A perfect Sunday brunch always starts like this: Betty and I sip frothy cocoa lattes to soften Saturday night’s hangover; then we set the tables in the crisp early morning stillness. Madeleine Peyroux serenades our slow shuffles. Sun beams flush the copper top bar until it gleams terracotta pink. Over French toast so fluffy you want to kiss it before you fork it, Betty and I plan her pending nuptials. Then we toast each other with not so virgin mimosas and let the ultimate family meal for all the orphans of The City begin.
Sonny is our first customer and the patriarch of our invented family. He welcomes the morning with a champagne cocktail garnished with a maple spun lolly. He always saves the lolly for me, lets me dive bomb it into his champagne before I munch it to shards while he dishes about his latest and greatest. No subject is off limits for Sonny: he’d just as soon tell me about the Swedish exchange student he bedded on a ripe Upper West Side afternoon as brag about the four years he spent in a federal penitentiary for drug smuggling following seven years on the lam. A DEA officer had recognized him in the background of a Bud Light commercial. At 74, he doesn’t waste a moment of living. When Betty shows him her ring, he bows with a flourish to kiss her hand in congratulations and orders a round of champagne, which she scampers off to get.
“I don’t know why you haven’t found someone who loves you and will stay,” his eyes are as soft as his voice. In Sonny’s world, everything is preciously evanescent.
“I hope that’s not the theme of your toast,” I say as Betty returns with our glasses.
“To Betty. May Piotr always love you in the way you want.” A hint of regret tinges Sonny’s eyes as he lifts his glass. I wonder whom he didn’t know how to love that mattered.
Sonny’s date shows at his second champagne and at first she is not what I expect. On the surface she is as restrained as he is resplendent. Emily Post posture, impeccable table manner, tiny bites of food she chews slowly and delicately. Then, in the middle of an intimate conversation over an indolent spread of eggs benedict with potato rossi and spaghetti carbonara chunked with pancetta and fresh cracked black pepper, Sonny makes her laugh and I get it. Her laughter ruptures out of her tiny mouth the way a sudden storm shakes a summer sky. By the time I bring the citrusy-creamy key lime pie, Sonny has swung his chair around and they are sitting conjoined at the shoulders, elbows, hips, and thighs. I no longer see both Sonny’s hands above the table. I tell Betty that I hope they are in just her lap.
The witches come in after mass, about 1:30. They are a group of four men whose friendship makes the Sex and the City girls look like casual acquaintances. My family and I are not half as close. Eric, the most congenial of the group, has a husband, Dan, whom the rest of the group doesn’t really like. They blame him for taking Eric away from them. They view Eric and Dan’s move to a house in Darien as the ultimate New York betrayal. Dan is rarely invited to brunch, which is too bad because I really like Dan. Anyone can see how much he cares for Eric.
They like to drink, which is convenient because we specialize in eclectic bloodys – frosty glasses of brick orange red juice spiked with tequila or lemon-infused vodka, and garnished with skewers of pickled root vegetables or fluffy fresh jumbo shrimp. They play a game called “The Days of Our Lives” where they recount one another’s humiliating episodes from their fifteen year old friendship. The last one to remember the round-robin recounted event drinks. I can’t imagine myself ever playing that game. Today is Rodney’s (head witch) birthday and the winning remembrance involves a man-sized chicken costume (Eric’s) and a tennis tournament. Betty calls it from the sidelines (I have to drink). Sometimes it turns ugly, usually in direct proportion to the number of empty glasses on the table. By 3:30 they canter out in a conga line with minimal bloodshed.
Betty’s ring catches the light as we break down the bar. I wish I could have designed it. I am a jeweler getting ready to launch my own line. I like making pieces that wrap to hug the wearer. Right now, I am in a Victorian revival snake phase as evidenced by the inch think brass serpent encircling my clavicle, its raw cut emerald eye seeing everything and nothing at all.
“Oh Betty,” I whine in a hybrid cartoon muppet voice. “Why do old people act so funny after they drink this smelly stuff?” I am Betty’s self-appointed child simulator. During downtime, I like to pretend I am a five year old that can’t make sense of the world around her. I ask Betty annoying questions to build up her patience for when real motherhood sets in.
“Because they drink too much.”
“Why?” cartoon muppet voice asks.
“Because it feels good.”
“Why?” cartoon muppet voice whines.
