belle arranged every garment based on its color, style, and use. Not all blouses hung together; the ones that were made to go with suits hung with their matching jackets. But all skirts were separated, for some reason only known to Belle, from the rest of their ensemble and lined up along one rod, all on their own. It was an arrangement as inflexible and confusing to Karen as the Dewey Decimal System at the Brooklyn Public Library. Belle’s shoes, scarves, belts, and stockings were all arranged in meticulous order. Her mother would have known in a moment if Karen had touched anything. Belle never wore slacks – she was too short for them, she said – but she had dozens of silk dresses that Karen longed to touch and play with. Not to mention the hats. The closet was a place of wonders. But though mother and daughter shared shopping jaunts, they had never played dress-up. Belle wasn’t a playful woman. The taxi was approaching the Rockville Center exit. The driver was talking to himself under his breath. Karen prayed that he wasn’t outraged enough by the length of the trip to dump her there, at the side of the Expressway. The rain had turned into a downpour. Karen felt as fragile as Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois; and like Blanche, at that moment Karen was dependent on the kindness of strangers. She directed the muttering driver the rest of the way and at last the taxi pulled up to the brick house with the carefully pruned hedges. Karen gave the guy the hundred and pointed the way back. She got out of the cab with relief and turned toward the house. Through the darkness, the lights of the living room chandelier glimmered. Her mother and her sister were waiting for her. Karen sighed. Even if Belle was undemonstrative and almost anally neat, she had at least shared something with Karen. Their interest in clothes had been a bond – if only for a time. And if it wasn’t quite twenty-four-karat unconditional mother love, at least it had stood them in good stead for many years. All that, of course, had changed when Lisa was born. Karen’s sister, Lisa, looked nothing like her. Well, of course she wouldn’t. I was adopted, Karen reminded herself, but it still sometimes surprised her to see Lisa after a long absence. They were so very different. Now Lisa, tiny and petite as ever, stood in their mother’s living room. She was one of those small-boned, taut, thin Jewish women – if Jewish-American princess was listed in the dictionary, they’d use Lisa’s picture to illustrate it. In fact, Lisa looked a lot like their mother who, at sixty-four, still had the slender figure of a girl and the nervous energy that kept her movements youthful. Lisa looked across the overdone, mirrored living room and smiled. ‘Look who’s here!’ she cried. She was pretty, and sometimes Karen wondered if all of her own designs, which did so much for tall women and so little for petite ones, were not an unconscious hostile response to Lisa’s looks. Karen loved her sister, but Lisa had always had it easy. Six years younger than Karen, she had been an unexpected surprise to her parents, who had long before accepted their barren marriage and compromised with Karen’s adoption. Lisa’s appearance had been an incredible renewal, a vindication of Belle’s femaleness just at the time when other women were starting to contemplate menopause. The pregnancy had given Belle not only a glow, but also a perfect little baby to dress up, play with, and show off. Just at the time when Karen was moving into her gawky stubborn stage, Belle was rewarded and distracted with an easy baby. Lisa had accepted all the bows and frills that Karen had already begun to reject. She still wore them. Lisa went along with all of her mother’s suggestions and seemed always to do things the easy way: she got B’s in school, went to Hofstra University for only a year, and her ‘career’ had been running her own small boutique. She married Leonard when he was out of medical school and retired early to have her daughters, just like her mother. And she was clearly her mother’s favorite. At least that was the way Karen saw it. Lisa, she knew, felt that Karen had always been favored. That it was Karen, as eldest, who got most of the attention, was considered the smart, the talented, the successful one. My mother has a political gift, Karen thought, and had to smile: Belle could simultaneously make her two daughters feel the other had most-favored-nation status. But maybe that wasn’t just Belle. Maybe it had more to do with us as sisters. Older versus younger. Adopted versus natural. Perhaps sisters never worked this shit out, Karen reflected as she smiled back at Lisa. Underneath all of it, Karen knew she loved Lisa dearly. She had loved her and taken care of her from the first time she saw her, a tiny infant. ‘How was your day?’ Belle asked. Karen thought of the abortion of a fitting session she’d struggled through with Elise Elliot, her most important new client, an argument with Jeffrey, and the horror at the clinic, but she managed a smile. ‘Great,’ she said, because from long experience she knew that was the only answer Belle was equipped to deal with. ‘How was yours?’ ‘Great,’ Belle answered brightly. ‘We went all the way over to Neiman-Marcus. Lisa bought me a great outfit. She insisted.’ ‘It was on sale,’ Lisa said, and shrugged as if to say it wasn’t a big deal. Still crazy after all these years. Karen couldn’t get over their insatiable need to shop. She shrugged. Before she was a name, she had made the effort to get the two of them into most of the Seventh Avenue showrooms, despite the trouble and ill-will it often caused. Like the notorious Gabor sisters, her mother and sister had developed a reputation for returning more stuff than they bought. But Karen at last had come to understand that shopping for them, as for so many women, was a highly developed bonding activity. It was like men with sports: a father could be completely out of touch with his son’s internal life but they could always manage a conversation about those Mets. Lisa and Belle bonded by shopping. It was unfortunate that Karen and her mother, as adults, had no longer been able to do that shopping gig. Since Karen’s interest in design had deepened, Karen had become, in Belle’s words, ‘too particular.’ And ‘too dull. You need some color.’ Color to Belle meant red and aqua and royal blue. Even now, when women paid thousands of dollars for Karen’s unique vision, her exquisitely modulated color sense, Belle had never really acknowledged that Karen’s taste had been anything but difficult to understand. She managed to smile at her mother. ‘Where’s Dad?’ Karen asked. ‘Oh, you know your father. Working late on somebody’s stinking case.’ After more than forty years of marriage Belle had still not forgiven Arnold for only being a labor lawyer, ‘not a real lawyer,’ as Belle often pointed out. He’d never joined a Park Avenue firm and done lucrative corporate work. He’d formed his own labor practice and, worse, did a lot of pro bono. ‘A Harvard lawyer! He could have made millions,’ Belle always said regretfully. ‘So, are we eating?’ Belle asked them now. She moved through the arch to the dining room, where three places were set on the mahogany Sheraton-style table. The china was lovely – Royal Doulton – and the crystal gleamed. A tiny cachepot of violets sat at each place. Belle set a pretty table but she was less than a wiz in the kitchen. Food represented mess and bother: she’d discovered frozen entrées long before anyone else and served what Karen always thought of as ‘hospital meals’: the portions were small but no one complained because the food was so bland. And there were never any leftovers. Arnold didn’t seem to mind – aside from his work, Karen’s father noticed few details and often ate out. She’d been left on her own to Belle’s culinary torture. As a kid in Brooklyn, Karen had made a habit of hoarding chocolate and Bit-O-Honey bars from the neighborhood candy store. That way she always had something to eat when faced with Belle’s empty refrigerator. Karen had relied on the sugar. When they had moved to Rockville Center, in the sixties, it had been harder to get a fix. There were no stores within easy walking distance of their new suburban house and kids were not allowed to leave the junior high school during the day. Karen had gone into acute sugar withdrawal and lost a few pounds – to her mother’s delight – before she found a fat friend, Carl, who kept her supplied. Carl’s dad owned a deli/butcher shop and Carl could take anything he wanted from the shelves. A friend with greed was a friend indeed. Karen was still what her mother called ‘a big girl.’ At five ten, she towered over Belle and Lisa. Though she had slimmed down a lot, she still wasn’t thin and had accepted that she never would be. Yet even now, the two small, dark, thin women made her feel out of scale. She felt better when they all sat down. There were so many, many evenings when they had sat down to a dinner like this: ‘the three girls’ as Belle had called them. It was funny, Karen thought, how often Belle spoke in the third person or indirectly. ‘The three girls are going shopping,’ she would say as they drove to Alexander’s or Loehman’s. If she swerved in traffic, Belle would say, ‘She better watch where she’s going’ or ‘She better keep her eyes on the road.’ Belle was, no doubt about it, as distant from herself as she was from her daughters. Karen sighed. She would have liked to see her dad tonight. They didn’t talk very much, except about work, but Arnold had a solid presence, a calmness and comforting size that Belle lacked. Tonight, after the horrible news from the clinic and the cold, rainy ride, her father’s empty place at the table reflected his absence from her life so much of the time; it felt achingly familiar. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her, she supposed. It was just that he was never around. No wonder she had always been so pathetically grateful for attention from men. But it wasn’t just that. She couldn’t blame Arnold. Lisa had always been able to play hard to get and she had never had attention from their father either. Was it genetic, or just her good looks? Even now, with Lisa’s fine skin beginning to show those tiny wrinkles at the eyes and the slightest beginnings of puckering around the mouth, Lisa was still attractive enough to turn any man’s head. Even so, it was Lisa’s elder daughter – who had not just her face but also Arnold’s tall, lanky body – who was going to be the real beauty of the family. As if she was reading Karen’s mind, Lisa looked up and smiled. ‘I can’t tell you how thrilled Stephanie is about her intern job.’ Stephie – who wasn’t doing well in high school – had opted for a study program. She was to work part-time at Karen’s. ‘Isn’t it dangerous, her going into the city like that alone every day?’ Belle asked. Still rooted in Long Island, Lisa and her family lived in Inwood. ‘Oh, Ma. She’s almost seventeen. She’ll be a senior in high school next year. All the kids in her class have jobs. But they’re stuck at Burger Kings and J.C. Penney’s. I think she can negotiate the four blocks from Penn Station to Karen’s showroom.’ ‘Oh, don’t tell me. A schvartzer could grab her at any minute.’ ‘Mother! Not “schvartzer.” “Black.” You can’t call black people “schvartzers” anymore.’ ‘Why not?’ asked Belle. ‘It means the same thing.’ Karen shook her head. How had Arnold put up with Belle for all those years? Karen knew there was no sense talking to her mother. She may as well talk to her own ovaries. Nothing would change. And technically Belle was right, schvartzer did mean ‘black’ in Yiddish, but the connotation was all wrong and completely different. Belle was an expert in the letter-of-the-law arguments: as a kid, Karen nearly had apoplexy trying to get Belle to admit to hypocrisy or unfairness in her positions. Belle couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge them. She spoke, for instance, about how the family had left Brooklyn because of ‘the element.’ Belle would have been shocked and disgusted by anyone who said ‘nigger,’ but wasn’t her code just an epithet by another name? Belle never specified exactly what ‘the element’ was, just that ‘the element’ had changed. When Karen had studied high school chemistry and gotten to the periodic table, she had asked her mother which of the elements on it they had been escaping from. Belle hadn’t seen the humor. Humor was never Belle’s strong suit. Karen looked over at the woman and suddenly wondered if her real mother was so … so Belle-ish. It wasn’t that Karen didn’t love and appreciate Belle. She was grateful. After all, Belle had taken her in and cared for her and educated her and taught her so many things. Despite Belle’s prejudices and her third-person disembodiment, Belle was a careful, involved mother. Sometimes too involved. Karen felt guilty for being critical of Belle in any way. But wasn’t that the unnatural inheritance of an adopted child: we couldn’t afford to reject a mother when we had already been rejected by one. Now Belle picked up the salad plates and compulsively wiped up a minuscule spot of salad dressing beside Karen’s place. It was a silent rebuke. Then Belle went out to the kitchen for the next equally small course. Lisa looked across the table at Karen and shrugged. They understood that there was no changing Belle. Lisa lowered her voice. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked. Karen shook her head. ‘What?’ Lisa’s face tightened with concern. ‘The doctor?’ ‘Not now,’ Karen told her, and jerked her chin toward Belle in the kitchen. ‘Talk about something else.’ Lisa nodded and raised her voice to a normal level. ‘I really mean it about the job for Stephanie. She needs something like this and I won’t lie. The money will come in handy.’ Lisa was always short of money. It confused Karen. Leonard had to be doing very well, but somehow it seemed that Lisa was always in some sort of trouble with her Bendel’s account or her Bloomingdale’s card or her other bills. Still, she kept on spending. Karen knew that long ago Lisa had begun smuggling in any new clothing purchases and hiding them around the house. She’d told Karen that since she had no money of her own, she had to beg Leonard for cash. Karen almost visibly shuddered when she thought of living like that, but Lisa seemed to prefer to have too little money and too much time on her hands than to go out and get a job. Since closing her little boutique – more a hobby than a business – she had not worked. The idea of working seemed to fill her with horror. Karen had to smile. My sister Lisa: a Jewish, female, Maynard G. Krebbs. Belle returned with the inevitable plates of desiccated chicken. Beside the flat, white breast there was some punished broccoli. Belle believed that nothing should be cooked al dente except perhaps her Jell-O, which was frighteningly chewable. To this day Karen didn’t know her mother’s secret for creating that leathery skin on a gelatin cup. ‘I’m looking forward to spending more time with Stephanie,’ Karen said aloud. Actually, she had some reservations about hiring her niece as an intern. And Jeffrey was furious about it. ‘The girls in the showroom are competitive and jealous already,’ he had said to her. ‘We don’t need this.’ He was probably right, but Jeffrey had never really liked Lisa or Leonard. He considered them both too provincial and too materialistic, and he thought their kids were spoiled. ‘Plus, it certainly won’t help Tiffany’s self-image,’ he had added as an afterthought, referring to Lisa’s other daughter. Karen had to agree with that. ‘How’s Tiff?’ Karen asked now. Tiffany was Lisa’s younger daughter, her fat one. Built kind of like Karen, the girl was already at thirteen almost as tall as her sister, Stephanie, and had to be double Stephanie’s weight. There was no doubt that Tiff was bright, and she did well academically, but there was no denying she was troubled. Except, of course, by Belle, who insisted Tiff’s weight was simply a question of lack of willpower and spite. ‘She’s fine,’ Lisa said, but her voice tightened. ‘She’s fat is what she is,’ Belle said, and stabbed at the dried-out piece of chicken on her plate. ‘Fat and cranky.’ For a moment, Karen felt dizzy – almost as if she might faint. She’d heard this, just this and just like this, before. This is déjà vu, she thought. Or perhaps it had actually happened. Then it came to her. She had sat there so many evenings when she herself had been a teenager and Belle had called her fat and cranky in exactly that same dismissive tone of voice. When Lisa had been no more than a toddler and Karen had started the rocky preteen years, she and Belle had begun to disagree for the first time. Most kids had fights over clothes with their parents but with Belle and Karen fights took on epic proportions. Arnold, predictably, refused to participate. A labor lawyer and negotiator, he refused to negotiate at home. His abstention meant, for all intents and purposes, that Belle had the field all to herself. The battles were all about appearances and control. Belle had threatened, cajoled, ridiculed and then gone back to threatening, all to get Karen to ‘dress properly,’ to diet. And to give up the idea of Pratt and go for one of the Seven Sisters colleges. But, along with some of her baby fat and her status as an only child, in her teen years Karen had lost her eagerness to please. She was a rock, and when she started wearing thrift shop looks, Belle went ballistic. Remembering it now, Karen shook her head. There had been so much animosity over what had only amounted to a normal passing phase. Mrs Watson had saved Karen. A WASP, one of the few left in the suburban town, Ann Watson had lived in the only old house on the street – a white-pillar Georgian that was as disheveled as its owner – a bird-like older woman who drank most of her days away. Once the land the Lipskys’ house sat on had been part of the Watson estate. Now Mrs Watson’s lawn was weedy and smaller in size than the other plots, sold off one by one. But Mrs Watson had taught Karen to play bridge, taught her about couture, about why the tatty Aubusson rugs on her floors were better than Belle’s spotless wall-to-wall, and she had given Karen her cast-off Chanel jackets (the skirts were too small), which Karen had worn with work shirts and jeans. Mrs Watson had approved. ‘You,’ she’d said, squinting at Karen over the top of her daiquiri glass, ‘you have a gift. Natural style.’ Mrs Watson had been a refuge. And Mrs Watson had given Karen a major gift: a window to view her own future. Mrs Watson told Karen about Coco Chanel, and Karen – not a great reader – went to the library and read everything she could about the design great. Gabrielle Chanel became Karen’s idol, her avatar. All the paper doll drawings, all the looking at clothes and fabrics came together and made sense. Mrs Watson was the compass who showed Karen her true direction. Karen saw that there was a job she could do, a thing she could be that she wanted. Of course, Belle had never approved of Mrs Watson. ‘Alte goyem,’ she’d said. Whenever the woman’s name was mentioned, Belle made the same face, one of distaste, that she was making now about Tiffany. ‘Fat and cranky,’ Belle repeated. Both of her daughters ignored her. ‘So when do you leave for Paris?’ Lisa asked. She, too, wanted the focus of the conversation to change. ‘Not until the end of the month, and not then if things continue this way. I can’t seem to pull the line together this season. Wouldn’t you know this is the year we pick to do our first show in Paris. Home of Coco Chanel and Worth, and I’m going to show them some farshlugginer wrap dress.’ Karen thought of the Oakley Award night – less than twenty-four hours before, back in the Mesozoic period – and sighed. What had happened to her enthusiasm? Her confidence? Had it drained out somewhere in Dr Goldman’s office? ‘A designer is only as good as her latest line,’ she said. ‘Oh, you say that every season,’ Lisa tut-tutted. ‘Maybe you’re not ready,’ Belle opined. Karen shook her head and wondered how it could be that both her sister’s unquestioning faith in her and her mother’s lack of same offended. I must be unreasonable in my expectations, she told herself. And today has certainly not been a good day. But it seemed as if, after all this time, Lisa still expected Karen to be able to do anything effortlessly and Belle still assumed Karen was the toddler lost in the lilac bushes. Karen sighed. Well, she reminded herself, you’re not the only one from a dysfunctional family. Ask John Bradshaw. She thought again for a moment about her real mother and wondered if at this very moment the woman was harping at her own daughter, the one she had not given away to strangers. Karen remembered – or thought she did – cuddling up to a neck she’d once held and the smell of powder on her real mother’s skin. She remembered a green toy frog. Maybe, just maybe, she remembered the yellow and white alternating bars of a crib, and her hand extended through them to the big warm hand of her real mother. Had that really happened? What is she doing now, Karen wondered, and then forced herself to look up and join the conversation. ‘I wish I could go to Paris,’ Lisa was saying. ‘We haven’t been since our honeymoon. But Leonard says that with this bat mitzvah expense there’s no way we’re taking a vacation this year.’ Karen wondered if she was supposed to chime in with an invitation to France, but before she had a chance to think about it further … ‘You’re spending too much on this, anyway. What do you need buses for?’ ‘Buses?’ Karen asked. ‘To take people from the synagogue to the affair,’ Lisa explained. Belle tsked and moved them back to Tiffany. ‘What is she wearing for the ceremony?’ she was asking. ‘Not that green taffeta, I hope.’ ‘Mother, she likes it.’ ‘She looks terrible in it, and she’ll have those pictures the rest of her life. She’ll resent you for not telling her. Her children will ask her how her mother let her wear that dress.’ ‘It’s a Ralph Lauren.’ ‘Yes, and it’s designed for a little Christmas shiksa. Who can wear plaid, especially a green and red taffeta plaid?’ Belle turned to Karen. ‘Am I right?’ ‘I haven’t seen the dress,’ Karen said, and heard Arnold’s old tone of neutrality in her own voice. Like Switzerland and Arnold, Karen didn’t want to be dragged into a World War. ‘Come and look at what I’m going to wear,’ Belle said, and she and Lisa immediately stood up. There was never a regret about leaving Belle’s table. Slowly, Karen followed the two women as they trooped down the hall, through the master bedroom, to that holy of holies, Belle’s closet. Since Brooklyn, it had grown and was now an entire guest room that adjoined the master suite. In it were custom-made shelves for each pair of Belle’s shoes, all of which were kept immaculately on shoe trees and wrapped in clear plastic shoe bags. There were custom-made drawers: wide flat ones that held Belle’s scarves and narrower, deep ones for her sweaters. She had one wall sectioned off into cubicles, each of which held a purse and matching gloves. There was even a shelf across the top of one wall that had hat stands attached at the base, so that Belle’s few remaining hats were displayed, although each was only marginally visible, swathed in polyethylene film. This closet had once been Karen’s bedroom. Lisa’s old room held Belle’s coats and jackets. Belle had not yet sprung for a moving rack, like they had at the dry-cleaners, but Karen knew her mother had been thinking about it. The most amazing thing to Karen was that Belle still knew every item in the closet, when she had last worn it, where, and with whom. No wonder she had quit teaching school so long ago. Belle’s closet was a full-time job. Karen remembered reading that in later life Coco Chanel had moved into the Ritz Hotel but that she kept all but a few of her clothes across the street in an apartment at 31 Rue Cambon. But Coco’s life had been the creation of those clothes – she had no daughters, no husband, no family. Yet Belle’s clothes filled all the space left when Karen and Lisa moved out. Sometimes Karen wondered if Belle eventually would fill the whole house with her wardrobe and buy the old Watson place to live in. ‘Hallo. Hallo.’ Arnold’s yodel came down the hallway, followed by Arnold himself. Karen’s adoptive father was a big man – more than six two – but he slumped so much that it was hard to know just how tall he was. He wore suits that must have been unrumpled at one time but not in the last decade. Even Belle, with her compulsive neatness, couldn’t keep Arnold looking tidy. Now he came in, his battered briefcase under one arm, two wrinkled newspapers under the other. ‘I should have known you’d be in here,’ Arnold said and smiled. He looked tired. When he bent down to kiss Karen, she saw the darkness under his eyes. He was a good man. When she was young, in her grammar school years, Karen would sometimes go with Arnold on the weekends to his office. He would take time out on those days to explain about the rights of workers and the power of unions. She still remembered the poem he had mounted on the back of his office door. It was by Margaret Widdemer, written back in 1915, around the time of the Triangle fire. Karen couldn’t remember all of it, but two lines were still clear: I have shut my little sister in from life and light/(For a rose, for a ribbon, for a wreath across my hair). Long ago, Karen had seen the irony in the fact that Arnold had spent his life trying to protect garment workers, while Belle kept shopping for a deal that had to be based on their exploitation. ‘You’re home?’ Belle asked, unnecessarily. ‘There’s chicken,’ she added as an afterthought. ‘I ate,’ Arnold told her. ‘Hi, honey,’ he said to Lisa, who had popped her head out of the closet to peck his cheek. Karen noticed that he didn’t kiss Belle and Belle didn’t make a move toward him. She was, after all, immersed in her Closetworld. ‘I have work,’ Arnold said, turning his back on them. ‘What else is new?’ Belle murmured. For a moment Karen wondered if the three of them – women together – had bewildered him and driven Arnold away, or whether he had simply learned to fill up the empty spaces. He was a nice man. She watched as his stooped and rumpled back departed down the hallway, then Belle spoke up. ‘Now she’s going to show you something,’ Belle said, and both of her daughters knew that she was referring to herself. Lisa looked on attentively, but Karen sighed and backed out to the bedroom and sat down on the loveseat. There, on the lower shelf of the coffee table, as always, sat the leather-bound photograph album from the early days in Brooklyn. Belle wasn’t proud of it and rarely took it out. Karen noticed it as if for the first time. ‘So, what do you think?’ Belle asked, and held up a David Hayes-like dress and jacket ensemble. Very Queen Elizabeth. Belle was nothing if not predictable. ‘Look at this,’ she said and showed them the jacket lining, a turquoise-on-black reversal of the black-on-turquoise pattern of the dress. Karen nodded, bored, but Lisa actually cooed encouragement. ‘It’s great.’ Belle ducked her head back into the closet. In the moment they had alone, Lisa looked at Karen. ‘Call me tonight at home. Tell me what’s up.’ Mutely, Karen nodded. ‘And what do you think she has found to go with it?’ Belle asked, and Karen watched the two of them disappear into the closet again. In their absence, quick as a snake, Karen pulled out the old brown photo album and set it on her knees. She flipped it open to the first page, where four aging photographs showed Belle and Arnold on their wedding day. Karen had perused it all before, so she turned now to the manila envelope glued to the front inside cover. In it were loose pictures that Belle had never mounted but had also not been able to throw away. Karen heard her mother and sister exclaiming over something. In just a moment they would be expecting her to join in. She put her hand into the envelope and pulled out a handful of black and white photos. Quickly, she fanned them out on her lap. There were two she was looking for. The first she found immediately: a picture of herself as a baby, two or perhaps a little younger. Belle must have gotten the photos from Karen’s real mother. In one Karen was lying on her back in a crib and beside her was a rubber frog. The frog she remembered. Despite the black and white photograph, she knew it was dark green, the color of lilac leaves, except for the belly, which was chartreuse, and the tongue, which was a bright, cherry red. She remembered that frog. It took her longer to find the other photo. She was perhaps a little older in it, dressed in a snowsuit and standing in front of a doorway. It was a black and white photo, but Karen knew the snowsuit was royal blue. How old was she then? You could clearly see the brickwork of the wall and she was only six courses of brick high. On the door – a plain, black-painted, wooden one – were the numbers 2881. Karen grabbed the two photos, stuffed the rest of them back in the envelope, and had just managed to slip the album into its usual place when Belle and Lisa came out, her mother brandishing a turquoise suede clutch bag as if it were the Holy Grail. ‘Look what she found!’ Belle caroled, referring to herself and the bag. Karen tapped the photos, safely tucked in her pocket. ‘Look what she found!’ Belle repeated, and Karen nodded, wondering what she, herself had found. CHAPTER FOUR (#ulink_fcae3bc3-f0e1-50b0-91da-125d8592ba1f) The Cutting Edge (#ulink_fcae3bc3-f0e1-50b0-91da-125d8592ba1f) The Lincoln Town Car pulled up to her West End Avenue apartment. Karen had called ahead from her mother’s to have the car meet her at the LIRR station. She jumped out before the driver could run around and open the door for her. It was funny: Jeffrey insisted on a limo and never would open the door himself but Karen was equally insistent on the service sending nothing more than a black sedan. And she never let the drivers help her out. Arnold’s influence? Maybe that was the difference between growing up with inherited wealth and growing up middle class: inherited wealth didn’t mind letting other people do the work for them. Karen knew her biggest problem was what an expensive business consultant had called ‘her failure to delegate.’ But she just couldn’t help it. She did the job better or faster or both if she did it herself, and at least that way she was certain it would get done. So why the hell should she be imprisoned in the goddamn Lincoln while Joey or Tim or Mohammad ran around to her door? She stepped under the British racing green canopy of the co-op that she and Jeffrey lived in and, as always, got to the door before George the doorman opened it. Maybe, she reflected, it wasn’t her failure to delegate but it was other people’s incompetence that created her problems. ‘Good evening, Mrs Kahn!’ George called out cheerfully, turning from the magazine she knew he had secreted in the credenza drawer, though he was strictly forbidden to read while on lobby duty. The West Side had gentrified over the last decade, but plenty of homeless and the occasional junkie still wandered the streets. In New York City the doormen were required to be vigilant. She should report him for the clandestine magazine but she wouldn’t. ‘Hello, George,’ Karen sighed and hit the elevator button just before he scuttled across the black and white marble tiled floor to it. She put her hand in her raincoat pocket and felt the crackle of the two old photos that were nestled there. They comforted her, a sort of psychological hand-warmer. The elevator door drew open and she stepped into the mahogany box while George pressed the seventh floor button for her with his white-gloved finger. ‘Thank you, George,’ she sighed and, mercifully, the elevator door rolled shut. Karen had lived in the building since she and Jeffrey were first married. It was a huge step up from the Amsterdam Avenue walk-up she’d rented before. The down payment on the co-op had been the wedding gift of Jeffrey’s parents, who had disapproved of Karen, the apartment, the neighborhood, and – most of all – the West Side address. ‘What’s so wrong with Fifth Avenue?’ Jeffrey’s mother, Sylvia, had asked. ‘Or Park? We saw a lovely little three-bedroom that was reasonable. And you’ll need the space once you start a family.’ But Karen had insisted on this West End Avenue apartment and Jeffrey had supported her. But then, Jeffrey had always liked the role of iconoclast. It was more of a loft or atelier than a regular apartment, and Karen had loved it for its inconveniences as much as for its spectacular space. Who needed an eat-in kitchen? She never cooked. She had hundreds, maybe thousands, of books in the apartment but not a single cookbook. Instead, she had a loose-leaf binder with a take-out menu from every restaurant in New York City that delivered. They were arranged by country – Thai, Chinese, Mexican, etc. The apartment’s tiny kitchen was just fine. A phone was the only kitchen appliance she needed. She adored the place the first moment she’d seen it and still did. Sort of like her feelings for Jeffrey. Karen might be accused of making snap judgments, but no one could say she wasn’t loyal. Now that they could afford something much more expensive, she regularly fought with Jeffrey, insisting on staying here. It was her haven. She stepped out of the elevator into the tiny private foyer they shared only with old Mrs Katz in the north-facing apartment. Karen put her key in the lock of 7S and opened the door. Before her was a thirty-foot expanse of parquet floor and a row of seven windows, each one tall enough to be a door. In fact, two of them in the center were French doors that, when opened, let out to a tiny Juliet balcony that looked down onto the tops of the ginko trees seven floors below. The doors were shuttered on the outside. She’d had them painted Charleston green – eight parts black and one part green, simultaneously chic and practical in dirty New York City. Window boxes of trailing white geraniums and ivy gave the place a park-like touch. On bright days sunlight poured through the windows and across the floor in a wonderful chiaroscuro. The room was also graced with a soaring ceiling and served as both a living room and library. The north wall behind her was lined, floor to ceiling, with glass-fronted bookcases that were filled almost to overflowing. Two paintings – an early one of Jeffrey’s and one by their friend Perry Silverman – hung on the white walls. Karen adored the Silverman for its wonderful depth of color. Other than that, the furnishings were spare indeed. There was a Donghia sofa that Karen’s colleague Angelo had done for her back in the days when they were both young, struggling designers, before there were things like AIDS and infertility to worry about. The sofa was upholstered in a simple white linen but had a sinuous curve across its back that was almost female. Along the right-hand wall there was a twelve-foot-long refectory table that she and Jeffrey had bought in France. Its top was made from three ancient, wide cherry boards that had been polished for two hundred years by French nuns who knew all that beeswax and elbow grease could accomplish. The lines of the table were simple yet elegant in the way that only the French achieved. The table was surrounded by a dozen white upholstered Parsons chairs. It was a bitch to keep the linen white on a New York dining room chair, but after every dinner party Karen did an inspection with club soda and Ivory Liquid in hand. And the trouble was worth it, because the crispness of the white cloth against the patina of the tabletop was magical. The only other piece in the room was an incredibly ornate demilune console table situated against the left wall. Karen had fought for days with Jeffrey until he finally allowed her to buy it at the Christie’s East auction. He had called it ‘campy’ and ‘nellie’ and ‘overdone.’ Everything but what he actually meant, which was ‘too Jewish.’ Jeffrey and his parents had what Karen thought of as Ralph Lauren Syndrome: the unbearable longing to be understated gentiles. In her opinion, it was a problem all too common among wealthy New York Jews. It was the first time in their then-new marriage that they had had a big disagreement and it was the first time Jeffrey had fixed it by coming up with a Real Deal. From then on, whenever they made major compromises they always called them Real Deals. It was a serious kind of game they played throughout their marriage, a kind of formalized tit-for-tat. She could have this if he could have that. Jeffrey had given up his painting to manage her business but she had to give him free financial reign. She had agreed to build the Westport house if he allowed her to keep their apartment. The demilune table was the first one of their compromises and in return for buying it she had to let him hang his friend Perry’s painting, even though she didn’t like it. She’d gone to the auction without him, but once she got the crazy gilded thing into the apartment and put an enormous vase filled with white cala lilies and blue delphinium spikes in place, he had admitted that it was the outré touch needed. And Karen smiled every time she looked at the grinning carved dolphins that supported the base of the zany piece. After a while she also found herself smiling at Perry’s painting. She’d come to love it. In fact, though it made her feel guilty, she now liked it more than Jeffrey’s painting, which she had tired of in time. Off the apartment’s living room there were two hallways: one led to the tiny windowless kitchen that had caused her mother-in-law such grief. The other led to an enfilade of doors, where the three bedrooms and a tiny maid’s room were located. Karen used the maid’s room as her at-home studio and simply kept the door closed on the chaos of fabrics, sketches, and trims that always littered the place. But both their bedroom and one of the guest rooms, which they used as a sitting room, were always immaculate. Her husband was very neat. Sometimes she thought she had married her mother. But didn’t everybody? ‘Jeffrey?’ she called and he shouted out from down the hall. She took off her raincoat, her mushroom-colored cashmere jacket and shawl, and threw them on one of the dining room chairs. Then she threw herself onto the plump down-filled cushions of the sofa, kicking off her suede wedgies before she put her feet up. ‘You’re home early,’ Jeffrey said from the doorway. ‘I just got in from work.’ He paused and looked at her. ‘Dinner go poorly? Lisa already called and said she wanted to talk to you. Didn’t you talk over dinner?’ He crossed the room and picked up her coat. Wordlessly he walked to the closet hidden behind the bookshelves and hung the jacket up. She felt the reproach. Never marry a man more fastidious than you are, she would advise a daughter, if she ever had one. Karen sighed. ‘I couldn’t take it anymore,’ she said. ‘Belle drives me crazy.’ ‘Belle drives everybody crazy. It goes without saying.’ She nodded. ‘How was work?’ she asked him. Jeffrey had spent the morning taping his portion of Elle Halle’s television program – they were both doing the interview – and the rest of the day away from his office, meeting with the NormCo people. The NormCo situation was one she’d rather not think about. ‘Fine. Progress on all fronts.’ ‘Did you say nice things about me to the television guys?’ ‘Well, I told them you were lousy in bed but a great cook.’ ‘Two lies!’ she cried and tried to take a swipe at him. She wondered what he had said to the TV cameras but knew she wouldn’t get it out of him. He was a tease. ‘How did the work on the Elliot fitting go?’ ‘That was lousy too.’ But not as lousy as going to the doctor, she thought. She didn’t mention Goldman now. ‘Elise wasn’t happy. Nothing is coming together for the collection. And Tangela was impossible.’ ‘I don’t know why you don’t fire her.’ ‘Well, for one thing, she’s Defina’s daughter. For another, when she’s good, she’s great. And she’s no worse than any other fitting model. Anyway, we’d been at it for six hours.’ ‘No, you’d been at it for six hours. She was just standing there.’ Karen sighed again. She supposed it was better to have a husband who hated the admittedly difficult and temperamental models than one who fucked them. But it was always tiresome to listen to his complaints, and she was already bone weary. Plus, they had the rest of the evening ahead of them and this was the only real opportunity she would get to talk to him until next week, what with the presentation to NormCo, the final preparations for the Elliot wedding, and the three charity events they were scheduled to attend in the evenings. The two of them had become a very social couple lately. ‘What did Ernesta leave you for dinner?’ ‘What does she always leave? Chicken. Steamed vegetables. Salad. Diet fucking Jell-O with razor-thin sliced strawberries in it. Total calorie count of sixty-three and a half.’ ‘You want to order out?’ ‘Nah. Too much trouble. I’ll just eat it and bitch,’ he smiled at her. ‘You want to eat again? I know how those meals of Belle’s can be.’ He really had the most devastating smile. No matter what bratty behavior he was up to, he could almost always charm her out of her rancor with that adorable grin. Marrying your idol is a great coup for a woman, but it leaves you always at a disadvantage. Karen had adored Jeffrey from the first moment she saw him. He was everything she was not. He came from money. He had real class. He was very attractive. He was well-educated: a graduate of the Yale fine arts program, no less. They had met when he was slumming in Brooklyn, studying and teaching design at Pratt. He had glanced at the little garmento wannabe that she was and looked right through her. But Karen had been riveted and she still was, by his astonishing good looks and his wit and his style. She’d always feel that he was the catch and that she’d done the catching. ‘So, I’ve put together the numbers for NormCo,’ Jeffrey told her. ‘With a little jiggling and a little juggling, we look pretty good. Of course, I overvalued the inventory by about two hundred percent, but I’ll let their accountants try and work that out. They can’t actually accuse us of dishonesty. All they can do is feel we’re unrealistically optimistic’ He got up and moved out toward the kitchen. ‘So, what kind of money will you ask for?’ ‘The trick is not to ask. The trick is getting them to make the first offer. I just hope they’re talking Serious Money. I’d like us to be comfortable.’ Karen smiled. She thought of the joke about the old Jewish man who gets knocked down in a car accident. People rush to help him, cover him with a blanket, and call for an ambulance. ‘Are you comfortable?’ a man asks. ‘Well, I make a living,’ the victim says. Wealthy Jews, she had learned, had a code about their net worth: to Karen, she and Jeffrey were already rich. To Jeffrey, it would take another few million at least before they were ‘comfortable.’ Now, working together, they quickly set the table. Even when they ate alone, Jeffrey insisted on real china and damask napkins. They always used the real silver, despite Ernesta’s mild grumbling over the polishing she had to constantly do. Alone, Karen would eat out of the pan standing over the sink or lying in bed. But Jeffrey was a grown-up who ate at the dining table. Karen took a deep breath. She hated to bring this up over a meal, but now was the only chance Karen would get to talk with him. ‘I saw Dr Goldman today,’ she said, biting her lip. Jeffrey’s smile disappeared. ‘What’s it going to be now?’ he asked, and the bitterness in his voice made her wince. ‘Hot wine enemas? Coca-Cola douches? Oh, Karen.’ She tried to smile. ‘Well, the good news is, we don’t have to try anything. The bad news is, that’s because nothing will work.’ The little vertical wrinkle he got between his eyebrows, the only noticeable age sign on his tanned and handsome face, appeared. He ran his hand through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes, such a beautiful, clear light blue, clouded over. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. He reached across the glossy tabletop and took her hand. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he repeated. Then he looked down at his plate and they both sat there for several moments in silence. While they’d been going through this process, they’d long ago made a Real Deal on it: if either Karen couldn’t conceive, or if Jeffrey’s sperm was weak, they wouldn’t try in vitro or donor insemination. Both of them agreed that it was immoral, not to mention painful and humiliating, to spend that kind of money and effort to make their own genetic product when the world was filled with unwanted babies. Now, looking at Jeffrey’s bowed head, knowing it was her fault that they couldn’t have a child, she wondered if he regretted the deal. ‘Are you still hungry?’ she finally asked him. ‘Only for you,’ he said. And, taking her hand, he walked her away from the table, across the gleaming, empty floor, and down the hall to their bedroom. The light in there was dim and the bed – a simple Shaker pencil-post – was made up in her favorite Frette sheets. Jeffrey drew her to it. He stopped and wrapped his arms around her. Then he nuzzled her neck and began whispering, his voice husky. ‘Oh, baby, it will be all right. Look at the up side: no more thermometers, no more calendars, no turkey basters, no more wasted sperm samples.’ He kissed her on the nape of her neck and she felt a shiver run down her back. ‘All my sperm for you, now,’ he told her. His arms were so long, and they felt so good wrapped around her. He was a big man, and one of the things she had loved about him was how he managed to make her feel small. She leaned her body into his. ‘I love you, you know,’ he told her. ‘Prove your love,’ Karen said, and they fell onto the bed, hungry for one another. Afterward, as she lay in his arms, the beautiful sheets rucked up and wrinkled around her, she turned to look at his profile. It was perfect, and if she cast it in gold it would pass for the head of an emperor on a Roman coin. Karen ran her hand along Jeffrey’s sternum and down the thin, soft line of hair that ran from his chest over his stomach to his groin. It was so sweet. He was so sweet. ‘I was thinking of looking for my mother,’ she murmured. He turned over, ready to go to sleep. ‘Didn’t you have enough of her tonight?’ he asked. ‘No, I mean my real mother.’ He was silent for a few minutes. Karen almost thought he had fallen asleep. ‘What for?’ he said. And she heard him sigh. ‘I don’t know. I just feel like I want to.’ He turned over again, this time on his back so he could see her. ‘Why open a new can of worms?’ he asked. ‘Don’t we have enough to deal with at the moment?’ He put his left arm out so she could lie against his side. She felt comforted by his warmth. ‘Jeffrey, you honestly don’t mind? About the baby, I mean.’ He hugged her closer. ‘Karen, I think I gave up a long time ago. We’re so lucky already. Why should we have everything? It would only tempt the gods.’ ‘Don’t be superstitious,’ she told him, though she was herself. ‘Anyway, we can have everything. I’m going to call Sid tomorrow and get him working on an adoption. I was talking to Joyce and she said they have a very good contact in Texas.’ Jeffrey rolled onto his side, away from her, and cradled his head in the crook of his elbow. ‘What are you talking about?’ he asked. ‘A private adoption, Jeffrey. It’s more expensive but a lot easier than going through the state. We might be too old for that already. And apparently there are a lot of babies available in Texas.’ ‘You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not a problem with your ovaries. It’s a problem with your head. You’re obsessed. It runs in your family.’ ‘What?’ ‘Your mother is an obsessive, your sister is an obsessive, and your nieces are obsessives. You are obsessed with this baby thing.’ Karen didn’t think it was the time to mention that if obsession ran in her family she hadn’t inherited it genetically. ‘What’s so obsessive? Don’t you want a baby?’ ‘Karen, I don’t want some stranger’s baby, especially one from Texas. I’m a New York Jew. What would I do with a little cowboy?’ ‘Love it,’ she said. Jeffrey pulled away from her and sat up. ‘Wait a minute.’ His voice sounded flat, ‘I always felt we could live without a baby. You were the one all gung-ho. I did my part. Now it appears that we can’t have one of our own. Okay. Okay. I accept that. But I don’t want to raise somebody else’s.’ Karen felt her stomach tighten and the flesh went clammy on her back and thighs. She sat up, too, and looked across the bed at her husband. He looked back at her. ‘Come on Karen! Not “the look”; I don’t want “the look.” You can’t expect me to go for this. We never discussed it. It was not plan B. Adoption was not plan B. You never know what you are getting in a deal like that.’ ‘I never knew you were so opposed to adoption.’ ‘You never asked. You wanted your own baby. That’s what we discussed. I wasn’t wild about the idea but I don’t think men usually are. It’s a natural thing. But this isn’t natural. And look what happens. Look at the Woody Allen thing. And Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson. When celebrities adopt, there’s always trouble. And then there’s all the heartbreak when a birth mother reneges. Not to mention the genetic roulette that you’re playing. Wasn’t Son of Sam adopted? And that serial killer in Long Island? Like I said, you never know what you’re getting in a deal like this.’ ‘But Jeffrey, I’m adopted.’ ‘Yeah, but not by me. I knew you were adopted, but I also knew who you were and how you had turned out. That’s different than nurturing some illiterate, promiscuous, white-trash, trailer-park scum’s offspring. Who knows how they’d turn out?’ ‘I can’t believe you’re saying this.’ Was that why he’d been so cool to the idea of her searching out her birth mother? Karen put her hand out, touching his shoulder. Did he think she was the offspring of some promiscuous, white-trash, trailer-park scum? And was she? She realized she didn’t have the courage to ask him. ‘Please, Jeffrey,’ was all she said. Jeffrey shrugged her hand off his shoulder. ‘I can’t believe you’re asking this,’ he said. He threw his feet over the side of the bed and walked across the room. The light from the window hit him across the shoulders and down one long, lean flank. ‘Where are you going?’ she asked. ‘I’m hitting the shower,’ he said. To Karen it sounded like he wanted to hit her. CHAPTER FIVE (#ulink_c0fb5b9f-037d-59e2-b0ae-841ebc8c16b5) Hard Labor (#ulink_c0fb5b9f-037d-59e2-b0ae-841ebc8c16b5) Karen never did get to call Lisa the night before and left way too early to do it the next morning. Karen got to her office by half past seven, but that was nothing new: ever since she’d had a single employee – Mrs Cruz from Corona, Queens – she’d gotten in early. All these years later Mrs Cruz was still with her, now one of her two chief patternmakers, supervising a workroom that held over two hundred employees. Mrs Cruz had two long subway rides to get to 550 Seventh Avenue. Still, almost every morning, including this one, Karen met Mrs Cruz there, outside the legendary building that now housed KInc, and they rode the elevator up to the ninth floor together where both of them had keys to open up the floor. On the way up, they passed the showrooms and offices of Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, and Bill Blass. All of the foreign fashion world was there, too: Karl Lagerfeld and Hanae Mori. Five-fifty was the temple of high fashion in the United States. Karen still couldn’t get over the thrill of seeing her name on the elevator directory along with those others. But Karen knew what a slippery ride it could be. Back in January 1985, way before she had moved in, the Halston Originals showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue was dismantled. Whatever fixtures and furnishings hadn’t already been carted away were sold to the next tenant, a newcomer in the fashion business named Donna Karan. No one thought of Halston anymore. He wasn’t just dead, he was forgotten. He had been the first American designer to sell his name, and in his case it had meant his destruction. A corporate entity licensed Halston everythings, while poor Roy Halston Froleich had been legally stopped from using ‘Halston’ ever again. He’d been well-paid but robbed of his work and identity. Karen thought of poor sick Willie Artech. What would happen to his work and his name? She shivered, and turned to the dark woman beside her. ‘Good morning, Mrs Cruz,’ Karen said, and smiled at the short, stout co-worker whose black, glossy hair showed an inch of steel gray at the roots. Karen looked at Mrs Cruz’s face and realized that the woman had had both children and grandchildren over the years they’d worked together, while Karen had remained childless. ‘How’s the new grandson?’ she asked. ‘Fat as a little piglet. How are you this morning, Karen?’ Mrs Cruz inquired. She nodded to a brown bag she held. ‘Would you like some fresh pan de manteca?’ ‘Oh Mrs Cruz. You’re killing me. I’ll wind up fat as a little piglet. I swore I was starting my diet this morning.’ Mrs Cruz shrugged. ‘You’re thin enough. Coffee?’ Karen couldn’t resist either the Cuban coffee Mrs Cruz carried in a big, shiny metal thermos or the freshly baked bread. ‘Yes, please. And a thin slice of pan de manteca.’ Mrs Cruz smiled, pleased. They arrived on nine to find the door already opened. That was unusual. Was a thief loose on the floor or was some competitor going through her designs? Karen had heard of a hundred tricks that magazines and competitors used to snoop, to spy, to get a fashion scoop. One magazine regularly sent pretty girls to apply as fitting models to all the designers, including KInc. Just last month Defina had caught one sketching a design. Once a sketcher had dressed up as a florist’s assistant, complete with a smock, and delivered a huge bouquet personally to Karen while they were doing a final run-through of the line. He had been sent by a competitor, but they’d never been able to prove it was Norris Cleveland. Now, as word leaked out that she was doing the Elise Elliot wedding, someone could be snooping. Or had NormCo sent a due diligence team over to do a little unauthorized auditing? Or even worse: Did the camera crew that had been working on Elle Halle’s show decide to do a surprise morning visit? Karen wondered for a moment if she had time to put a little blush on before she got ambushed. She decided she didn’t, but she winced at her blurry reflection in the stainless steel elevator walls. The two women shrugged at one another and stepped out onto the floor. The only entrance was here, through the showroom. The lights were on and Defina Pompey was standing at a pipe rack of clothes, flicking through each one and rattling the hangers as she moved along. Defina was never there until ten – and sometimes a little later. It had always been a bone of contention between them, but the few times Defina had shown up at nine had convinced Karen she didn’t want Defina earlier. Defina was a night person, and stayed to all hours cheerfully. It was just in the mornings that she was dangerous. ‘Aye. Caramba!’ Mrs Cruz muttered and scuttled across the beige carpeting to the door of the workrooms. The Cuban pollo. Defina confused Mrs Cruz in a number of ways and the Cuban was scared of her. For one thing, Defina spoke Spanish with a perfect upper-class Madrid lisp. Mrs Cruz could barely understand it. Why should an American black woman from Harlem be able to speak like that? Plus, all the workroom said Defina knew some strong Santeria magic. Mrs Cruz avoided Defina whenever she could. Now Karen smiled cautiously at Defina. The big woman scowled back. ‘You’re in trouble, girlfriend,’ Defina growled. ‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ Karen sighed and walked past Defina to her office suite at the corner of the floor. Defina followed her. ‘What’s up? How come you’re in so early?’ ‘I must have been thinking about the collection for Paris while I was sleeping. It woke me up.’ ‘Now I know I’m really in trouble. Nuclear holocaust wouldn’t wake you.’ ‘Well. It wasn’t just the collection,’ Defina admitted. ‘Tangela came in at six this morning and made so much goddamn noise I couldn’t get back to sleep.’ More beautiful even than Defina had been, Tangela was giving both of them a lot of trouble. Karen sighed. If Tangela had been out all night it wouldn’t be a good afternoon in the fitting rooms. Mrs Cruz scurried in with two cups, steaming full of cafe Cubano. Silently she put them down on Karen’s work table and scurried out. Karen sank into the glove-leather swivel chair behind her work table and sighed again. She had hired Defina just a few months after she’d hired Mrs Cruz, more than a dozen years ago. Defina had been tall, black, beautiful, and hungry. She was still all four, but had put on forty or fifty pounds since then. Naomi Sims had made the cover of Fashions of the Times back in 1967 but it had taken a lot longer for women of color to be accepted on the runways. Out of desperation, when she was broke, Karen had employed Defina as a runway model in her first show, and she’d been the first Seventh Avenue designer to use a black model. Both the clothes and Defina had been a sensation, and they’d worked together ever since: through Karen’s marriage, Defina’s various affairs, through the birth of Defina’s daughter – Tangela was Karen’s godchild – and on and on. Defina ran the showroom and modelling staff now, handling the sales force and sometimes even taking orders. Karen and Defina were more than close: they were a living diary for one another. They remembered the small day-to-day memories of more than a decade of working together, often for ten or twelve or fifteen hours a day. ‘Listen, there were plenty of times you stayed out all night back when you were eighteen,’ Karen reminded her. ‘That’s what you do when you’re young.’ ‘Yeah, but I didn’t let no guy start fucking me on the kitchen table and wake up my mama.’ Defina shook her head. ‘He had her panties off and her bare black ass was pressed down against my white marble-topped table like dough on a pie tin. He’d climbed up onto the table and had his Johnson out when I walked in.’ She shook her head. ‘What did you do?’ ‘I threw his sorry ass out of my house! That’s my house, my kitchen, and my goddamn table. I don’t need to sponge up no funky pubic hairs of his off of it.’ Defina was a big woman – close to six foot tall – and Karen knew she was quite capable of throwing a man out of her elegant townhouse on East 138th Street. She’d done it many times before. Now Defina crossed her arms, turned away, and stared out the window. ‘You know the saddest thing? I stopped myself – for only a minute – and wondered if I wasn’t just a little bit jealous. I mean, I know the man is worthless dogmeat, but I doubted myself for a moment. You know, it’s been almost half a year since I got any. Probably be more than that till I do get any.’ Defina shook her head. Karen patted her shoulder. ‘Hey, just remember. It isn’t you. It’s New York in the nineties. None of my single girlfriends can find a decent man. If I wasn’t with Jeffrey, I’d kill myself.’ ‘Well, just try being single, almost forty, and a black woman. Forget it! There ain’t no one out there for me. Any black man with a brain, a job, and a Johnson that’s working is chained down by the bitch he’s already with.’ Defina shook her head. She dropped the street argot. Sometimes Karen felt Dee used it to protect herself. Defina sighed. ‘I don’t have to tell you how hard it is. I get lonely but I don’t want to settle. And I don’t want a white man. Not that I’ve had too many offers lately.’ She shook her head. ‘But what kind of example is that for Tangela? I chose to raise her in Harlem. I wanted her to be black, to be proud. But I also wanted her to be educated, to know all three Mets: the opera, the museum of art, and the baseball team. Maybe I’ve pushed her too hard. I knew it would be confusing for her, making her exceptional, but in her generation there are other educated, cultured blacks. Doctors’ sons. Lawyers’ sons. They’re going to be good men. That’s why it’s so important that Tangela meets a good man now, not some drug-dealing trash like this poor excuse for a pecker.’ Karen patted Defina again, then walked across the room to her chair. The big black woman turned to her and brightened. ‘I know what I’ll do,’ she said, going back to street talk. ‘I’m gonna put a hex on him,’ Defina said. ‘Gonna see Madame Renault and put a hex on him.’ Karen never knew whether Defina was serious or not when she talked about hexing. She knew that Defina did visit Madame Renault often and wasn’t sure whether the woman was a palm reader, a voodooer, or something worse. Karen didn’t like to inquire. ‘What did you say to Tangela?’ ‘Don’t matter what I said. Matters what she heard. Which was nothing. Purely nothing. She was passed right out. Couldn’t rouse her. Left here there, bare-assed, on the cold marble. She’ll have a hell of a backache when she comes to.’ Defina shook her head. ‘Doesn’t the girl have any shame?’ she asked. Her pink lower lip trembled. Karen got up from her chair and crossed the room. She put her arms around Defina – no easy trick. Karen held Dee for a moment until Defina hugged her back. ‘Oh, Dee, she’ll be okay. It’s just a phase. She’s a good girl.’ Defina wiped her eyes. ‘She’s been a bitch to raise. I never counted on her being so good-looking. It’s a curse for a black woman. It draws trouble to us. She’s too pretty for her own damn good.’ Karen laughed. ‘That’s what your grandma said about you. You sound just like her.’ Defina had been raised by her paternal grandma after her own mother died of a drug overdose. ‘Well,’ Defina said, brightening, ‘that’s the truth. And I didn’t turn out too bad.’ Karen laughed. ‘Oh, you’re bad all right. I saw you flirting with that photographer at the Oakley Awards. Was he drinking age?’ ‘C’est pour moi de savoir et pour vous à découvrir.’ Karen made a face. ‘It sounds fancy in French but it’s still just fourth grade “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” You’re a baby. And you still don’t know how to dress. Take that turban thing off, why don’t you? And lose the beads.’ Defina wore most of Karen’s line and looked ravishing in it. The beiges, creams, and soft browns that Karen favored worked to perfection against Defina’s deep brown skin. Defina was very black; the darkest mahogany with only the slightest red undertone. And the layers of silk, cashmere, chiffon, cotton, and linen suited her down to her undergarments. But to Karen’s complete frustration, Defina insisted on adding enough jewelry, chains, beads, amulets, and charms to open a botanica. And this didn’t include the scarves, the clacking bangle bracelets, or the batik turban. Now Karen shook her head. ‘Jesus, you have everything hanging off your neck but the kitchen sink. You’re a woman, not a store window! What is all that stuff? Why don’t you just stick your IUD on a chain and wear it around your neck?’ ‘There’s an idea,’ Defina mused. ‘But I don’t use an IUD anymore, and I don’t think punching a hole through my diaphragm would be good for my uterus. Not that it gets much use.’ Defina paused then to consider. ‘Maybe I still do have my old copper T somewhere. I like copper jewelry.’ Karen shuddered. Sometimes she couldn’t tell when Defina was putting her on. ‘So, speaking of the uterus, how did it go yesterday with the doctor of all doctors?’ Defina asked. Karen turned her head, just a bit, away from Defina and toward the windows that looked south. ‘Okay,’ she said, but she knew she wouldn’t get away with it. ‘Yeah. And I’m first cousin to the Duchess of Kent. What’s with you, girlfriend? Still trying to keep secrets from old Defina?’ ‘No. Well … Look, I don’t want to talk about it.’ ‘Honey, I told you over and over again: you want babies, you come with me to my herb woman and …’ ‘Defina, would you stop it? You’re a Columbia University graduate and I am not going in for Santeria. No chicken’s blood will be shed in my name. I know you don’t really believe in that voodoo.’ ‘It isn’t voodoo, and it isn’t Santeria, either. I wouldn’t have anything to do with that tacky, country thing. But Madame Renault has powers.’ Defina’s father was Haitian, though her mother had been from South Carolina. Raised in Harlem by her father’s mother, old Madame Pompey, Defina was into some weird stuff. For two years now, she’d been begging Karen to consult with Madame Renault on fertility, and had even gone so far as bringing Karen a little velvet bag, sewn closed, to sleep with. Only God and Madame Renault knew what was inside it. Defina had cautioned Karen not to open it, and Karen hadn’t even been tempted. It was a measure of her desperation that she had actually put the bag under her pillow for a few nights, until Ernesta found it and threw it away. Anyway, it hadn’t worked. ‘Well, I can see when a subject is closed. So, listen: I’m concerned about the Paris show. I really am.’ ‘Great. Like I’m not already frantic. Can’t you undermine my self-confidence a little more? You want me to jump out the window?’ Defina laughed. ‘Knowing you, on the way down you’ll be yelling out that you want me to cut velvet.’ Karen had to laugh. It was the oldest joke in the rag trade: the dress manufacturer at the end of a bad season who didn’t know what to do next. In despair, he throws himself out the window, but on the way down he sees what his competitors are doing and yells up to his partner, ‘Sam! Cut vel-v-e-t!’ Karen knew that the business was in her blood that deep. But the pressure felt more intense than ever. Maybe it was the Oakley Award that had heated everything up. But along with the rest of the stuff she had on her mind, Karen had decided that this was the season she would finally show in Paris – and she was petrified. Her fear wasn’t helping the collection. Defina’s comments weren’t helping either. ‘This stuff has got to be really good. It’s got to be great. I’m not going to get away with a little deconstruction or grunge.’ Defina pursed her lips and stuck out her tongue. It was very, very pink against her smooth black face. ‘Grunge,’ she spat dismissively. ‘The lambada of style.’ Dee’s face turned serious. ‘Look, you’ve always been different from the other designers.’ ‘Yeah. For one thing all of them are gay and male.’ Defina shrugged. ‘Honey, saying “gay male fashion designer” is like saying “white Caucasian.” It’s redundant. Anyway, they’re going to be showing all kinds of wild stuff. This line can’t compete. The thing is, Karen, that none of the collection is bad. It just ain’t good.’ ‘Oh, great. There’s a comfort. I’ve finally lived up to my ambition: to achieve mediocrity. And just in time for the pret. What should I do? Copy myself? You know what Chanel used to say? ‘When I can no longer create anything, I’ll be done for.’ ‘Hey, Karen, don’t take it so personally. It’s a business. I figure as long as you don’t copy out of the Koran you’ll be okay. That nearly ended Claudia Schiffer’s and the Kaiser’s careers.’ Defina raised her already arched eyebrows. ‘And also try to remember that sarcasm is the devil’s weapon. I’m just trying to help.’ ‘Well, you ain’t helping this morning. Do me a favor and don’t come in early again. In fact, if I see you in the office before ten A.M. ever again, you’re fired!’ Defina stuck out her pink tongue again and turned and walked out of the office. Now she’d avoid Karen. But she’d already had her say. And Defina was right. Karen shouldn’t take it all so personally. Fashion was a funny thing – it was creative but it was so grounded in reality that its very limitations were its opportunities. And everything started with the body. Karen looked down at her own and sighed. She was herself a part of the baby-boomer generation that was now aging and needed forgiving clothes. Young bodies, beautiful bodies, were the ones that didn’t need the disguise of clothes to cover a sagging line, rounding shoulders, or a thickening trunk. Young bodies could look great in a thirty-eight-dollar sweater dress from The Gap. It was older women who needed artifice. But the irony was that only young bodies modeled the clothes. Few girls would actually be able to afford Karen’s clothing. Karen knew her clientele: women her age and older who – no matter how thin – felt they had to camouflage their bellies or their thighs – or sometimes both. Like Defina, they’d put on weight. Or the few who hadn’t still had necks and elbows and upper arms that weren’t what they had been. Karen’s job was to help them look great. She’d created a code for her goals. She called it ‘the three esses and the two cees’: soft, sensual, and sexy; comfortable and classy. To do it, she herself had to concentrate. She certainly hadn’t achieved it in the new collection. Now, she lined up three sketch pads on the big table in front of her. For some unknown reason, most women designers worked with the cloth on the model, while most men worked in sketches. Karen did both. She wondered, for a minute, if that made her bisexual. She grinned at her own joke, but the blank pads wiped the smile off her face. It was always hard to get started. When sketching, she worked quickly, using the three at once, so if she got stuck on something she moved to another pad before she got cold. She had already opened her drawer and pulled out a number six pencil – she felt like she needed the freedom a number six would give her – when she was interrupted. She looked up, annoyed. ‘Yes, Mrs Cruz?’ Very unusual for Mrs Cruz to come to the front offices again. What was up? ‘You want more coffee?’ ‘No. Thanks anyway.’ She looked guiltily at her cup. She’d been so involved with Defina she’d forgotten to drink up. Now it was cold. ‘That’s okay.’ Without a word, Mrs Cruz picked up the cup, poured off the cold coffee into a jar, and refilled Karen’s mug with fresh, steaming café Cubano. Karen picked it up and smiled for the first time that morning. It felt so good to be taken care of. ‘Karen, I was going to talk to you when we first came up the elevator. But then we ran into Defina. Still, I should say something. There is talk among the girls in the back. I tell them to be quiet. But they still talk. About being sold. About being fired. It isn’t good for the work. What should I say? Or maybe you should say something.’ Karen looked over her cup at Mrs Cruz. The negotiations with NormCo were top secret – no one should know about them, but somehow rumors always spread. Well, Karen couldn’t blame the workroom women. Garment workers had always been exploited, and just because she had tried to do things differently was no reason for them not to fear for their jobs. Despite being the owner of the company, Karen had been raised by Arnold to consider herself part of labor. She’d taken in his passion for fairness, what Belle called his ‘pinko socialism,’ from the time she was little. Arnold wasn’t great with kids, but in his own way he’d been sweet to Karen. He’d sit in his little study and explain some complicated issue – why the farm workers were striking, for instance, and why the Lipskys shouldn’t eat grapes from California – and Karen would listen soberly. She’d sooner cut her throat than cross a picket line, even today. So she understood the fears of the women workers. Still, today it felt like just one more thing to deal with. And Karen wished that once, just once, someone would give her the benefit of the doubt. To believe that since she’d always hired union and paid well and fairly, that she’d continue to. That since she’d always pulled the collection together in time, that she’d manage to do it again. That since she’d always kept Jeffrey happy, she’d still manage to, even with a child. Karen sighed and put down the empty cup. Like Bill Blass, she used workers on Eighth and Ninth Avenues, not in Hong Kong. And she’d always been union. ‘Mrs Cruz, I guarantee nobody’s job is in jeopardy. You have my promise. Can you tell everyone that?’ Mrs Cruz smiled and nodded. She had a sweet smile, with tiny irregular teeth, like biwa pearls. ‘I already tell them. But I tell them again. Stronger.’ She made a motion to refill Karen’s cup but Karen waved her away. ‘No more. I’ve got enough shpilkiss already.’ Mrs Cruz had hung around the garment center long enough to know the Yiddish word for ‘restlessness.’ She nodded and left. There was a knock, although the door was open, and Karen looked up to see a hand extended and fisted, ready to knock again. ‘Yeah?’ Who the hell was this? No one had appointments this early. Even Janet, Karen’s secretary, wasn’t in yet. ‘Hell-ow!’ Oh, God! Karen could tell by the accent that it was Basil Reed, the Brit consultant that NormCo had sent in to do a once-over. She had found him as condescending and as annoying as was humanly possible, but she’d managed to answer most of his questions and then stay out of his way. He’d finished his ‘fact-finding mission’ and submitted his report. What the hell was he doing here now? ‘I know the hours you keep, so I suspected you’d be in. Hope you don’t mind me knocking you up like this, but I just had another question or two to complete my due diligence. I came in from London yesterday, so my timing is still all balled up. Thought this might work for both of us.’ Karen blinked. Had he just said something about knocking her up? Not fucking likely with her ovaries! His accent was so ‘uppah clahss’ he was almost impossible to understand. Something about him made her want to be her most vulgar and Brooklyn. Mayfair meets Bensonhurst. A new sitcom maybe? Basil had poked through all of her private business. He had insisted on knowing exactly who owned KInc stock. It had embarrassed Karen and made her feel, somehow, vulnerable. The fact was that she alone owned fifty percent. The rest was divided between Jeffrey, who had close to thirty percent, and other members of the family. When Jeffrey’s father had put up the investment capital, he had insisted on the thirty percent with another ten reserved for his wife and daughters. When he died, the thirty percent had gone to Jeffrey. But it was Arnold who had insisted that fifty percent belong to Karen. He had incorporated them, and drawn up the papers. In lieu of fees, he and Belle and Lisa and Leonard split the remaining ten percent. She hadn’t liked Basil Reed learning all that. ‘Come in,’ she said now. ‘Take a seat.’ It was the last thing she wanted, but she knew Jeffrey wanted her to make nice. ‘I’ve only one question, really. What are you going to cover in your presentation to NormCo?’ Oh, God! They were all going to drive her crazy with this NormCo meeting! Did Basil expect her to go over cash flow, inventory, sales and marketing costs right now? ‘I thought I’d just review the line,’ she said. ‘The lion?’ he asked. ‘Yeah. The new line.’ ‘Is this some company logo you are considering? Hasn’t one already been used? I’m afraid I don’t know anything about a lion.’ ‘You saw it. Remember?’ Jesus, these money men! they irritated Karen so much. All they thought about was numbers and had completely negated the actual product from whence the numbers came. ‘The line,’ she repeated. ‘I’m afraid I don’t remember. Is it an actual wild animal, or are you talking about photos or graphic design?’ ‘A wild animal?’ Karen was completely confused. What the hell drug was he on? ‘The lion. Is it tame, then?’ Then she got it. ‘Not a lion. A line. The clothes we’re showing this season.’ He was a twit, but Karen had to admit that with her Brooklyn accent she did pronounce the word with two syllables a lot like the way he pronounced the animal name. ‘Oh. Yes. Of course. How very stupid of me.’ But Basil didn’t sound as if he was apologizing, nor as if he thought it was he who was ‘stew-pit.’ Jeffrey must be right about how bad I sound, Karen thought. She thought of her speech at the Oakley Awards and nearly blushed. Had she sounded awful? Jeffrey had asked her twice to have diction lessons but she’d refused. ‘I yam who I yam,’ she’d told him, doing a pretty good Popeye imitation to cover her hurt feelings. Maybe she should reconsider. Basil Reed stood up. ‘Well. Very good, then. Splendid. I’m sure Bill will be riveted.’ Karen thought that if rivets should go into anyone she would like to see them through Basil Reed’s own forehead. ‘Well, I’m off then. See you Monday next.’ ‘Yeah. Monday next,’ she said, and gratefully watched the twit leave her office. But before she could get back to work, the phone rang. It was her private line. Otherwise, she’d ignore it. But maybe it was Jeffrey, wanting to make up. She lifted the phone. ‘Karen, what was that you were wearing at the Waldorf?’ God, it was Belle. Karen wished she could just put the receiver down quietly and pretend this call was not going to happen. Oh well. Too late now. What in the world was her mother talking about? Belle hadn’t been to the Oakley Awards. ‘Did you see Newsday? The picture is terrible. You look big as a house. But what are you wearing? It’s all wrinkled.’ Karen hadn’t seen the papers but she knew that Mercedes spent a lot of time placing pictures from all of the social events that Karen and Jeffrey attended. And of course she’d push the Oakley Awards. Karen had started to get used to seeing her picture in the paper, and it was all for business. But she wasn’t used to Belle’s Monday morning quarterbacking. ‘It was satin, Ma. Satin wrinkles.’ ‘But for pictures! For pictures, Karen. And why were you looking down? It makes you look like you have three chins.’ How could she explain to Belle what it was like to be barraged by paparazzi popping shots at you? Why, even the Queen of England had been caught once with a gloved finger up her nose! How could Karen explain to Belle that she had no choice over which angle of her was shot and that it was an honor for a picture – any picture – to get into the columns. After all, she had hired Mercedes Bernard to spend all of her time doing nothing but wooing the press to get this very result. But, of course, Belle hadn’t just called to harp. She’d want to stay on the line until the unspoken question was answered: why Belle had not been there. ‘Mother, I’ll call you back,’ Karen promised. ‘Jeffrey looks very nice,’ her mother said, and Karen almost laughed out loud. It was the same old Belle tactic: ‘Lisa calls me every day. Why can’t you?’ Karen shook her head. ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ Karen said, and hung up the phone. It rang again. ‘Karen?’ It was the unbearably nasal whine of Lenny, their accountant. ‘Look, I’m sorry to bother you,’ he began apologetically – Lenny always sounded apologetic – ‘but KInc is going to be late paying its federal withholding tax. After last time, you made me promise to tell you if it happened again. So now you know. Don’t tell Jeffrey I told you.’ ‘How much do we owe?’ ‘Not a lot. About twenty-four thousand.’ ‘So why don’t we pay it?’ ‘Jeffrey says he needs to pay the factor.’ ‘Goddamnit, Lenny! We owe it to our staff to make their tax contribution first. Plus, now we’ll have to pay penalties.’ She heard her voice rise. Well, it was no use blaming Lenny. He just did what he was told and at least he called her and warned her this time. ‘Thanks, Lenny,’ she sighed. ‘I’ll take care of it.’ Finally left alone, Karen closed her eyes and tried to regroup. She looked up to the framed Chanel quote she had over her office door. ‘Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportion.’ She usually spent the two quiet hours of her morning here, in her corner office, working on sketches. Without this time, how and what would she do with the fit models this afternoon? She picked up the pencil. What was wrong with her? Why was she so blocked? She thought of poor Halston again: once he sold out, his first season’s line had succeeded, but after that all the rest had flopped. Was that what was bothering her? Well, she wouldn’t let it. Quickly, deftly, she threw a half-dozen lines on the page. A sleeve, a shoulder, and then the flowing line of a smock. No, she would make it a dress. She moved to the next pad and repeated the sleeve, narrowing it a bit, then sketched the shoulder and now a longer smock-like line. Not right. It looked like Kamali on a bad day. Karen swiveled her chair just a little bit to the left, starting this time with a simple rounded neckline, then the shoulders, and then the smock-like swirl. She put the pencil down and looked at the three pads. Jesus Christ. She’d just done her first maternity collection! Karen looked at the three attempted sketches, the obvious belly bulge below the breast line. She bit her lip. Was Jeffrey right? Was she obsessed? She would have sworn that she was not thinking, at least not consciously, about the visit to Dr Goldman. But her left brain clearly knew what her right brain was doing. Well, she wouldn’t need any clothes like these. She picked up the number six pencil and scribbled across all three pads. Goddamnit! The pencil point broke, and the pencil folded under the pressure of her hand and cracked in half. Karen stood up and threw the broken pencil into the trash. She went to her purse and took out the two photos that she’d secreted in the side pocket. She stared at the sober little girl in the pictures. Then she put them away. Perhaps Jeffrey was right. Maybe searching for the mother of this little girl would open a can of worms. Well, she would never get anything done this morning. Now it was not a question of discipline. From long experience Karen had developed her creativity muscle and had learned how to force herself to keep her ass in the chair until something developed. But she also had learned from long experience when nothing was going to happen. This, she could tell, was one of those times. Her confidence was shaken. Let’s face it, she told herself. You need to do some really good work and you’re not in any shape to do it. ‘Aunt Karen?’ Karen looked up, glad of an interruption now. Her niece, Lisa’s oldest daughter, stuck her head in around the corner of the door. ‘Stephanie! Hooray! You made it into the city in one piece! All ready for work?’ Karen smiled at her niece despite her panic. Oh, God! How could she have forgotten? Today was Stephanie’s first day in her internship, but neither Jeffrey nor Casey had been able to come up with something for her to do. Karen could just have her help out Janet, but photocopying would be such a drag. Karen had meant to do something about this before, but with all the other worries she hadn’t gotten to it. She looked at her niece. The girl really was adorable. She had that lovely fresh coloring that couldn’t be faked later either with makeup or lighting. Only youth and health brought that. And she had a perfect size-eight body. Karen considered for a moment. Was she a perfect size eight? Maybe Stephanie could fill in as a fitting model. Tangela was sometimes such a pain. In the Seventh Avenue world there were two very different kinds of models: fitting and runway. Fitting models didn’t have to be young or beautiful (though it didn’t hurt), but their bodies had to be perfectly proportioned. They were used as mannequins and from the original – cut to their measurements – all sizes were made simply by adding or subtracting inches. Since fit was all important, a good fitting model, one with the right proportions, could work steadily and earn a lot of money. The wrong fitting model could ruin a whole line. In his early days, Ralph Lauren had designed with his wife, Ricky, in mind. He used Buffy Birrittella, a petite girl like Ricky, as a fitting model for all his shirts. Even when they were sized up, the shirts never fit any woman who wasn’t proportioned like Buffy. Meanwhile, Susan Jordan, easily over forty, was still used by three of the designers in 550, and her opinion about what felt right and what didn’t could make or break a design. Yet you never saw poor Susan in a show. She just didn’t have the look and never had. Poor Tangela had perfect proportions but lacked the look. She could make a good living as a fitting model, but she wanted more. Runway models (who sometimes were also used in showrooms) didn’t have to have quite such perfect proportions, but they had to be attractive, young, and with a look or attitude that put them across. Karen had learned from shows how important it was to have the right girls. The right girls could make magic – they could make bad designs look good and old things look new. That’s why the hot models could get the money they asked for. Karen looked at her niece appraisingly. Maybe she’d do as a fitting model. She’d have Mrs Cruz measure her. Stephanie had no confidence, no attitude, but she might make a good fitting model. Maybe it wasn’t just guilt, charity, and nepotism that had brought Karen to hire her: the girl might be useful. But what in the world would Karen do with her now? On her first morning, shouldn’t her aunt take Stephanie out for breakfast or, at the very least, give her a tour? But Karen simply didn’t have the time. She looked at her watch. She’d already lost more than an hour of prime design time. She paused. Maybe Janet was in. She buzzed her secretary and gratefully smiled when Janet’s thick, nasal voice came in over the intercom. ‘Could you come in here?’ she asked, and smiled up at Stephanie. Janet came in behind the girl. ‘Stephie, you know Janet, don’t you? Janet, schedule half an hour with Stephie for later in the morning. Could you take her now and show her around? Then bring her in to Mrs Cruz to have her measurements taken.’ Very casually, Karen added, ‘Maybe you’ll help out in the fitting room. Is that okay, Stephie?’ The girl nodded, her eyes big. Karen smiled. ‘You’ll just spend the morning in the showroom and the afternoon watching me work with Tangela. She’ll explain a lot about what we do. Okay?’ Stephanie nodded her head again and Janet ushered her out. Now, Karen stared at the ruined pages on the pads in front of her. She tore them off, threw them away, and closed her eyes for a moment. She picked up the pencil and stared at the pads again. She knew it. Nothing. She waited. Still nothing came. She had developed, over the years, a handful of tricks to corral inspiration. She’d thumb through fashion books or collections of paintings. (She’d used lots of Renaissance dress ideas.) Or she’d walk – sometimes for dozens and dozens of blocks – and stare at what people wore and how they wore it. (The awful was sometimes more inspiring than the good. People’s mistakes were interesting to Karen.) Or she’d go to her exercise class – somehow when she got her body moving she’d connect with a different part of her brain and images simply formed. Or she’d go to her own closet. Not to see what she had, but to see what she lacked. It was difficult, of course, to fill in the negative space. To imagine what she needed rather than what she had. She’d found that was the key to an important piece of clothing: the long jean skirt that she had created five years ago came from her staring into the closet and it had become a classic. So had the tent dress with the matching ten-pocket vest. And all her signature stuff in sweatshirt material. If all else failed, sometimes she’d go on shopping jaunts with Defina. They’d do a lot of looking, a lot of talking to sales clerks, and a lot of watching the other shoppers. Maybe that’s what she could use today to get a kick start on her creativity. She hadn’t slept for hours after the argument with Jeffrey, and she already felt tired, as if the day was almost over. She couldn’t just drag herself through it, either. She had the meeting with NormCo to prepare for, and the ever-present pressure of the new collection and the Paris show. Plus a trunk show coming up in Chicago and dinner this week with a reporter from Women’s Wear. Worst of all was the major interview on the television show. That Elle Halle thing. Karen had already sweated out a segment on a Barbara Walters special, but this was an hour-long show! It was Mercedes’s idea of following up on the Oakley Award. Oy vey! Janet, who was young and still in awe of Karen, was bustling around outside her door. Now the girl knocked and stuck her head in. ‘I just wanted to remind you that Mrs Paradise and Elise Elliot are coming in again today.’ Shit! Elise Elliot, a great star during the Audrey Hepburn era, had made a huge comeback in the critically acclaimed work of director Larry Cochran. Now they were to be married. That he was almost thirty years younger than the bride caused a great deal of talk both in Hollywood and in New York, towns that had seen everything. Now, after years of living and working together, Larry had joshed that he was going to make an honest woman out of Elise. She – a newsmaker for two generations – knew the event would be a circus for every photographer and cameraman that could crawl out of the woodwork. She had come to Karen for help and it wasn’t easy to give. Elise Elliot knew all there was to know about clothes and was used to getting her way. Though wealthy, she still watched every penny. And she, as all great beauties, mourned the fading of her looks, the softening of her face, and was attempting perfection one last time. She’d been driving Karen crazy with the fittings. ‘Oh, Jesus!’ Every time Karen used any expletive, Janet – a nice Catholic girl from the Bronx – cringed. But the other inheritance from Janet’s parochial school upbringing was that she was the only kid under thirty who could spell – the nuns were good for teaching something other than guilt. They had also instilled in Janet the ability to cope with Karen’s ever-changing schedule. Yes, the sisters at Our Lady of the Bleeding Ulcers had prepared Janet well. They’d prepared Janet to take aggravation. ‘Do you want me to reschedule?’ Janet asked. ‘I told them it was tentative. They said they were flexible.’ That was a lie. Elise Elliot was as flexible as a cement block. A sophisticated, charming, slim, and beautiful cement block, but a cement block all the same. ‘No,’ Karen told Janet. After all, you couldn’t reschedule a legend. Elise Elliot had been a movie star for close to thirty years. Karen’s designs would get great coverage, guaranteed to make ‘Star Tracks’ in People magazine, but the whole thing had become a pain in Karen’s ass, and if Annie Paradise, the writer, hadn’t asked, Karen would never have done it. But Annie had recommended Ernesta to her, and Karen was so grateful, she’d do almost anything to oblige. ‘You know that the camera crew is coming this afternoon.’ It was too much! Jesus, when did it start to get easy? ‘No. I didn’t know that. I thought they finished up everything but my interview with Elle Halle. I thought yesterday’s taping of Jeffrey was the end of that.’ ‘They say they just want some background. You know, the showroom and the workroom. Maybe one more fitting.’ ‘Goddamnit!’ Karen couldn’t tell them no, either. Why was it that the bigger she got the less control she seemed to have? ‘Tell Mercedes to handle them. They always create chaos. Tell them I am not available.’ ‘Okay. Okay.’ Janet backed away. She had to get out of the office, Karen decided. She would clear her desk, then hope that Defina got into a better mood, and the two of them could schlep around to Saks or maybe they’d call a car and go all the way to Paramus. Karen preferred to shop the suburban malls than the less reality-based New York stores. She got more ideas there, somehow. For now, she’d give up on ideas. Karen gathered the pads together and was just dumping them into the wide, flat drawer where she stored them when Jeffrey walked into the room. ‘Hi, honey,’ he greeted her cheerfully. Karen blinked in surprise. Men killed her. They really did. Didn’t he have a clue? She was still upset by their talk last night. Hurt and disappointed. And she was angry about this withholding tax business. She’d told him not to do that again. Jeffrey had pushed her to expand the company, but he’d assured her they’d have enough backing to do it. This was one more thing to make her crazy, but if she got into now they’d have another fight and she hadn’t gotten over last night yet. How come he was acting as if nothing had happened? Didn’t he understand what last night had meant to her? Didn’t it hurt him too? Or was he just being brazen and trying to ‘tough it out’? Sometimes, when Jeffrey knew he was in the doghouse, he did use that tactic. It always left her feeling confused and vulnerable. Should she act as if nothing had happened? Should she pitch a fit? Or should she be cold and risk being accused of being overly sensitive or bitchy? Not knowing what to do, Karen figured she’d go for the tax stuff. It was easier than the baby stuff. ‘Jeffrey, what about withholding? Are we in trouble again?’ Jeffrey blinked. It was the only sign he ever gave of being surprised. ‘No, we’re not in trouble.’ ‘Has it been paid?’ ‘Not yet.’ ‘Why not? Isn’t it due?’ ‘Karen, why don’t you let me run the business? You knew that if we tried to do the bridge line we wouldn’t be able to repay our loans unless we managed to get through a couple of good seasons. Well, we’ve got the orders, but we don’t have the cash flow, and the factors are giving me a little trouble. I’m just trying to finance the piece goods you’re buying like a mad woman and pay the manufacturers enough to keep them shipping. We knew the loan was going to go up before it came down, but we didn’t know it was going to go up this much, or that our receivables would get paid on a ninety-day cycle. So if I have to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, it’s only temporary. We have to keep the factors happy and confident. The IRS is never happy, so what’s the difference?’ ‘The difference is, that’s not our money. The staff already earned it. You said you wouldn’t do this again.’ ‘Well, I am. Don’t look at me like I’m a criminal; I’m doing it for you. Look on it as a temporary loan from your beloved staff, negotiated by your beloved husband.’ He kissed her on the cheek. ‘I’d like to start to go over the numbers with you before the NormCo presentation,’ Jeffrey said pleasantly. ‘Then you’ll understand this better. We could go over it this weekend, but you’re doing that stupid brunch.’ Karen had invited both his family and her own out to their house in Westport. She had to do it: she hadn’t invited them to the Oakley Awards and hadn’t had any of them over in months. With her niece’s bat mitzvah coming up, she felt obligated to do some family thing before that extravaganza. Jeffrey looked down at his sheaf of papers. ‘I know you don’t enjoy going over these numbers.’ Now she’d never get to work, Karen thought with a pang. ‘That’s okay,’ she said. ‘This afternoon looks good for me,’ he said. ‘It’s important that you understand all the figures, just in case you’re asked. It would hurt our credibility if you wound up looking like window dressing.’ The man was incredible. Business as usual. Last night had never happened, or meant nothing. ‘Jeffrey, I’m not an idiot and I’m not window dressing,’ she snapped. He waved his hand. ‘Oh, you know what I mean. I don’t want them to think that you don’t have a clue about the business end and are just some flighty designer.’ She looked at him steadily. ‘Why should they think that?’ she asked. ‘Is that what you think?’ ‘Of course not. I know it.’ She didn’t like his joke. ‘I’ve got work to do,’ she said coldly and buzzed for Janet. ‘Send Defina in,’ she told Janet. ‘I’m ready for her.’ Jeffrey knew he’d been dismissed and he didn’t like it. ‘Just be ready for me at noon,’ Jeffrey told her. ‘We have a lot to go through.’ He turned and tried to slam the door, but wisely, years before, Karen had put an air compressor on the hinge. No one was going to slam the door on her, in her office, she figured. She could just see Jeffrey stalking past Defina in the hallway. He ignored her. ‘Spread the joy,’ Defina cried out to him as she hustled into Karen’s office. ‘Glad I’m not married, when I take a look at you two this morning,’ she said cheerfully. ‘What’s coming down?’ ‘Men. You can’t live with ’em …’ ‘And you can’t live with ’em,’ Defina finished for her. ‘So, what’s next?’ ‘When the going gets tough …’ Karen began. ‘The tough go shopping!’ Defina exclaimed, finishing Karen’s sentence again. Defina grinned and waited while Karen grabbed her purse and put on her lipstick. ‘One thing I know,’ Karen said. ‘I’m not going to be back here to see him at noon.’ At Janet’s desk, Karen paused for a moment. ‘Cancel the models, see if you can move Miss Elliot’s fitting to tomorrow, and tell my husband he can forget about the NormCo presentation rehearsal. I’m out of the box until three.’ She walked down the hall with long strides, Defina at her side. ‘Girlfriend,’ Defina said approvingly, ‘you are every husband’s nightmare: a wife with her own Gold Card.’ At the elevator, the new receptionist called out to her. it’s your sister,’ she said. ‘Will you take the call?’ Oh shit! Karen realized that she still hadn’t called Lisa. One more thing she had to do. ‘Tell her I’ll call her from the car phone,’ Karen barked, and she and Defina stepped into the steel box of the elevator. CHAPTER SIX (#ulink_ca006723-c7b3-5553-8ef5-9c53c5266b7e) Fashion Cents (#ulink_ca006723-c7b3-5553-8ef5-9c53c5266b7e) Lisa closed the front door and breathed a sigh of relief. The abortion of the morning was, at last, over. It hadn’t been worse than usual – it was just that the usual was bad enough. She had managed to ignore the absolutely indecent shortness of Stephanie’s skirt and the positively gross broadness of Tiffany’s ass while stopping the two of them from squabbling any worse than they absolutely had to in front of their father. She had managed to get Leonard out the door and even weedled a couple hundred bucks out of him by telling him she was having the Mercedes lubed. Fuck the Mercedes; she would spend the money on her own maintenance. Not that two hundred bucks would do much, but she was always short of cash and at least now she could carry something in her pocketbook. Lisa turned and walked down the hallway of their four-bedroom colonial-style house, pausing at the door of the breakfast room. She surveyed the remains of the meal. Stephanie, as usual, had eaten nothing, while Tiff, also as usual, had cleaned not only her own plate but her sister’s and her father’s. Lisa had seen her do it in the reflection of the glass-paned doors. She hadn’t said anything. She couldn’t take another traumatic scene. She shook her head. The kid was already a size fourteen and she wasn’t even thirteen years old. She would look like shit at the bar mitzvah. Lisa winced, imagining the satisfaction the bitches at the Inwood Jewish Center would have over that. And there was no way Lisa could control it or do anything about it. Both she and Leonard would be humiliated, but she knew from experience that diets and trying to force or reward Tiff were useless. They had already sent her to weight-loss camp two years in a row now and Tiff had managed to gain weight at both of them. Had she gnawed tree bark, and was tree bark fattening? Lisa still didn’t know how her daughter had done it. Neither did the last camp director, who had ‘suggested’ to Lisa that she should try counseling for Tiff and not return her to camp this year. Lisa turned away from the table. Camille, her housekeeper, would be in at nine and she could clean up the mess. The sight of the congealed egg yolks drying on the plates made Lisa feel sick and out of control. Well, so what? So she couldn’t control her preteen daughter. So sue me, she thought. But Lisa could control how she looked and she knew that she was going to look better than anyone else at the bat mitzvah. It would be an opportunity to shine. One of the problems in her life, she admitted to herself, was that while she had wonderful clothes, she didn’t have enough fabulous places to wear them. The affair would be an occasion where she could really show herself at her best. Today she had to find shoes. While she had promised herself that her last pair of Walter Steigers would be her absolute final shoe purchase, she had been lucky enough to find a Donna Karan pants suit on sale at Neiman-Marcus when she’d shopped there with Belle. It was fifty percent off, God’s way of saying she was meant to have it. It was a fabulous color for her – a sort of soft wine shade in a heavy silk broadcloth. With her dark hair and the gold buttons of the suit as contrast, the color gave her a fabulous glow, and Lisa already had the exact shade of lipstick to wear with it. The only problem was the shoes. She did already have a maroon pair of suede Manolo Blahniks, but the heels were a little too high for a pants suit – she hated that tarty spike-heels-with-slacks look – and, anyway, the maroon didn’t have the soft mauviness that the Donna Karan suit had. It would be a push to wear them together and Lisa despised that kind of dressing. The ‘well-it-almost-goes-so-what-the-hell-look,’ she called it. It would be better to wear black shoes than the maroon ones. But Lisa had tried the suit on with the three different pair of black shoes she had – a snakeskin, a silk faille, and a patent leather pair – and none of them really worked. So today Lisa planned to find the right pair of shoes. She dressed carefully. It was important to look good when you shopped, she thought. Because if not, you wound up buying anything out of desperation to change how bad you looked, and that was when you made mistakes. Over time Lisa had learned to dress properly for her various shopping expeditions: to wear pantyhose and heels if she was going to shop for a dress, not to have complicated belts and waistbands if she was going to be doing a lot of trying on, and to be sure to put on enough makeup so that the horror-lighting in the try-on rooms didn’t make her feel suicidal. If there was advice Lisa could give to every woman in America it would be, ‘Wear a good foundation if you’re going into a mall.’ After she showered and rolled up her hair, Lisa carefully applied her makeup and then went to her closet. It wasn’t as extensive as her mother’s because Lisa simply didn’t have the room. And Lisa’s closet was as chaotic as Belle’s was anally neat. But Lisa followed a different fashion method anyway: she, unlike Belle, didn’t wear the same style year in and year out. She didn’t save things for ten seasons. She didn’t take up hems and then take them down again. Lisa was constantly adding to and discarding from her closet and at any given time her style could change dramatically. And it did. It was a funny thing: just when she would feel that she had what she needed and was comfortable or satisfied with her wardrobe, she would open a magazine and see a whole new look. Sometimes she’d simply throw the Vogue or Elle aside, but the image would stick with her and eventually she would find herself nervously going through her clothes: silk sweaters sliding off their hangers, trousers with and without cuffs, suede jackets, tweed blazers, tube skirts, knit dresses – a riot of colors and textures and styles. But her things would seem dated, old, dull. They just would have lost their stylishness, as if it had evaporated overnight, the way an expensive perfume would if left uncapped. All the lovely silks and wools and linens would seem obsolete – the colors too strong, or the pastels too washed out, the silhouette too wide, or perhaps too tailored. The new pictures from the magazines would work their seductive magic on her. She had to have those clothes. Nothing else appealed. Lisa would fight the feeling, sometimes for a week, sometimes for longer, but getting dressed every day would become torture. She would feel archaic – like one of those scary old women she would see from time to time, the type who were all dressed up in the hairstyle and clothes of some bygone era, some time, perhaps, when they were loved. God, Lisa hated their dated, pathetic look! And then she would eventually be forced into the mall, where she would just pick up one or two outfits of the new style, promising herself they were all she was going to buy. But when she would get home and stuff the new purchases next to the other clothes in her brimming closet, she would see just how impossible the old stuff really was. Sometimes she wondered if she didn’t have that multiple personality syndrome – had Sybil bought some of these clothes? Lisa just couldn’t live with the old stuff. It was awful. So she’d begin buying again, upgrading everything. It seemed as if it were a never-ending process. Leonard had lost patience years ago. He said, ‘Fashion is just a racket to sell clothes to women.’ Like most men, he didn’t understand. To be honest, he simply wasn’t making the kind of income he once had, but then who was in the nineties? Still, even if his patient load had dropped a bit and even if payers were slow, he was cheap at heart. And, Lisa thought, maybe a little bit envious. Since they’d married he’d lost most of his hair and gained a bit of a paunch. She hadn’t varied from her size six. She wasn’t sure Leonard wanted her looking too good. And he certainly didn’t want to see her look good if it cost him more than a dollar. If she had known that he was going to behave that way, she never would have married him. But she comforted herself with the thought that she’d done as well as she could for a brunette. Her mistake was that she hadn’t traded up a decade ago, the way some of the women she knew had. So here she was, still stuck in Inwood, with a dermatologist, when it could have been Park Avenue, and a thoracic surgeon. Lisa sighed. If she just had more money, she could live decently. But how could she make money? She was not like her sister. Karen was good at making money and Lisa was good at spending it. Of course, she did own some stock in Karen’s company, but Leonard had explained to her over and over again that she couldn’t sell it because the company was privately held. Lisa didn’t know why that should make a difference, but apparently it did. So now she just regarded the stock as worthless paper, and when she got desperate for money, she cleaned out her closet and dragged a pile of stuff down to the resale shop. One month she got a check for seven hundred and fifty-nine dollars that way. Of course, the stuff she had sold had cost her ten times that, but she wouldn’t wear it again, anyway. And she had bought a great alligator purse with the money. It wasn’t exactly the purse she had wanted – it was a compromise, even at seven hundred dollars. It felt as if everything in her life had been a compromise since her marriage. Lisa had been the prettiest girl in her high school and she had longed to get out of Rockville Center, a town without any distinction, and move to one of the Five Towns. Her insistence meant that she and Leonard had started in a garden apartment in Inwood and, when the time came to upgrade to a house, Leonard had insisted on staying there to continue establishing his practice. But Inwood was the least exclusive (which to her made it the least attractive) of the Five Towns. She might as well be living in Siberia. Lisa hated that moment when, in talking to another woman or buying something in Saks, she had to give her address and hear the pause that lasted for just a fraction of a moment. Then they’d say, ‘Oh. Inwood.’ She didn’t dress or look like a woman from Inwood. She looked like a woman from Lawrence, whose husband was a surgeon. She could feel herself being demoted. Among the descending class order of Lawrence, Woodmere, Cedarhurst, Hewlett, and Inwood, Lisa still longed for the exclusivity of Lawrence with the passion she reserved for a Calvin Klein dress. Now, with a sigh, she turned from the rainbow collection in her closet to the phone beside the queen-sized bed she still shared with Leonard. She hated to sit on a dirty, unmade bed. She lifted the phone and stood next to the bedside table. Karen had looked awful last night, her face puffy and her skin pasty. Lisa was concerned. Karen had promised to call. Why hadn’t she? Lisa would just give her another quick call. She dialed Karen’s office main number – she could never remember extensions, even Leonard’s private line. She asked for Karen, and the girl at the desk recognized her voice. ‘Is this her sister?’ she asked. Lisa, pleased, told her she was. ‘Well, she’s on her way out the door, but I’ll stop her for you.’ Lisa didn’t bother to say thank you; she knew the kid was just trying to rack up a few brownie points with both of them. Lisa tapped her foot and waited until Karen came on the line. Lisa loved her sister but sometimes, without even trying, Karen made Lisa feel as if she had disappeared. Like by not calling her back last night. Or by letting her eyes glaze over at dinner when Lisa told her about the details for the bat mitzvah. Waiting for her sister now, Lisa got that feeling, the bad one, as if she was turning transparent. For a moment, she flashed on Marty McFly in Back to the Future and the way he had begun to disappear when it looked like history would change and he would never be born. He’d been playing the guitar when his hand dissolved. She looked down at her own hand holding onto the phone. It was solid. She was here; she did exist. And, in a minute, Karen would be talking to her. But the voice that came on was only the secretary. ‘She says she’ll call you from the car,’ the girl told her. Lisa put her tongue between her teeth and bit the tip, though not hard enough to really hurt. ‘Fine,’ she said, and hung up the phone. It was okay, she told herself. Karen was busy. She had a big business to run. But Lisa felt her energy drain out of her, like dirty water down a bath drain. Sometimes she felt as if other people’s lives were much more real than her own. Enervated, she turned back to the arduous task of getting dressed. Who would she be today? ‘Is everything organized for the trunk show?’ Karen asked Defina once they were in the limo. ‘Funny you should say that. I got the list right here with me.’ Defina pulled a printout from her huge Bottega Veneta purse. Like most women in New York, Karen and Defina carried what Karen called ‘schlep,’ bags,’ either huge sack-like purses or a shopping bag that was made out of leather or canvas and carried along with a purse. Some day, Karen thought, she’d like to design a perfect schlep bag that would have enough room to hold all the crap that women carted around with them, yet would not ruin the line of their clothes. ‘Where are we going?’ the driver asked. ‘Good question.’ Defina turned to Karen. ‘Where are we going?’ she echoed. Back in time, Karen wanted to answer, to the seventies, when women still shopped in what the fashion world called the B-hive – Bonwit’s, Bendel’s, Bergdorf’s, and Bloomingdale’s. Back when my ovaries still worked, when my job thrilled me, when I had the choice about having a baby. But Bonwit’s had closed, Bloomingdale’s had been sold, Bendel’s had been relocated, and several of the stores had been found guilty of price fixing and had to pay off consumers from a class action suit. Nothing was what it had been. There was no sense looking backward. ‘Let’s do the new Barney’s,’ Karen exclaimed. ‘Madison and Sixty-First Street please.’ In the seventies, Barney’s had still been Barney’s Boys Town, a huge retailer specializing in men and boys’ suits and owned by the Pressman family. It was still owned by the Pressmans, but Barney had retired long ago and Fred, his son, had passed the baton on to his sons Gene and Bob. Only last year they had made the gigantic move from their Chelsea neighborhood to the Madison Avenue venue they held now: at the northernmost end of the department store archipelago and at the delta to the river of boutiques that flowed up Madison Avenue along with the one-way traffic. Barney’s was the hot spot to shop. ‘Let’s watch the women in Barney’s and then do Madison Avenue.’ ‘Can we have lunch at Bice?’ Defina asked. The restaurant – pronounced ‘Bee-chay’ – was the hot spot right now among the fashion crowd, but Karen hated the loud room, despite the great food. ‘God, it’s only ten after ten. How can you be thinking of lunch already?’ ‘I like to plan ahead,’ Defina said. ‘That is my job. So? How about Bice?’ ‘Okay,’ Karen agreed. The limo made a left onto Thirty-Fourth Street and began driving east toward Madison. Karen leaned back and looked out through the protection of her dark glasses and the tinted windows of the car. Despite the double-dip of tinting, the people in the street looked mostly hideous. There were as usual both ends of the New York street fashion spectrum: there were the women who believed somehow they were invisible on the street and could dress in torn sweats, hair clips, and last night’s makeup. What did they do if they ran into a friend? Karen wondered. At the other end of the scale were those who seemed to dress for the street as if it were their theater. There weren’t many of them out there. Thirty-Fourth Street was where New York City’s middle class, or what was left of it, shopped. But the days of glory, when Gimbel’s didn’t tell Macy’s, and Orbach’s sent secret sketchers to the Paris collections so that they could have line-for-line knock-offs faster than anyone else, were long over. Gimbel’s was closed, Orbach’s was gone, and even the grand old dowager B. Altman’s had disappeared. Now only Macy’s held the neighborhood together. Karen watched as streams of people in brightly colored, badly fitting coats and jackets pushed their way in through the revolving doors at the Herald Square entrance. Karen got an idea. ‘Stop the car,’ she said. ‘Shit. I knew it! There goes Bice.’ ‘Can you keep the car here and wait for us?’ Karen asked the driver, ignoring Defina’s grumbling. ‘Lady, Jesus himself couldn’t park on Thirty-Fourth Street. And if I circle, it might take me forty-five minutes to get around the block.’ ‘Okay,’ she told him. ‘This is it then. We’ll take a taxi from here.’ She opened the door before he could get out. ‘That’s gotta be the shortest limo ride in history,’ Defina grumbled. ‘Karen, Macy’s is two blocks from our office.’ ‘I didn’t know we were coming to Macy’s,’ Karen told her. ‘Yeah, and I wish we weren’t,’ Defina looked around and shook her head. Karen had to admit that the homeless scattered along the railings of the little park and the newspapers and litter blowing across the wide street didn’t make the area look attractive. ‘Honey, you sure you didn’t get Madison Avenue confused with Madison Square Garden? One is a beautiful street full of things you got to have and the other is the place where honky Long Island hockey fans beat each other to shit. We are near the latter, not the former.’ Karen ignored Defina and started walking toward the north entrance to Macy’s. ‘I want to see how the other half lives,’ she said aloud. ‘Well, sheesh, honey, if you take me out to lunch at Bice I’ll bring you up to Harlem.’ Karen gave Defina a look and the two of them pushed their way into the department store. Macy’s was a bazaar, a souk, an agora. Ever since there had been marketplaces, humankind had been working itself up to the diversity and complexity of Macy’s Thirty-Fourth Street. Karen turned to Defina. ‘Real people shop here,’ she said, and headed toward the escalators. The main floor, where space was most costly and traffic densest, was a confusion of accessories, specials, and the small, high-markup items: makeup, jewelry, and the like. Karen walked past two long counters of mid-priced purses. The selection was staggering, but unimpressive. She stopped for a moment and picked up a black leather purse. It was a nice envelope shape but someone had killed it by tacking fringe along the bottom. She flicked the fringe with her finger and turned to Defina. ‘Why?’ she asked. Defina shrugged. They walked on and took the escalator. As they moved up toward the second floor, Karen could get a panoramic view. The place was enormous and there had to be hundreds of people engaged in the business of buying and selling. They were mostly women and they were on the neverending quest of looking good. Karen’s eyes moved toward the down escalator and the endless descending parade of people facing her as she and Defina moved upward. As always, she was entranced by the way women had put themselves – or had failed to put themselves – together. There was a young businesswoman wearing a bright green suit, a color that only a key lime pie should wear, and a teenager in an interesting combination of plaids and denim. Karen learned a lot simply by trolling the malls and keeping her eyes and ears open. Now, at tenon-seven in the morning, the women shoppers already moving through Macy’s had the desperate eyes of early-morning drunks. An elderly woman in a bone-colored Adolfo knit reached out to a mark-down rack. Her nails were three-inch talons, painted a color that could only be called ‘traffic-cone orange.’ She wore lipstick to match. Karen nudged Defina. ‘You know what you have to give me if I get like that?’ she reminded Defina. ‘A total makeover?’ ‘No. A bullet to the brain.’ ‘Honey, you wind up lookin’ like that, you too pitiful to shoot.’ Then Karen saw her: a woman standing alone, no one ahead or behind her for a dozen escalator steps. She was well past middle age, stooped but still a big woman. She carried a battered shopping bag in one hand – obviously not a purchase she had made that day. But as Karen ascended and the woman was brought down by the moving stairs, Karen focused on the woman’s face. It was Karen’s own face, or what her face might be like in twenty years. It was the same square-ish head, the same big but undefined nose, and the same wide mouth. Karen bit her lip and felt her hand bite into Defina’s upper arm. ‘Look at her,’ she hissed to Defina, but by the time Defina turned her head, the woman had moved past them. Karen turned, craning her neck, but all she could see was the blue sweater and gray hair of the woman. ‘She looked like my mother,’ Karen cried. ‘You crazy? Your mother’s half the size of that old thing. And she wouldn’t be caught dead in a rag-bag outfit like that one,’ Defina said. Karen realized that she wasn’t making any sense – at least not to Defina. Am I losing it? she wondered. I spend the morning drawing maternity clothes and then I imagine seeing my real mother on the escalator at Macy’s. Get a grip, Karen! ‘You all right?’ Defina asked. ‘Sure. Peachy keen.’ At the second floor Karen took a quick detour through a row of dozens of nightgowns. All of them had been mucked up with cheap lace or embroidery or acetate satin ribbon. Karen sighed. In a week, after one washing, once the sizing was gone, these would look like rags. Karen knew that at the bottom end of the market, low-quality garments were splashed with cheap ornaments. Ruffles, polyester lace, fake silk flowers distracted from the skimpy fabric and lousy design. But why wasn’t there even one simply constructed Egyptian cotton nightie? Okay, it didn’t have to be Egyptian cotton. Sea Island would be good. Or even just plain cambric would do, and be so superior to this polyester-blend junk. Karen knew from her old fashion history days at Pratt that cambric had originally been made of linen in a French city called Cambrai. She sighed, looking at the shoddy nightgowns. Why did Americans get fooled? A French woman wouldn’t be caught dead in this crap. Karen shook her head. ‘Oh Lord, spare me another one of Karen’s why-can’t-they-just-keep-it-simple-so-that-the-poor-folks-can-get-some-quality speech.’ Dee hadn’t understood Karen about the mother business, but she did know what Karen was thinking about ninety percent of the time. Karen took one more look at the cheap nightgowns. The bows and ruffles that would look awful after one washing added what the industry called ‘hanger appeal.’ Did poor people really think they got more with ugly design? Even paper towels were ruined with patterns of unicorns or pilgrim fathers. Karen believed, deep in her heart, the way other people believed in flossing or the Bible, that form should follow function. But if it was her religion, she was clearly alone in practicing it. ‘Let’s go to designer stuff and then up to budget sportswear,’ she said to Defina, who shrugged agreement. ‘You’re the boss. But why you wanta see fat women trying on rayon pants is beyond me.’ ‘Bitterness is unattractive in the young,’ Karen reminded her. ‘Who’s young?’ Defina asked. They checked out the KInc boutique. It seemed as if the designer floor was bigger and more crowded than ever. How long would it take to look through everything? Hours and hours. Karen got tired just thinking about it. Macy’s gave them a lot of floor space but that was because Macy’s had a lot of floor space. Always, in department stores, it was a fight for exposure. If customers didn’t see your stuff how could they buy it? Among better designers Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Armani battled for the most space. In the bridge lines it changed from day to day but in more moderate-priced sportswear, Liz Claiborne had won hands down. ‘Let’s check out Norris Cleveland,’ Karen said. There wasn’t much there, except for a line-for-line copy of a box-pleat skirt that Karen had done three seasons ago. Except Karen’s didn’t pull across the belly the way this one would because Karen hadn’t bias cut the fabric. ‘You’d have to be a size four with a tummy tuck to look good in that.’ Defina shook her head and snickered. Then she lifted the price tag and raised her eyebrows. ‘She’s asking eight hundred bucks for this!’ Karen shook her head. ‘Something is wrong when shopping becomes an experience that requires the help of a personal trainer for stamina, a psychotherapist for self-esteem, and a financial adviser who figures out if you can afford to make that eight-hundred-dollar investment in a skirt.’ As always, once they got up to the moderate-priced sportswear, Defina started paying attention. First they went through the racks to look at the merchandise. Nothing with nothing, as Belle would say. Not much design talent here. People who didn’t know the industry thought of designers as dictators, but Karen knew she was more like an incumbent office holder who needed to keep in touch with public opinion. She liked to see what trends moved down from haute couture to the masses, and which sold. They looked at merchandise for a while. Liz Claiborne might have more selling space than anyone, but it was a lackluster showing. No one else looked too good, either. Then, before they began to watch shoppers, Karen suggested they check out the stuff made by NormCo. She knew they produced the Bette Mayer mass market line. A salesgirl said they’d find it on the fourth floor. The floor was enormous, without many salespeople. They looked for more than ten minutes for the Bette Mayer department and found it, at last, after being misdirected twice. (Of all department stores, only Nordstrom’s still really trained their staff to help.) Karen sighed and finally found the Mayer stuff. Bette was an uninspired designer who had made her name by being the first to bring stonewashed silk to the masses. But her silhouettes were predictable and boring: the same old blazers and coordinates with the only change the size of the lapels or the padding in the shoulders. Karen hadn’t bothered to look at it in years, and only did it now because she wanted to see what NormCo produced. Back to back against two racks she and Defina began snapping hangers and moving through the clothing. ‘Eeuw!’ Defina said as she lifted up a jacket. ‘Look at the interfacing on this.’ The jacket was a mess. The lining of the sleeve clearly bagged out below the cuff and the interfacing at the chest was already bubbled. Paco Rabanne had once said, ‘Architecture and fashion have the same function. Now I am an architect of women.’ Well, the house that Bette built wouldn’t shelter any female! Karen reached for the price tag. Ninety-nine bucks! But even for less than a hundred dollars, the jacket was no buy. After one trip to the dry-cleaner it would decompose. ‘Look at this,’ she said, holding up a scoop-neck blouse. It was coordinated tonally to the blazer, a bright green against the blazer’s darker green. There was a lot of labor in it: there were sleeve plackets, two back pleats at the shoulder line, and the buttons were self-covered and fastened with loops. But it was made of some polyester-based blend that had a ghastly feel. What had happened to Bette’s stonewashed silk? This would be hot to wear in warm weather and chilly in cold. ‘Eeuw. Sleazy.’ ‘Creepy,’ Defina agreed, touching the goods. ‘Flimsy.’ ‘Sleazy, Creepy, and Flimsy. Weren’t they three of the seven dwarves?’ Karen didn’t bother to respond. She thought of Chanel, who had said, ‘You know you’re a success, in fashion, if certain things are unbearable.’ This was unbearable. Would NormCo try to do this to her stuff? Karen picked up the price tag instead. Twenty-nine bucks. Jesus, how could they do it for that price? ‘Where was it made?’ Karen asked Defina, indicating the blazer with her chin. While Defina looked for the jacket label, Karen found the origins of the blouse. ‘Made in the USA,’ she said, surprised. At least Arnold would be proud if she did a deal with NormCo. He was all pro-US workers. But could she be proud of an association with Wolper, NormCo’s CEO? She’d have to insist on an anti-schlock provision. Did Robert-the-lawyer have one in boilerplate? ‘This piece of crap is from here, too,’ Defina said. ‘I thought everything in this price range had moved offshore.’ ‘Well, no labor costs abroad. My dad says they just chain people to the sewing machines and throw them a little raw meat once in a while. Of course he’s a well-known pinko.’ But, as they went through the racks, they found that most of the Bette Mayer clothes, though a combination of cheap and shoddy, as well as impractical, were made in the USA. ‘How can they do it so cheap?’ Karen asked. ‘Beats me.’ Karen had been wrestling with the reality of the couture business since she opened her doors: the vastly expensive custom-made ensembles for the very rich are not the profit-making end of the business. It is hard to believe that a twelve-thousand-dollar evening gown in peau de soie is a money-loser. But it is usually true. The wealthy women who shopped for custom-made clothes actually cost the designers money. Karen was only going to make money the way the other designers did: by selling cheaper goods to the mass market. It seemed like one of those nasty ironies of life: it was the middle class that was soaked for profits and that actually underwrote haute couture. As Arnold’s daughter, Karen had never felt comfortable with the deal. But she loved her work. Now she looked at the shoddy clothes. ‘Who’s designing this shit?’ Karen asked rhetorically. ‘Well, I can see it ain’t you, baby. I wonder if Bette even looks at it? Even she isn’t this bad.’ Karen shrugged. There were fewer and fewer designers who understood how to cut. It was all about perfection of line and of material. The trick was to tame it but keep it alive. This stuff wasn’t just dead, it had never lived. God, she’d hate to have her name on something so disgusting. ‘What else does NormCo do?’ she asked. ‘Don’t they do Happening?’ ‘Yeah, I think so. Let’s go check it out.’ Happening was a fairly new line of jeans and casual wear. For two years it had flown out of the stores, then NormCo had bought it last season. They wandered around the sixth floor. Karen was starting to feel hungry, but it was way too early to think of lunch. Maybe brunch. That reminded her of Westport. ‘Hey, Dee …’ ‘Hey, yourself.’ ‘Want to come out to Westport for brunch this Sunday? Bring Tangela?’ ‘I was wondering when you’d get around to asking me out to see Jeffrey’s house. But to eat?’ She paused to consider. ‘Karen, I love you but you’re a cripple in the kitchen.’ Karen frowned. ‘Don’t mock the afflicted. Just say I’m culinarily impaired. Anyway, don’t worry. I’m bringing it all in from the city.’ ‘Honey, in that case, it’s definite.’ Defina gave Karen a big smile. It took them another ten minutes to find Happening and ten more to go through the racks. The news wasn’t good. ‘Well,’ Defina said, ‘what they lack in design they make up for with lousy goods. What’s happened to them?’ ‘NormCo?’ Karen asked. She knew that at the low end the basic rule of business was to try to do what the others in your price bracket were doing – only a little bit sooner, better, and cheaper. Happening had done it in the past but the line didn’t look like it was happening anymore. ‘Is it selling?’ Karen wondered aloud. ‘Let’s go ask a sales clerk.’ ‘If we can find one.’ Because Karen was becoming too well known she always hung back on this part of their forays. She got herself busy near the try-on room while Defina went in search of sales information. While Karen waited outside a fitting room a woman walked by with her four-year-old daughter. The woman picked up a cheap cotton knit top. ‘What do you think of this color, Maggie?’ the woman asked the little girl. ‘No!’ she said. Karen was surprised at the child’s vehemence. ‘I guess it’s not your color,’ Karen said to the little girl and smiled at the woman, who was dressed in a pair of Gap jeans and a nondescript turtleneck. The woman smiled back. ‘Oh, Maggie has always had really strong ideas about clothes,’ she said, and smiled down affectionately at her daughter. She took the child’s hand and the two of them walked away. Karen could see the crease of fat on Maggie’s arm at the elbow and the way her hair swung back and forth, neatly, as if it was cut from a single piece of cloth. From this angle Karen could just see a part of the child’s cheek, smooth as a plum and as delicious-looking. Karen, who never cried, was blinking back tears when Defina returned to make her report. ‘Flew out of the store last season, grew roots this one,’ she told Karen. ‘Oh, great. Let’s let NormCo ruin our product line.’ ‘You’re talking like you don’t have a choice. Do like Nancy Reagan said: “Just say no.’” Karen lifted her head to try and see the mother and daughter as they consulted over another possible purchase. ‘Nothing is that easy,’ she told Defina. They spent a couple more hours in the market and wound up having a late lunch at Mad 61, the other hot restaurant in the basement of Barney’s. Karen was depressed, and Defina, as always, sensed her mood. ‘Best shoes,’ Defina demanded. It was an old game that they had been playing for years. It needed no introduction. ‘Roger Vivier’s.’ Defina raised her head, paused only a moment, and nodded. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy, and they argued for days. ‘Best florist,’ Karen popped back. ‘Renny,’ Defina answered with a shrug, as if everyone knew that. ‘Best knock-offs.’ ‘For bags? Or dresses? Or what?’ ‘Gowns.’ ‘Victor Costa. Give me one that’s hard.’ ‘Bags.’ ‘José Suráez.’ Defina shook her head. ‘Those aren’t knock-offs. They don’t have the labels but they’re the exact same bag made by the same manufacturer. Except for Hermès.’ ‘They’re still knock-offs. If they don’t have the label, then they’re not originals.’ ‘If a tree falls in a forest …’ Karen had to smile. With her nonsense, Defina had lifted her mood. She didn’t even call Jeffrey to cancel, and she forgot – once again – to call Lisa. CHAPTER SEVEN (#ulink_d4eb1baf-bb5b-561c-b1e9-96b96f88bc26) Cut and Dried (#ulink_d4eb1baf-bb5b-561c-b1e9-96b96f88bc26) For weeks Karen’s already frantic life had been interrupted by the camera crew from Elle Halle’s show. Richard, the director, had told her to ignore them, to go on with life as she usually lived it. But of course that was impossible. For one thing, she had to worry about how she looked all the time they were around. What would it do for her image if she looked like ca-ca on toast? Karen knew that in person she had the energy and style to carry herself pretty well, but the camera was not her friend. Despite her talent and her energy, the camera wasn’t fooled. It simply reported the facts. Karen knew she wasn’t very pretty, that she wasn’t thin enough, and that she wasn’t young anymore. The camera reduced her to a minimum. This wasn’t paranoia: Janet had a whole shelf of scrapbooks with clippings and pictures in them and Karen didn’t look really good in any of them. But Jeffrey and Mercedes had insisted that KInc jump at the opportunity to be featured in one of Elle Halle’s classy, hour-long ‘Looks.’ And now, all that was left to complete ‘Elle Halle Looks at Karen Kahn’ was the interview with Elle Halle herself. Karen was dreading it. They were going to shoot it this afternoon and Karen felt as if she were going in for double root canal. Given the choice, she’d prefer the dental work. Because she had no illusions: despite her smile and her soft voice, Elle Halle liked to do extractions and she never used anesthetic. Her forte was getting hold of some decaying psyche part and tugging until her victim gave it up, showing the rotten root and all. Gently elicited confessions and tears were what spiced up an interview. Although Elle seemed empathic and warm to the television audience that loved her and loyally tuned her in, Karen had to wonder about a woman whose life work it was to expose the pain of another on national television. Karen had already met Elle twice. Both times the woman, tall, blonde, smooth, and commanding, had seemed pleasant. But that was what everyone said about Belle – if they didn’t know her. ‘Oh, come on,’ Mercedes said as Karen got ready to leave for the studio. ‘It’s not that bad.’ ‘Didn’t someone say that to Marie Antoinette right before the blade hit?’ Mercedes raised her eyebrows. ‘Have you talked to a doctor about this martyr issue?’ she asked dryly. She looked at her wristwatch. ‘Come on. Let’s go. You don’t want to piss these people off by being fashionably late.’ ‘Where’s Jeffrey?’ Karen asked as she picked up her coat. ‘He’s in with Casey and the financial guys.’ Mercedes raised her eyebrows. That must mean NormCo people. She paused. ‘He’s not going to come.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Karen felt her face go pale, the blood draining down to her heart, which began thumping uncomfortably. ‘He has to come,’ she said. ‘I can’t do this alone.’ ‘You’re not alone, Karen.’ Mercedes reminded her. ‘I’m coming with you.’ Karen didn’t bother to be polite. She shook her head. To manage this she needed someone she liked to be with her. ‘Defina,’ she said. ‘We have to get Defina.’ God, this would be too much to do alone. She couldn’t face the ordeal of selling herself, of being herself, and talking not about her clothes but about her life to twenty million people without some support. Why did people care about a designer’s personal life anyway? Didn’t her clothes speak for her? Janet looked up from her desk and smelled crisis in the air. ‘Defina hasn’t come in yet,’ she told her boss. Karen felt her hands begin to shake. She would go into Jeffrey’s office. She would stop the meeting. Whatever it was, this was more important. She couldn’t go over there, do this big deal, be examined under Elle Halle’s microscope, without knowing that Jeffrey was rooting for her. From the beginning, it was Jeffrey who had believed that there was not only more recognition due to her but also more money to be had in the recognition. He’d been a graduate student studying painting when she was at design school. She was so inexperienced, so very green. She’d never dated in high school – she’d gone to the prom with Carl. She’d been slow to mature. She hadn’t even gotten her period until she was fourteen! So of course Jeffrey had dazzled her. So much so that she had virtually followed him around, doing errands for him and picking his stuff up, a sort of human golden retriever to his elegant Afghan hound. And he was a hound. Jeffrey had liked her and had bedded her, but she had known there was no commitment there. He slept with a lot of girls at school. All the pretty ones, and Karen. Jeffrey had made it clear that she amused him and that they were friends, but there was nothing more forthcoming. Though she adored him, she was smart enough not to ever tell him so and she never expected anything more. Once she’d graduated, it was only through her efforts that they had kept in touch. He’d never called her, but he seemed pleased to hear from her. When she’d gotten out of school, she’d been lucky enough to snag a job working for Liz Rubin, who was a legend, the first woman sportswear designer to have her own Seventh Avenue company. Karen had started as just one of a half-dozen assistants, but within six months she’d been moved up to Liz’s special assistant. They worked together according to Liz’s hours: sometimes Karen would get a call at eleven-thirty at night and she and the tiny older woman would work until dawn. Karen suspected that sometimes Liz – like Karen’s idol, Coco Chanel – called not because she was inspired but because she was lonely. But if that were the case, the other woman had never opened up. Always distant, always authoritarian, always in control, Liz had taught Karen more in the sixteen months that they worked together than Karen had learned in all her years of design study. Soon only work and Liz made up Karen’s life. It was a busy time, and Karen wasn’t unhappy. Because, though Liz never spoke about her feelings for Karen, Karen felt they were there. Naturally, during that busy time, Karen had lost touch with Jeffrey. In fact, she’d lost touch with almost all her friends, except Carl. For her there had only been work. One of the reasons Liz had chosen her, Karen always believed, was because no matter what demands Liz put on her, Karen had never said no. She’d always been a hard and willing worker and, as her reward, Liz gave her more and more work to do. And she hadn’t minded that she got no credit. The idea of her own name on a label had simply not occurred to Karen. After all, she was only twenty-two. She just wanted to do her garments her own way. But that became the rub. Because after the first few months of working closely with Liz, Karen hadn’t been able to stop herself from voicing her opinions. Once she’d gotten over her awe of Liz Rubin, she’d said what she felt, and sometimes her opinions seemed to have gone right for the jugular. ‘That’s boring, Liz,’ she would say, and make a suggestion or sketch an alternative. They’d argue. Karen always figured Liz liked her because of her opinions. She’d been wrong. She remembered the last fight: it had been over button placement on a jacket. Liz, never one to hide her light under a bushel, had altered a design of Karen’s and screamed at her when Karen insisted that the buttons be again placed asymmetrically. ‘It’s just a gimmick,’ Liz had cried. ‘The jacket is a classic. At Liz Rubin, we do classics.’ Karen had looked at her fiercely. ‘Well, I do what’s right. And these buttons, on my jacket, have to slant across the front.’ Funny that a few buttons could cause so much trouble. They changed Karen’s whole life. Liz had fired her. Karen hadn’t been able to believe it. Because she knew she’d been right. To her it seemed simple – anyone should see it. Especially Liz. Karen just hadn’t thought of the politics and ego involved. She knew the news of her leaving would cause rejoicing among the other assistants, the ones she had bypassed. But it wasn’t just her pride that was hurt. Cold as she was, Liz Rubin had represented something more to Karen than just a job or a paycheck. Liz was like Karen and it was the first time that Karen had ever met anyone like that. Liz had shown her what she could be and it hurt Karen to be discarded that way. Karen had sat alone in her apartment crying for two days. She had no one to talk to, nothing to do. (There was a limit to how much she could lean on Carl.) She realized then that she had no life, aside from work. She called home, but Belle was no help and Lisa was still just a kid in school who worshiped her older sister. So, in desperation, Karen called Jeffrey, who was sharing a ratty, lower Broadway loft with Perry Silverman. (Jeffrey’s parents had offered him a pied-à-terre on Sutton Place but he felt it was too bourgeois.) Perry and Jeffrey invited her over and had taken her out, gotten her drunk, and comforted her. She was sure they probably also privately laughed at her naive misery. ‘It’s just a job,’ Jeffrey had said. And Karen had tried, despite a tongue made less articulate than ever by all the bourbon, to explain that it was more than that. ‘Why would she fire me?’ Karen cried over and over again. ‘Why?’ Jeffrey had listened and then had laughed. He laughed! But somehow, this comforted her. ‘She was jealous,’ he said, ‘because you were right. She does “classics.” You do originals. And you had the nerve to tell her.’ ‘Is that what I did?’ Karen had asked, amazed. ‘Of course,’ Jeffrey said, as if anyone would know that. As if Karen should have. ‘And she resented you for it,’ he added. ‘She used you, but she resented you.’ He put his arm around Karen while she cried some more on his shoulder. Then he took her to bed. After that night, Karen had not cried again. She spent more than a month looking for a job by day and sleeping with Jeffrey most nights. In some strange way, the loss of Liz was made up for by having Jeffrey in her life again. She told him each evening about her day’s adventures and interviews. She was thrilled when she at last got not one but two offers. She asked him which she should take, then she was shocked when he encouraged her to turn them both down. ‘C’mon,’ he told her, ‘you don’t want to be some no-name house designer. Look what you’ve done already. You did most of Liz Rubin’s fall line. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. You just need an opportunity to shine. You need someone to believe in you.’ It was then she had gotten the offer from Blithe Spirits to do her own line of sportswear. Moderate-priced, but a little higher-quality than most. It wasn’t Seventh Avenue, but it would have her name on it. Karen Lipsky for Blithe Spirits. Jeffrey’s advice had been right, and she’d gotten the chance because she’d listened to him. It was an unbelievable opportunity for a girl only two years out of school, but before she had a chance to jump at it, she’d gotten more good advice from Jeffrey. ‘Turn them down,’ he said. ‘Tell them that you’ve gotten an offer for twice as much money.’ ‘But I haven’t,’ she cried. Jeffrey had laughed. ‘So?’ ‘I should lie?’ she asked. Neither Belle nor Arnold had taught her that. But Jeffrey had nodded. ‘What if they find out I’m lying? What if they tell me to take the other job?’ ‘They won’t,’ Jeffrey laughed. And he ruffled her hair as if she were a puppy. ‘Try it tomorrow. You’ll see I’m right.’ And he was. She’d been petrified, as frightened then as she was of Elle Halle now. But she’d bluffed, hands wet with sweat. And, at last, she’d gotten the job at quadruple the pay she’d been making with Liz. She had, for the first time, more money than she had time to spend. Not that the money was so great, but she had no free time at all – she’d had an unbelievably hectic schedule putting a line together alone. Just when it was about to be shown, she’d called Jeffrey. They’d been seeing a lot less of each other because of her crazy work schedule. ‘Can I come over?’ she had asked, the way she always did. ‘I’m scared that the whole thing is a mistake. Can I stay overnight?’ The silence at the other end of the phone had been ominous. What was wrong? Something had changed. She’d been too busy with the work to have noticed anything before. ‘Karen,’ Jeffrey had told her gently. ‘You know how much I like you. But you have to know this: I’m engaged to be married.’ Devastated, she’d gone to Carl, of course. ‘I should have told him I loved him,’ she wept. ‘I should have kept calling.’ ‘No, you shouldn’t have. He’d have dropped you quicker. At least now you have your pride.’ ‘I don’t want my pride. I want Jeffrey!’ she’d wailed like a child. And so then Carl had explained everything about men, just the way Jeffrey had explained everything about work. ‘He likes you, Karen. Of course he likes you. You’re fun, you’re funny, you’re smart. And you’re sexy. I can tell, even though I’m gay. But the Jeffreys of the world are always going to pick beauty and class and clout over funny and smart. He comes from money. She comes from more money. You’re better, but June Jarrick is the niece of a senator. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way it is.’ She saw the announcement of their engagement in the Times. Even today, ready to go downstairs to get the limo to Elle’s studio, Karen could still remember the pain of that moment and the emptiness that followed. Her new line had been a huge success and had flown out of the stores. She’d gotten the first personal publicity she’d ever had in magazines and the fashion press. But she’d been miserable. This time work wasn’t enough. And other men were like ghosts compared to Jeffrey’s warm flesh. She got a calendar and obsessively crossed off each empty day until the black date of Jeffrey’s wedding. And then, out of nowhere, she’d gotten the call from Liz Rubin. ‘I want to see you, Karen,’ Liz had said. ‘Can you come over now?’ As always, Karen had. And she’d been shocked by Liz’s appearance. If she’d been thin before, she was skeletal now. Karen’s eyes had grown big, but she hadn’t said anything. Neither did Liz. She didn’t have to. ‘I saw your Blithe Spirits line. It was very good,’ she told Karen. It was the first and last praise Liz ever gave her. ‘Come back. Work here. I’ll need someone to take over. The doctors give me six months. I want you to do the spring collection.’ Other girls might have said no, but Karen had come back, and Liz had died on Mother’s Day that year. At twenty-five, Karen was the heiress to the throne. The press, always suckers for sentimental stories, had gone nuts over both the Liz Rubin Spring collection and Karen’s rags-to-riches story. She was called the ‘Crown Princess of Fashion.’ Carrie Donovan did a profile of her for the Times Magazine Section and she was on the cover of ‘W’. And even though her name wasn’t on the label, Karen didn’t mind because it was her homage to Liz. A memorial. Plus, the work had also saved her from thinking about Jeffrey. She had, instead, a couple of brief affairs but always knew how many months, weeks, and days until the big social wedding. She kept the clipping announcing the engagement. She often stared at the picture of June Jarrick. Perfect June, in her simple linen dress and her double strand of real pearls. From time to time, because she couldn’t resist, Karen had drinks with Perry, ostensibly for fun but really to pump him for news. ‘Leave it, Karen,’ Carl warned her, but she picked at the wound despite the pain. Jeffrey was set to marry in another six weeks when he had sent her a note and asked to meet. She knew she should say no, but she hadn’t, and they’d gone out for drinks. Drinks led to dinner, which led to more drinks, which led – inevitably – to bed. They’d always been good in bed. Karen hadn’t asked any questions. They’d spent the first night making love for hours. Jeffrey had clung to her like a drowning man and she had accepted his desperation as a tribute, of sorts. The next morning she’d left early, going to work without waking him or leaving a note. He’d called her at the office an hour later. It was the first time he’d called her. Karen wouldn’t let herself think about the fact that he was cheating on his fiancée with her, or that Jeffrey had earlier ‘cheated’ on her with his fiancée. She couldn’t think at all. She only felt that she couldn’t live without the comfort of his body and she knew without asking that he felt the same way. He came to her apartment every evening, sometimes as late as midnight, and she never questioned where he’d come from. She always let him in. She didn’t even tell Carl, because she knew he would go batshit on her. Twenty-one days before his wedding to June, Jeffrey asked Karen to marry him. ‘You’re going to be rich and famous,’ he said. ‘Karen Kahn sounds a lot better than Karen Lipsky.’ If it was an unromantic proposal, and if it came a little bit late, she comforted herself by thinking of it as fashionably late. Any guilt that she felt was smothered in the overwhelming tide of gladness. She had nothing to do with his predicament, she told herself, or the pain he was about to cause June. After all, she had known him and loved him long before. Karen had never asked Jeffrey what he had said to June or his family, but months later, when she was at last introduced to the Kahns, she felt the blame there. It didn’t go away when June married Perry on the rebound. If anything, it intensified. Still, she was so wrapped up in her joy of conquest, of her possession of him, that it didn’t matter. Jeffrey was and would always be her dream prince, her first love. When he told her that he was going to help her with her career, she was thrilled. When he created a business plan for her own company, she was touched. As a thirtieth birthday present he created her K logo. When he raised money to get her started, she was ecstatic, and when he told her he was giving up his own career to manage her business, she felt as if no one had loved her and taken care of her as he did. So she had left Liz Rubin and they had launched KInc at what appeared now, in retrospect, to be the perfect time: yuppies were in full flower and disposable income was boundless. In the closing years of the eighties, Karen had established herself and her name. Now that money was tighter and the consumer more demanding, discerning women still chose her because – expensive as she was – she gave good value. And all because of Jeffrey. She had never taken him for granted, just as she had never taken anything she had worked for and won for granted. This was her strength and her weakness. She always lived with the fear that she could lose it – the business, the money, the man. Now, at a moment when she could be consolidating everything, she felt more unsure than ever. Mercedes was staring at her. For all of her sophistication, Mercedes might as well have been singing ‘Baby, baby, stick your head in gravy.’ Mercedes licked her thin lips and turned to Janet. ‘We’ll send the car back for Jeffrey. Send him over as soon as he’s done.’ She turned to Karen. ‘It will take you an hour to get made up and miked. I’m sure he’ll be there by then.’ Karen nodded and moved down the hall, through the showroom and to the elevator, but her heart kept beating hard and she wished she could hide in the workroom with Mrs Cruz. Jesus, wasn’t this supposed to be the fun stuff? she asked herself. Then she thought of the photos – the pictures of herself that she had taken from Belle’s house. She would take them with her. Somehow, they seemed like a talisman. She would be safer if she had them with her. She ran back to her office, got them, and slipped them into her coat pocket. The studio was over on West Fifty-Seventh Street, where half a dozen talk shows originated. Karen was hustled down a long green hallway and met by Paul Swift, the producer of the segment. He, in turn, introduced her to an assistant who led her through a maze of rooms to the makeup artist. Karen had already done her makeup, but the tall redhead looked at her critically. ‘I think we should start over,’ she suggested blandly. ‘The lights will wash you out. I’m going to start with a darker base, then I’m going to shade your neck and throat, get rid of the puffiness, and narrow your nose a little.’ ‘Will it hurt?’ Karen asked. The girl didn’t laugh. The redhead tucked paper towels into Karen’s collar and threw a plastic smock over the rest of her. For a while she swabbed at Karen’s face in silence. Karen used the time to get even more nervous. What would Elle want to know? Would she ask about why Karen and Jeffrey were childless? Had she found out about the NormCo deal and would she blow their secrecy on national TV? God, had they found out about Dr Goldman? Did they know she was adopted? Would they talk to Belle or Lisa? So far they hadn’t contacted either one, at least as far as Karen knew. But maybe Elle would pull a ‘This Is Your Life.’ Karen’s heart began to beat much faster and she found it hard to breathe. What if Elle Halle had found out about her adoption? What if someone on their research team had discovered her real mother, living in poverty somewhere in the Pacific Northwest? Karen Kahn, the famous designer, and her mother in rags. Wasn’t that the kind of thing that made Elle the success she was? Karen couldn’t get any air deep into her lungs. She yawned. ‘Need a bag?’ the redhead makeup artist asked. ‘What?’ ‘You’re hyperventilating. Lots of people do it before the show. Need a bag? If you breathe into it you can balance your carbon dioxide. Or we can get you a Xanax. Amy Fisher had a panic attack right before she went on.’ What a comfort. Karen could’t decide if the woman was a moron or a sadist. ‘I’ll be all right,’ Karen told the girl, but she wasn’t so sure. The redhead had finished the base coat and Karen was painted an even orange. With her round cheeks and soft chin she looked a lot like a pumpkin. The redhead began painting brown stripes alongside her nose and under her chin, then blended them with a sponge. Karen closed her eyes. She decided she would kill Mercedes, then fire her. The girl pulled off the plastic smock at last and Karen looked into the big mirror. Actually, she didn’t look so bad. She looked rather technicolor, like herself only more so. ‘There you go,’ said the redhead. ‘Thanks,’ Karen said, and was about to compliment the job when the segment producer showed up again. He wanted her safely back in the green room. They were walking down the hall when a familiar short broad bulk approached. ‘Hey, Karen. Lookin’ good,’ Bobby Pillar said. ‘You ought to know. You own a network,’ Karen smiled. ‘But not this one. What are you doin’ here?’ ‘A little of this, a little of that. And maybe watching you. I have a feeling you’d just be a natural on television.’ ‘A natural disaster,’ Karen croaked. ‘I’m afraid I’m going to wet my pants.’ ‘So what if you do? That they’ll edit out,’ he laughed. ‘Why don’t we do lunch some time?’ he asked. ‘Sure,’ she said, but was relieved when her minder cleared his throat and gave her a not-so-gentle little push toward the green room. A technician came to her with a tiny mike on a thin black cord. ‘Could you snake this up your sweater?’ he asked. She nodded and pulled the end out of the turtleneck. ‘Now could you take this end and clip it somewhere?’ he asked. The lower end of the cord had a black box about the size of a Walkman attached to it. Karen wondered if it would spoil the line of her sweater. The sound man, meanwhile, was fiddling with the mike. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘this sweater collar is really going to make a problem for us. I think it will rub against the microphone. Could you put on something else? I could call wardrobe.’ She looked at him as if he was crazy. She had thought for weeks about what she was going to wear and had decided on this tunic and leggings as both comfortable and becoming. Now, at the last minute, he wanted her to put on something else? Something not designed by her? ‘Get Mercedes,’ she told the guy. She sat down on the Herculon-covered sofa that was the major piece in the green room. For some reason, green rooms, the holding pen for the talk show cattle, were never green. This one was beige, and the walls were smudged. Probably with the tears of other guests who went out there and ruined their lives, Karen thought. Then Mercedes walked in. She’d already been told the problem. ‘Defina’s on her way over,’ Mercedes told her in a don’t-you-dare-panic voice. ‘She’s bringing a few pieces so you can choose whatever you want.’ It took twenty minutes, but Karen saw Defina’s face behind the rack of stuff being pushed into the room and took the first deep breath she had taken – for what seemed like hours. ‘Starting another fire?’ Defina asked. ‘Never fear.’ She plucked a taupe jacket off the wheeled rack. ‘The producer says this will only be shot from the waist up. You can leave on the leggings, so how about this? Or, if you want to go real casual, how about this boatneck sweater?’ Karen turned to Mercedes. ‘Which would work better?’ she asked. ‘You won’t see the mike if you wear the jacket but I like the casualness of the sweater better.’ ‘Me, too,’ Defina agreed. Karen nodded. She peeled off the turtleneck and reached out for the sweater. Defina shook her head. ‘You need another quart of makeup, pale face,’ she said, pointing to the line that ended halfway down Karen’s neck. This time the redhead came to Karen. So did the producer and the director. Apparently they were behind schedule. ‘Elle is waiting,’ Paul Swift whined, and the redhead slapped the makeup on faster. At last, Karen was ready for her clothes. Carefully, Defina and Mercedes lowered the sweater over her painted shoulders. Then they snaked up the mike and this time it was clipped easily. It felt pretty comfortable, but Karen felt a little bulge just below the elbow seam. She reached up and closed her hand over something. It was a sachet or something like it, pinned on with a gold safety pin. ‘Leave it,’ Defina told her. ‘Madame Renault sent it. It’ll help.’ And, for once, Karen felt she needed all the help she could get. What the hell, she told herself. Was the magic of Madame Renault any more superstitious than her own magic photographs? ‘So what do you think clothes should do for a woman?’ Elle was asking. ‘They should complement her, and they should be comfortable. And they should protect her,’ Karen said. She’d gotten used to the lights and felt as if she had managed to be both entertaining and sincere. Elle Halle moved in a little closer, crouching forward on her elegant white wing chair. ‘Who do you feel deserves success in the fashion world?’ ‘Well, I think it comes to those who best reconcile a woman’s external reality with her internal dream.’ Karen wondered if she sounded pretentious. It was what she believed. ‘So what do you think about the clothes by Christian Lacroix? Or some of the other designers of excess?’ Lacroix was the first new French couturier to set up shop in twenty years. After a couple of seasons of huge publicity, he’d sunk in acclaim. The word was his backers had lost millions. This was one of the pitfalls that Karen had been afraid of. She knew Elle was hoping she would rip into some of the other designers. If Karen took the bait, she’d create a lot of bad feeling. If she didn’t, she’d look like a goodie-goodie, and maybe commit the greatest television sin of all: she’d bore her audience. Now she looked over at Elle. The woman was perfectly groomed. She was wearing an Ungaro. Her hair was a smooth helmet of dozens of blonde-colored strands. Not one was out of place, but Karen had noticed there were two people who ministered to the helmet every time there was even the slightest pause in taping. Karen also couldn’t help but notice that no one had fixed her own hair since she had sat down. She wondered if her scalp was sweating from the lights, and if her hair was lank. ‘I think diversity is wonderful,’ Karen said. ‘I think men and women should have all the choices they want. But for me, I don’t want to dress in a costume, no matter how lovely.’ That should take care of Lacroix et al. ‘So, are you calling Lacroix a costume-maker?’ Elle asked brightly. She hadn’t let Karen slip away gracefully. No, Karen thought. I’m calling you a bitch. But she kept her face friendly. In fact, she laughed. ‘Wait a minute,’ she said. ‘You’re the one who said that.’ Where had that come from? She’d turned things around neatly. Karen felt the little sachet bump against her elbow. Thank you, Madame Renault. ‘There’s a lot of stealing that goes on in your business, isn’t there? For instance, a lot of people say that when you look at Norris Cleveland’s designs this year, you’re looking at Karen Kahn’s from last year. How do you feel about that?’ Karen laughed uncomfortably. ‘You know what people also say? That there’s nothing new under the sun. We all get our inspiration from all over. If I’ve inspired anything I feel flattered if it’s well done and depressed if it isn’t. Norrell was a great designer, and he said he just reinterpreted Chanel for his whole career.’ Elle dropped the line of questioning, but immediately screwed that look of concern onto her face that the audience knew meant a real killer was coming. Karen braced herself. ‘Women like you because you represent success in business. You have done so well in a man’s world. So how do you think your husband feels, being second-in-command?’ Elle asked. ‘Has it made problems in your marriage? It isn’t easy for any man to take a back seat to his wife, and your husband is, if I may say, a very dynamic guy.’ Jesus Christ! What had Jeffrey said in his interview? ‘Jeffrey doesn’t take a back seat to me,’ Karen said. ‘He’s in charge of all the business decisions. He’s always been the driving force behind me.’ ‘So, you agree that he’s behind, rather than leading the way. That you’re the creative one.’ ‘No. That’s not what I said.’ Exasperated, Karen looked away from the camera, away from Elle. ‘We don’t have a competitive relationship,’ she said. ‘We complement each other. I structure the clothes. He structures our company. We both create.’ ‘But you got the Oakley Award,’ Elle said sweetly. ‘Yes, and Jeffrey was very proud.’ ‘That’s very modern,’ Elle said. ‘Does he mind that you have controlling interest in the company? You do own the vast majority of the stock?’ Holy shit! Where did that come from? Surely Jeffrey hadn’t mentioned that. And the company was privately held, so how had Elle’s researchers dug that up? If Karen denied it, she’d be lying, and if she confirmed it, wouldn’t she be humiliating Jeffrey? Karen felt the seconds stretch out. She had to say something. ‘I don’t have a vast majority,’ she said. ‘Both of us are happy with the way our business has developed,’ she added. ‘Don’t you think we ought to be?’ Elle didn’t answer. ‘Would you ever sell it?’ she asked. Karen took a deep breath. ‘I can’t see it happening,’ she said. ‘But I suppose that anything is possible.’ Karen felt sweat beading on her upper lip. She wished they could take a break, that she could get a glass of water and ask Defina how she was doing. She wondered if Jeffrey was there, behind the lights or in the green room. Was he groaning over her responses? Was she allowed to interrupt so she could regroup? It wasn’t necessary. Because just then Elle reached over and touched Karen’s hand. ‘Thank you so much for coming here today,’ Elle said. As Karen opened her mouth to say, ‘You’re welcome,’ Elle had already tossed her perfect head and turned to look past the lights to the director. ‘Do we need any reaction shots?’ she asked the darkness, and Karen sat and waited for the answer. It was over at last, and Karen expected to feel a swell of relief. She’d gotten through it, come off pretty well, and hadn’t been confronted with anything scandalous or shameful. Elle hadn’t paraded her real mother in front of her. It was strange, then, that she felt disappointed. CHAPTER EIGHT (#ulink_7f53759b-1c6a-5deb-93ff-618a9b367ec2) Everyone Has One (#ulink_7f53759b-1c6a-5deb-93ff-618a9b367ec2) Karen didn’t like the country. When she was going on seven years old her mother and father thought it best to get her out of Brooklyn for the summer. They rented a bungalow in Freehold, New Jersey. Belle was heavily pregnant with Lisa and the city heat was too much for her. But so was the Jersey heat, and because of it Belle spent her days enervated, lying on a webbed plastic and aluminum folding chaise. Karen had spent their first few hot summer days alone, wandering the country lanes. When she found a bank along the roadside where wild strawberries grew, she had picked and eaten dozens of them without noticing they grew amidst poison ivy. Who knew from poison ivy in Brooklyn? She’d come down with a terrible case – all over her hands, her face, and the inside of her mouth. It had been torture. She spent two weeks in bed while Belle slapped calamine lotion on her and yelled every time Karen scratched herself. ‘You’ll get scars!’ Belle warned. As it happened, Karen’s only scars from the experience were emotional: she still saw the country as truly dangerous. City danger was visible and largely avoidable – cross the street to prevent problems with an approaching gang of pubescent boys, avoid both cats and men nicknamed ‘Slasher,’ and don’t get into taxis driven by Asians. But in the country, danger lurked in even the most innocent-looking flowers. The woods were filled with men with guns, rabid animals, dangerous ankle-breaking sinkholes, and worse. People could disappear into the woods and never be heard from again. That was one of the reasons why Karen was unenthusiastic when Jeffrey had proposed building the house in the country. Of course, Westport, Connecticut, was hardly the country – it was more like an extension of New York’s Upper East Side with lawns. Karen didn’t need it. With all the trouble she had with her work schedule and in keeping their New York household organized, she felt that another domestic responsibility was not at the top of her hit parade. But when Jeffrey had been insistent, she’d agreed to make a Real Deal: they kept the New York apartment instead of upgrading to a better address, but they built the house in Westport. She had to admit that it was actually a beautiful house. And Jeffrey had done it all. Valentino had his interiors done by Peter Marino. Versace used the Italian Mongiardino. Yves Saint Laurent had Jacques Grange and Oscar de la Renta used three: Fourcade, Despont, and that American doyenne Sister Parrish. So you had to give Jeffrey credit. Artificially weathered to a dove-soft gray, it was one of those modern shingled jobs that had all the charm of an old house with all the conveniences of a new one. It was Jeffrey’s masterpiece. It sat well back from the road, shaded by two enormous maple trees, and the back had six hundred feet of river frontage. Karen had to admit that the spacious white rooms with the oversized furniture (all with white linen slipcovers) were spectacular, but she didn’t revel in the place the way Jeffrey did. He had suggested that Elle Halle’s film crew come up and tape them walking there among the trees. That had been a few weeks ago, and Karen had ruined a pair of boots schlepping along the muddy river edge. If God had meant people to walk in the country, he would have made sidewalks. But what else but walking was there to do in the country? No movies, no shopping, no taxis, and you had to drive for miles to get anywhere. Somehow, sitting on the fieldstone terrace and slapping at mosquitoes wasn’t Karen’s idea of heaven. And who needed five bedrooms and four baths? Especially now, when they’d never be filled with children. Ernesta refused to make the trip out to Westport, so on the weekends when Karen was there she depended on help from a local housekeeper. But Mrs Frampton was almost more trouble than she was worth. Karen had to explain everything to her so often and in such detail she simply found it easier to do most of it herself. This morning, a sunny Sunday, she was trying to get the woman to help her organize the brunch. Brunch was the only meal that Karen trusted herself with when she was entertaining people. She’d never have people over for dinner without a caterer or Ernesta’s help. But brunch was relatively easy – a few bagels, some fruits and cheeses from Stew Leonard’s, a little smoked fish brought up from the city, and she was home free. Even Jeffrey, a stickler for those kinds of details, admired her brunches. Today, however, it wasn’t coming together, but then, nothing had this weekend. Jeffrey had been insistent on making her go over all the stats again and again with Robert-the-lawyer laboriously reviewing the endless financials for the NormCo meeting. It wasn’t until Saturday night, when they were expected for dinner at some friends in Weston, that she had felt even close to human. She’d put on the new brown faille tunic she was experimenting with and a pair of darker brown knit linen leggings. Very medieval. She was always conscious of what she wore on evenings out. People expected her to dress well, and even though she’d like to live in sweat pants, she had to oblige. So she strove to come up with weekend wear that looked great but felt as comfy as sweats. And she did look great. Jeffrey had – as always – looked ravishing, his gray tweed linen Armani jacket setting off his hair perfectly. And he told half a dozen funny stories over dinner. She had remembered why she loved him. They came back to the house and the warming effects of a bottle of Bordeaux had helped them begin lovemaking, though it had prevented Jeffrey from finishing. This morning the glow had faded and Karen was faced with the reality of more than a dozen guests and their imminent arrival. She had brought bagels from H & H and Ernesta had prepared and wrapped two trays of Nova and assorted cream cheeses from Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King. The stuff cost a fortune; sometimes all the money that she made and spent made Karen feel guilty. (She coped by donating a lot to charities and by rationalizing how her spending helped the economy. Jeffrey called her ‘a conscience with a Gold Card.’) The sides of the sliver-thin salmon already looked hard and darkened and Karen wondered if the twenty-nine-dollar-a-pound lox would be tough. It looked like pink leather. Oh well. ‘Mrs Frampton, have you sliced the bagels?’ ‘No, Mrs Kahn.’ The woman didn’t make a move. ‘Well, could you slice them now?’ Karen asked. She never knew if Mrs Frampton was passive-aggressive or simply stupid. And she didn’t know which was worse. Of course, it could simply be hostility: after all, Karen was a New York weekender with lots of money while Mrs Frampton had lived in this town all her life and had next to none. Mrs Frampton’s son was a local cop who lived with his parents plus his wife and two kids because he couldn’t afford to buy a house in Westport. Between her church friends, other cleaning women, and the gossip she got from her son, Mrs Frampton knew everything that happened in the whole township. And probably told everything she knew about Karen to anyone who’d listen. That was another reason why Karen hated the country. She was a native New Yorker and she looked with contempt at the out-of-towners, both the tourists and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. They didn’t know where to buy good Nova, or the best bagels, or where they could get their down comforter refurbished. They couldn’t have played ‘the best’ game with Defina. They were interlopers. Here she was an interloper, and people like Mrs Frampton, George Hazen who cut the lawn, and Bill Mackley at the hardware store made her feel like a stranger in a strange land. She assumed they were anti-Semites and doubted their good intentions. But Jeffrey loved them. He called her paranoid and them ‘salt of the earth.’ He spent hours bullshitting with the locals: go figure. Karen surveyed the living room making sure all was ready. It was an enormous space with a beamed barn-like ceiling. Aside from the two groupings of sofas and chairs, there was only a big glass dining table surrounded by a dozen bleached Windsor chairs. On the wail behind the sofas and the dining table hung a triptych in soft, almost no-color colors painted by Jeffrey’s old roommate, Perry Silverman. The only other hues in the room came from the two magnificent Kerman rugs on the floor. They were all in the softest tints. Because they were silk mixed with wool, the colors changed as you walked on them and moved the nap. There was nothing in the house that Karen loved except for the Silverman painting and the rugs. The painting had been a wedding gift, but the rugs had cost her way over thirty thousand dollars each – and that was wholesale, through a decorator friend of Carl’s. But they were worth every penny to her. They made the room. Mrs Frampton had finished with the bagels and stood, blankly, beside the counter. ‘Could you put those on a platter?’ Karen asked. ‘I think the blue oval one would be best.’ Mrs Frampton nodded and crouched before the kitchen cabinets searching for the tray. The kitchen was a kind of haute-suburban fantasy: there were dozens of cabinets, all white wood and glass-fronted (which meant that everything inside them had to be meticulously arranged). There was a triple porcelain sink, complete with not only two porcelain faucets and a spray attachment but also an instant hot water faucet and a pump to dispense detergent. There was a dishwasher with a front that looked like the rest of the wooden cabinets and a Subzero refrigerator large enough to hold a side of beef. It was also decked out to continue the cottage look. In the few months they’d been in the house, Karen had yet to turn on the oven and had only used the halogen Corning stovetop to heat water for her tea. That reminded her. ‘Have you started the coffee?’ she asked Mrs Frampton. ‘No, Mrs Kahn.’ ‘Well, could you start it now? Fill it to the brim. We’ll need at least twelve cups. And when you see it getting low, could you make another potful? And could you grind fresh beans? Jeffrey likes the hazelnut blend.’ She left Mrs Frampton in the kitchen coping with the scream of the electric coffee grinder and carried the platter with the toughening lox out to the buffet. Meanwhile, the florist had delivered an absolutely impossible arrangement – it was rubrum lilies and tuberoses. She must have been showering when it came. Karen rolled her eyes. Only in the suburbs. Already the room smelled like a funeral parlor. No one would be able to eat with that perfume! Oh God. She put her hand to her forehead and rubbed both her temples. All she wanted was to throw a nice little party, to get through the morning and early afternoon without hurt feelings, without an argument, and with a little bit of fun. This was a kind of obligatory gathering, but weren’t they all? Belle had reminded her more than once that she hadn’t entertained her family or Jeffrey’s in months, so she was paying off all her social debts in one swell foop. Guilt, Karen figured, was definitely hereditary – you got it from your mother. The erstwhile occasion was her niece’s upcoming bat mitzvah, but this was also a way to see all the family and friends she and Jeffrey were too busy to see very often. Still, even if she had been busy, she loved both her nieces and she wanted Tiff, especially, to feel special. She also wanted everyone to get along. Stephanie would be meeting Tangela outside of work for the first time and she hoped the two of them might like one another. And if she wasn’t going to have or adopt children, and this was the only family she would get, she hoped that for once Belle would get along with Sylvia, Jeffrey’s mom, and that she, Karen, wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with Jeffrey’s two sisters. Yeah. Don’t bet the farm. She lifted the vase of heavily scented flowers and carried them out the back door. The grass was almost up to her calves: they’d fought the lawn and the lawn won. Jeffrey thought it looked more natural and less suburban this way, but Karen knew their neighbors did not approve. She looked around her. White lilacs grew alongside of the slate terrace, and if she denuded the garden, she could replace the offensive blooms in the flower arrangement with the milder lilacs. They wouldn’t give any color to the room but at least they wouldn’t make anyone nauseous. Karen walked to the side door of the garden shed, found secateurs, and quickly cut two dozen branches of flowers. She did the best she could in pulling out the seventy bucks’ worth of lilies and rearranging the greens and the lilacs. They looked boring – really second rate. Then she noticed a couple of dead branches on the bushes next to the forsythia. She cut them off and added them to the arrangement. They gave the flowers a kind of off-center balance, a starkness of death to contrast the rich pearly droop of the lilac bunches. She brought the vase into the dining room just in time to hear the front doorbell ring. Jeffrey had put a Mozart CD on – he always preferred classical music on the weekends, although she’d rather listen to the Spin Doctors, or even old Stones tapes – and apparently Jeffrey couldn’t hear the chimes. Karen hustled to the front door. Defina stood there, holding a foil-covered dish, accompanied by Tangela. ‘Well, I’m glad it’s you,’ Karen said with relief. ‘I could use some help and I’m not ready for criticism yet.’ ‘Baby, I’m glad it’s you. I swear, if we had knocked on another door by mistake, we would have been arrested, or maybe sent to the back entrance. Are black folk allowed in this town?’ ‘If they can afford it,’ Jeffrey said dryly and walked down the rest of the stairs into the foyer. Karen could tell he was already annoyed – he hated entertaining the family. Oh, great. So much for their rapprochement. ‘Let me help you with your coats,’ Karen took the dish out of Defina’s hands while the woman shrugged out of her full-length Luneraine mink. Karen didn’t like to touch it. She never wore furs, but she knew the coat was Defina’s pride. It was a bit too late in the season for fur, but hey, who’d complain? Tangela was also wearing a floor-length milk – Defina’s old white coat – and Karen had to admit that on her it looked good. ‘I didn’t know what you were serving but I thought cornbread goes with everything!’ ‘I’ve never tried it with pickled herring, but it could just be the next culinary craze,’ Karen told her. ‘Minsk soul food.’ ‘I said not to bring it,’ Tangela complained, ‘but she don’t listen. Everything has to be her way.’ Tangela turned to Jeffrey, who helped her with her coat, and gave him not only a big smile but raised eyebrows and a come-hither look to boot. ‘Thank you,’ she breathed. Jeffrey raised his own brows, shot a look to Karen, and disappeared to hang the coats. Defina followed Karen into the kitchen. ‘What can I do?’ she asked. ‘Find yourself a seat,’ Karen said, ‘I’m just going to pop these croissants and the pain au chocolat into the oven.’ She laid out a dozen flaky crescents on the cookie tin and slid them into the stove. Was Mrs Frampton eyeing Defina with disapproval or was that her imagination? There was a knock from the brass doorknocker and Jeffrey led in Perry Silverman. Perry was still Jeffrey’s best friend – one of the few that Karen sincerely liked. Perry, unlike Jeffrey, was still a painter, and if his career lately wasn’t brilliant, his paintings were – or had been. He was successful enough to still own the SoHo loft he and Jeffrey had once shared, paint full-time, and get a show mounted every couple of years. Karen had invited him for a lot of reasons, one of which was guilt. Perry’s nine-year-old daughter Lottie had come down with a particularly virulent strain of leukemia and wasted away quickly, despite state-of-the-art treatment at Sloan Kettering. Since then, Perry’s marriage to June, his wife of eleven years, had failed. Perry was a mess – just recently he’d canceled his last one-man show. Aside from poker with Jeffrey, Perry seemed to go nowhere and do nothing. Karen felt honor-bound to invite him, but she was surprised he’d accepted. Perry kissed both her cheeks – not the New York social air-kiss but real smackers. She hugged him. ‘Mmm, feels good,’ he said. Then he greeted Defina and Tangela and looked around. He shook his head. ‘Connecticut,’ he said grimly, ‘where the charm is strictly enforced.’ ‘Along with the racial segregation,’ Defina cracked. Karen rolled her eyes. Great. The two of them could bond in their negativity. And simultaneously piss Jeffrey off. Swell start to the brunch. ‘Come on, let me show you the house,’ Karen said. They walked through the swinging kitchen doors into the living room. ‘Mother of God!’ Defina exclaimed. ‘It’s as big as a church.’ ‘Mother,’ Tangela whined, correctively. Tangela looked at Jeffrey, who was already playing bartender, handing her a goblet of orange juice. ‘I think it’s beautiful,’ she simpered. Jeffrey ignored her. ‘What are you drinking, Defina?’ he asked briskly. The doorbell chimed and Karen went to get it. Sylvia and Jeffrey’s two sisters stood outside. Since Jeffrey’s father had died, Sylvia spent most of her time with Sooky and Buff, her two married daughters. Sooky – Susan – was married to Robert, an attorney who handled KInc’s legal work, but Buff – Barbara – was divorced from her Robert, an investment banker. Both sisters were the kind of wealthy Jewish girls who had made Karen feel insecure all during high school. They were smart, verbal, and caustic and neither one of them ever let herself outgrow her size-six wardrobe. Sylvia had a new hairstyle. It was now more white than anything else, but there was still some pepper-and-salt, like Jeffrey’s. It looked simple and chic. Her mother-in-law was wearing a Sonia Rykiel sweater outfit. Sylvia was one of the ‘Sisters of Sonia’ cult and had been buying seriously from Rykiel for years. And Karen knew that when a wealthy woman did that she was not simply buying clothes but defining herself and her stake in a society that wore them. Karen didn’t know if she should take it as an insult that Sylvia never wore her designs, or if Sylvia simply didn’t think about things like that. But she suspected Sylvia did. ‘Come in,’ she said with the best smile she could manage, and the three women, followed by Robert-the-lawyer, did. Robert-the-lawyer himself specialized in acquisitions, but his firm had represented June in her and Perry’s divorce. June had come from some big family money and Robert-the-lawyer’s firm had made sure she kept it. Not that Perry seemed to have been particularly interested in it: he had taken Lottie’s death even harder than June. He didn’t seem to have any interests right now. Karen had been afraid he might feel ill-will toward Robert, but he just looked up at the arriving group and managed a nod. He’d known them all since he was roommates with Jeffrey at school. Belle arrived late, with an excuse from Karen’s father and a long story about how he almost came with her but then canceled, about how he changed his mind and was going to come later. It made Karen tired to hear even a part of it. Before Belle was done, Lisa, Leonard, and the girls arrived and the party was complete. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/olivia-goldsmith/fashionably-late/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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