Girls Who Gossip
Chapter One (Excerpt)
What was I thinking?
When I see Aunt Claudia waving and smiling at me amid the tumult of shrieking children and businesspeople charging by, cell phones in one hand, luggage trailing behind them, I realize that I wasn’t thinking. If I’d thought this through, I wouldn’t be here right now, facing a summer with my aunt, my father, and my mother’s ghost.
A man in his fifties bumps my left arm hard and mumbles something irritably, and I realize that I’ve stopped in the middle of the gate, blocking traffic. I adjust my backpack, pull my wheeled suitcase behind me, and approach Claudia. Despite the fact that airlines only allow carry-on bags that barely give you enough room to pack a tampon and a breath mint, I haven’t checked any bags. My place in New York is small, so I left most my wardrobe behind when I left for school; it’s just been waiting here for me.
Claudia is wearing a top-of-the-line silk suit and has an expensive haircut with expert blond highlights. Her bejeweled hands, ears, and throat reflect and refract light into glittering beams. She has a perfect French manicure on pricey synthetic nails. How does a former actress who has been largely unemployed for the last thirteen years manage to look like Ivana Trump?
I haven’t been back since the funeral. I don’t really know why I’m coming back now. I’ve been going on automatic pilot for the last two months, and I guess when Dad’s secretary sent me the plane tickets to Denver, I didn’t stop to consider what I was doing. Why on earth would I volunteer to spend the summer with my father, a man who is essentially a stranger to me, the first man to break my heart? Maybe I came because I desperately needed something to do after the semester ended. Anything to keep myself distracted from the barrage of thoughts that are stuck in my mind like a never-ending CNN crawl.
“It’s so good to see you!” Claudia says. “Are you happy to be home?” I say nothing. I just can’t find the words. She seems so happy and I simply don’t understand. Her only sister just died two months ago. Shouldn’t she appear at least a little shaken?
I look at her, as if trying to figure out what she’s saying, like I’ve forgotten how to speak English. “I know Denver’s not quite as exciting as New York, but your Dad is sure excited to have you here!”
I try to smile, but I’m afraid I probably look like a drunken stroke victim. Aunt Claudia’s heels clip sharply against the tile floor. How strange it is that Claudia is picking me up instead of sending our housekeeper, Maria. I’ve only seen Claudia a few times in my entire life, and yet here she is, driving me home from the airport just like Mom would have done.
“He’s really sorry he wasn’t able to make it to the airport. An important meeting came up, you know how it goes.” Yes, I do. “You’ll definitely get to see him tonight, though. We’ve been planning a wonderful dinner. I’ve been running around all week, planning the menu and buying the wine. My friend Polly is going to be there. She works at an entertainment magazine here in Denver. She might be able to get you a job writing movie reviews or something. Would you like that?”
“That might be cool,” I say, but I don’t mean it. In my current mental state, I don’t think I’d even accept a job with Dreamworks or Miramax.
“I mean you could work for your father this summer, or just hang out if you want, but I know you like to write.”
I shrug. How does she know that? Oh. Mom. Mom must have told her I write movie reviews for the campus newspaper.
“And internships are the key to getting a good job after college,” she continues.
Seeing as Claudia has lived off the charity of my mother and rich older men for most of her life, her advice is akin to a tobacco lobbyist lecturing on health and nutrition.
The automatic door whooshes open, and we walk outside. Claudia keeps talking, but I have a hard time focusing on what she’s saying. Her voice melts into white noise along with the sound of my wheeled suitcase rumbling along the parking lot pavement. Claudia stops at a silver Lexus and says, “This is me.” Unless she landed a movie deal I don’t know about or won the lottery recently, she must be borrowing it from Dad.
She opens the trunk and I throw my backpack and suitcase inside.
I gaze out the window for the forty-minute drive home. Claudia talks and talks about nothing in particular. I stare at the rush of gray pavement in a kind of trance.
That’s really the only state I know how to be in anymore, a perpetual blurred daze. I went back to school after the funeral to finish out the semester, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but the days passed in fog. I just went through the motions of living, going through the routine of life like an automaton. Strangely enough, I think I managed to do okay on my finals. It’s amazing how life goes on, even if you’re not really there, even if you’re not paying any attention.
Like the way Claudia suddenly stitched herself into the fabric of my family’s daily life. How did it happen? Why is she still living with my Dad after my mother, her sister, has been dead for two months?
Until about a year ago, Claudia lived in California, but we never saw her. Claudia would call Mom from time to time and hit her up for money. I overheard Mom on the phone many times inviting Claudia to come to Denver for a visit or asking if there would be a convenient time for us to fly out to California to see her, but these visits never materialized. Then about a year ago, Claudia’s boyfriend of three years went back to his wife and kicked Claudia out of the penthouse she’d been staying in rent-free. Homeless and penniless, Claudia decided a visit to Colorado wasn’t such a bad idea after all. She’s been here ever since.