“Because they want to forget.”
“Why?” cartoon muppet voice demands.
“Why don’t you want to have children?” Betty’s threshold for annoyance is low at the moment.
“Because I want to forget. Maybe I should drink something smelly.”
It’s mid-afternoon by the time all the Rydel glasses have been hand washed with minimal breakage (oops) and polished to crystal perfection, and Betty and I step out into the refracted afternoon sunlight and head north on Avenue A. I suggest we pass by a certain designer dress shop known for its eclectic tie-dye and batik techniques on vintage lingerie-inspired patterns to get some ideas for her wedding dress. If I were going to get married, it is definitely the place I’d get my dress.
The trash-mosaic sidewalk of Avenue A reminds me of the plank leading to Noah’s Ark. There are couples blocking through traffic everywhere. A rail skinny man walks with his arm around a cherub shaped gossamer woman; two equally breath taking Abercrombie and Fitch types prance with their fingers hooked through each other’s artisanal faded denim belt loops; a JFK Jr. doppelganger leads a small acne-scarred Korean woman in an almost half nelson. I grab Betty’s hand and swing away whistling the Seven Dwarfs’ work song.
The dress shop is a feast of color and Betty and I forget about each other’s existence as soon as we enter. Shiny satins in sunbursts of yellow-orange, lace edged sky blue or sea foam green silks, sheer periwinkle and raspberry swirl chiffons begged to be petted, coveted, and hard won before being taken home to reign over the lesser dresses of the closet. Maureen, the designer and a former Cuddle Soft Soap girl who gave up modeling after watching the drug fueled antics of housemate Janice Dickensen, calls us “girls” before she invites us for green tea in the back of the showroom. I sink into the cloudy softness of a Monet inspired hand painted papasan chair while Maureen heaps dress upon dress into Betty’s outstretched arms. I can’t see the top of her head by the time she derelict staggers into the dressing room.
Maureen notices the gold Etruscan revival vine encircling my ring finger. It is the first piece I ever completed and I never take it off. “Are you married?” She asks.
“No,” I say. Have I answered too brightly or not brightly enough?
“Don’t worry. You girls today. Your time will come.”
I give my best yes/no nod and go find Betty behind the violet velvet curtain.
A kaleidoscope of color later, we head to Billyburg on the hipster packed L train. I always surf the train – refuse to hold on to the poles for balance – ever since I saw an of-the-moment reality tv star pick a watery booger from her right nostril and wipe it on a train pole. Betty sits but refuses to let her head rest on the seatback because she’s afraid of catching lice.
“Still surfing trains?” The timbre of his voice conjures blueberry pancakes on Jane Street. Me in a borrowed Black Sabbath tee shirt sitting cross-legged in an electric yellow bean bag chair, he bare-chested mixing languid batter. I momentarily lose my balance.
“Easy.” He rights me from behind, lets his hand linger on the bowl of my back.
“Hey Gorgeous,” like I‘ve spoken to him even once in the last year. “Are you still in that place on Wyeth? I’ve rung your bell a few times.”
This is news. You broke me Lila, is what he had said as he walked out of my life. As if the gravitas of me were more than he could bear.
“No, I’m farther south. More studio space.” The subway tunnel stretching under the East River seems endless.
“One of yours?” He presses his finger into the soft hollow below my throat as he lifts the serpent’s head away from my collarbone. An oxidized silver Etruscan vine snuggles his wrist. “Mine too.”
“I know you know. Do you have time for a drink?”
I shake my head as the train pulls into the Bedford station. I learned a long time ago to keep moving forward.
“Who was that?” Betty asks as we dodge a rat on the subway steps.
I choose not to hear her above the indie buskers on the platform.
Street level in Billyburg, Betty and I head to the Fleas. Betty revels in the open-air club-like atmosphere; I like scouring the junk tables for buried treasure. Anything Victorian and blue catches my eye. I always think I’ll find that perfect something-something, and then I’ll never want anything ever again which explains my near zero bank balance.
When I was little I had a dress for my second-hand Suntan Barbie doll that was sunset orange with robin’s egg blue and thistle pink flowers. I loved that blue so much I wanted to swallow it whole or marry it. Instead, I cut the biggest blue flower out of the dress thinking I could string it and wear it as a necklace always. But in my impatience, I cut it with cuticle scissors. The petals came out jagged and misshapen, and the cheap, synthetic fabric frayed into discarded threads.
My skin still smoulders where Pancakes on Jane Street touched it, and the serpent collar feels tight so I pull it off. A woman with multiple brow, nose, and lip piercings calls me over to her stand. I wonder what kind of pain she must have felt to make her do that to her face.
“You trading?” she indicates the snake.
“I might be,” but I am already peering at her wares, my nose to her glass.
My mom used to drive like that. Hunched up over the steering wheel close to the windshield. Like she couldn’t see where she was going no matter where she went. She would always threaten to run away, to get into her car and “drive, drive, drive and you kids will never hear from me again.” All her life, she has never gone anywhere.
“What about this? It matches your eyes.” She holds up a blue enamel square inlaid with seed pearls and sparkling pink paste. “It’s Edwardian. There are a few flaws in the enamel and some wear along the edges.”
“That’s ok. I have a few flaws and some wear around my edges. Let’s see it. Is it a pendant?”
“No. It’s a pillbox.”
My mom also used to threaten to kill herself. Usually on New Year’s Eve. After a spoilt dinner where she had threatened to drive. She’d cry and take to her bed and I’d count pills in bottles in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Don’t know why I figured she’d use pills. Maybe because pills seem noncommittal. There’s always a chance to change your mind.
That bathroom had petal-pink double sinks backed onto a mirrored wall. My sister and I used to stand in front of that mirror and compare tan lines, one young girl per sink staring at the other’s reflection and wondering how she measured up. On New Year’s Day morning, I’d recount the pills, find none missing, and go downstairs to set the table and start breakfast. My sister would shake her head and ask me why I even bothered. In our house, life regained its regular rhythm.
“Not really interested in a pillbox.” I start to walk away when it catches my eye. From the side it glows cornflower blue, from straight on molten mocha. Eight round saphiret cabochons in oxidized brass claw settings tied together with double linked chains. A blue orb finishes the bracelet’s clasp. ‘Can I see that?” My fingerprint marks the case.
“Sure.” It’s even prettier in the light. The blue changing to purple to iridescent brown. I’m smitten.
“Are you sure? It is just glass. That snake has an emerald.”
“I’m sure,” as I hand over the necklace. I don’t tell her that that glass is rare, made only in Bohemia until the turn of the 20th century and was infused with real gold during its firing process to give it its chameleon quality. People who can’t see what they have usually don’t hold on to it.
Betty waves me over from a vintage clothes seller. An aged cream fan lace veil billows around her ash blond hair warming her complexion. “What do you think?”
My sister was blond like that. When the paramedics found her dead from a pill overdose, her hair was strewn out across her bedroom pillows like a waiting sleeping beauty. She had changed her mind and called 911, but they didn’t come quickly enough.
“I think you will be a most beautiful bride.” She tries to put the veil on my head. I duck out of reach.
We meander over to a beer tent and down Brooklyn’s finest before Betty belts out some Adele on a makeshift karaoke stage. For a pint size pixied kewpie doll, Betty’s got some pipes. In minutes she has the crowd engulfed in euphoric rapture. I don’t sing, but I do dance. Soon I am part of the writhing squirm surrounding Betty.
On New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, the community gathers at the city’s canals to light bamboo paper lanterns and release them into the nighttime sky. Each lantern is a wish that burns brightly as it sails above leafy palm tree tops and temple towers. Thousands of floating hopes light up the inky blue black above as they reflect their brilliance onto the canal below so the water twinkles with promise too. Dancing is my paper lantern release. As my limbs sculpt air, I set free my wishes and soar.
When the sun becomes an orange fireball slinking westward, Betty and I abandon our inner rock stars and return to reality. Somewhere along the way she has acquired a black Gene Simmons wig. She meets Piotr at the Bedford L stop, and together they walk, a tangle of curves and limbs, to the residential section of Greenpoint. I watch their cut-out forms shrinky-dink into the jubilant chaos of storefront pubs and crowded taco trucks before I turn and amble my way home.
Alex is a teacher and a writer. She has just finished a two year stint in Northern Iraq and the West Bank, which serves as the subject of her blog Lifting Weights in Iraq. Her work has appeared in The Legendary, Prick of the Spindle, Prime Numbers, The Molotov Cocktail, and other short story anthologies. Her short “Kurdistan” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contest.
© 2013, Alex Poppe