I hadn’t noticed the way Claudia had been seeping into every part of my family’s life. It’s not entirely my fault. I was in Europe last summer and away at school all year. The only time I came home was over Christmas break, and I spent most of the time with friends. I didn’t pay much attention to Claudia. And of course I came home for the funeral, but I spent that time completely out of it. I drank a lot and cried a lot and have vague memories of well-dressed strangers telling me how much they’d miss my mother, how wonderful she was, what a shame it was that this terrible thing happened.
But now that I’m facing an entire summer with Claudia, now that it’s her picking me up from the airport, it’s finally hitting me that something about this situation is not right.
Several years ago, Claudia was a big deal movie actress. She’d had a couple of small parts in low-budget movies, and then when she was twenty-four, right about the time my mom was celebrating her first anniversary with Dad and giving birth to me, Claudia became a bit of a celebrity for her role in Becoming. The title had a double meaning, both that she was an attractive, “becoming” woman, and also that she had been a demure, sweet female, who during the course of life’s twists and turns “became” a violent thief and killer. In the movie, Claudia played a woman who had been brutally attacked, and her attacker was let off because the police mishandled some of the evidence. After overcoming a series of small obstacles by being a bad ass—stabbing a fork into a groping man’s hand, stealing from the register of a condescending male clerk—her character ultimately decided that she couldn’t wait around for justice, and she murdered her assailant. At the time, it was a pretty big deal for a woman to go around killing people, even bad guys. Some people argued that she portrayed a strong woman who wouldn’t sit back and passively be victimized, others said she was just embracing male violence and was certainly no role model. In any case, Claudia was often in the news back then, being interviewed on TV and getting her picture on the cover of magazines.
I used to watch Claudia’s movies when I was a kid, and I would to brag to my friends about how Claudia was my aunt, as if her fame, however small, made Claudia more important than the rest of us, and therefore me more important by extension.
Of course as a kid, I didn’t know the difference between a movie star and a fading star. It wasn’t until a couple years ago when I picked up a “Where are They Now?” issue of People magazine that I learned Claudia’s fame was short lived, that she couldn’t keep the momentum going after Becoming. The next three movies she was in bombed.
While her career was sinking, Mom was quickly being launched into the highest stratosphere of the wealthy elite. Dad co-founded a company with his college roommate, Charles Sinha, an engineer, a few years after they’d graduated. Chuck designed the original products, and Dad raised the capital and developed the strategy and business model. Within three years the company was profitable, and it just kept growing. By the time I was nine, Able Technologies was a Fortune 100 company, with offices around the world. My father has graced the covers of Fortune and BusinessWeek and seen the insides of Time, Newsweek, and People. Dad isn’t Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie famous, but anyone who knows anything about business and the stock market knows who he is.
When we get home, Claudia tells me I have an hour to get cleaned up for dinner.
“‘Kay,” I say. I bring my bag up the long flight of winding stairs. Our home is the stuff upscale home decorating magazines are made of. The carpet downstairs and on the staircase is a rich, plush burgundy, and all the furniture is a heavy mahogany. My bedroom has light wood floors, white walls, and pale green accents on the bedspread, sheets, shades, and drapes. The furniture is a light maple, and all the lighting fixtures are made from brushed silver. My bathroom is cream, with cream granite tile floors, a cream-colored Jacuzzi bathtub, and an all-glass shower. It’s very, very different than the cramped space I share with my roommates Kendra and Lynne in New York, but somehow I miss my New York apartment already. I shut my bedroom door behind me, dump my bags on the floor, and collapse on my bed next to my two remaining teddy bears. Before I left for college, I took all of my childhood stuffed animals to Goodwill. I used to have so many there was barely enough room left for me on the bed. I used to fret about whether I was loving each animal equally—I didn’t want anybody to feel left out. Giving them away was a fit of insanity, I see now. I think maybe I’d been trying to make a statement about wanting to feel grown up. Also, there was the practical issue of owning too much stuff and wanting to get rid of the clutter. But now, I sort of feel like I donated memories of my childhood, rather than just a zoo of stuffed animals smiling friendly smiles.
Of the two bears I have now, one is a cheap but cute all-black bear that I won last summer at a fair by tossing a ping pong ball into a tiny fish bowl. It was triumphant proof that the hours I’d logged playing beer pong my freshman year of college had honed valuable skills in me.
The other bear is white and so soft you feel compelled to burrow your face in it. It was a gift from my high school boyfriend, Dan. I used to think I loved Dan, but now that I’m twenty and much more mature, I realize that really it was just infatuation and not true love at all. I like to think I’m much wiser about these sorts of things now.
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