“Wait. Hold on a sec.” I tilted my head slightly to the left, as I often did whenever I was on the brink of a curious idea or creative moment of any kind. “I think that print might go better in the far right corner. Do you notice how the subtle hints of cornflower blue shading complement the wall? Makes the print pop more to the viewer … it’s more inviting. Perhaps even a bit more sophisticated.”
“Over here?” Manny asked. He lifted the print off the hardwood floor and then walked over to the exact spot I had pointed out. “You know, I think you’re right,” he said, holding it up against the wall. “Hints of cornflower blue, huh? I didn’t even notice that.”
“See! Do I know what I’m doing, or do I know what I’m doing?” Running over to where he stood, I could barely contain my excitement. “Is it wrong of me to really, really want to impress Bennie on this one?”
“Impress the big, mighty lady boss that we all fear and yet wish to emulate all at once? Why would you ever dream of doing such a thing?”
Come to think of it, the island of Manhattan was bursting with mighty lady bosses, as Manny so aptly described Bennie—many even taking the outer boroughs by storm. Women that simultaneously evoked fear and admiration. Women’s who, by sheer force and determination, made you want to be your best self, and then some! Bennie MacKenzie, our mighty boss lady, however, was the lady boss of the art world moment. Owner of Unconditional Acceptance, the art gallery Manny and I toiled many, many long hours for, Bennie demanded creativity, drive, and perfection from herself and anyone fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your outlook) who crossed her path.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy everything about her. From creating a precious studio out of nothing, transforming the space from another basic hole-in-the-wall into the it-gallery for every young artist, dreamer, and big-time star under twenty-eight. Right down to the way she had mastered creating a flawless DIY I’m-wearing-make-up-but-sure-don’t-appear-like-it look, to her perfected use of a straightening flatiron to transform her already gorgeous hair into a cascades of endless waves that were pure magical.
“If I were to achieve half of the success Bennie MacKenzie has, was when I turn forty-five, I’ll leave this world as one very happy lady,” I said.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
Manny motioned knowingly towards my hair which, admittedly, I had styled myself, trying to create the same wavy style. Only when I did it, the results hadn’t been quite as flawless. Pretty, yes. Magical? Certainly not.
“Samantha is envious of the new balayage, by the way,” he continued. “The caramel tones really compliment your natural hair color, not to mention your complexion.”
“And noticing all the small details like that is why your girlfriend, Samantha, loves you, and you need to put a ring on it, ASAP!” I replied teasingly, knowing just how much it would bug him.
Predictably, Manny rolled his eyes. “No thank you. Just because I can appreciate the work of a good hairdresser, doesn’t mean I’m ready to pack it all up for the whole two kids, one dog, wife in Westchester life sentence. Not yet, Farrah. Not yet.”
“You’ll get there soon enough. So, anyway, back to this crazy place. Do you think Bennie will go for my idea regarding next month’s sculpture exhibit?” We still had a month to go, but the sculpture exhibit, featuring some of the latest works from up and coming artists around the country, was front and center in my mind. Paloma Castenella, one of my absolute favorite artists from Rome, was rumored to make an appearance! Every night, I made sure to carve out at least thirty minutes of quiet time to sketch and plan my personal vision for the show. Getting antsy just thinking about it, I shifted back and forth between my right and left foot, yanking down on the A-line hem of my dress that was just a tad bit short.
“Farrah, don’t even start, Bennie totally adores you and every idea you have to offer. If she can put up with you singing into a hairbrush while 90s boy band music blasts in the background, then as far as I can see, there’s really nothing you can do that will seem wrong in her eyes. She will love the project. You are a genius. I assure you,” he promised.
“You make singing along to 90s boy band tunes sound like it’s a bad thing!” Truthfully, I couldn’t recall the last time I partook in any activity—ate breakfast, got dressed, drove a car—without belting out 90s dance music on the top of my lungs. For the record, I couldn’t actually carry a single note that sounded more inviting than, say, unevenly manicured nails across a parochial school chalkboard, but my blatant lack of musical talent sure didn’t stop me from trying to sing my heart out!
Manny very carefully studied the prints we had hung up along the walls. His artist eye, I always felt, was far better than mine, and he had this uncanny way of conceptualizing the forest and trees all at once. Yet, Manny remained down to earth and never rubbed in his superior talent, which was nice. It was hard enough being taken seriously when everyone, friends included, always assumed that everything I had ever accomplished was nothing more than the lucky benefit of being my father’s daughter. It could be so frustrating when every move I made always felt peppered with the anxiety of having to prove myself—my worth.
“Well,” he finally said, “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. What I am saying is that it’s pretty obvious to me that you can do no wrong here. Not in Bennie’s eyes.”
“You think so?”
Manny nodded emphatically. “I’ve been here three years longer than you have. I know so. And with that, I’m seriously starving. This whole fasting/not eating breakfast diet is killing me. You have no idea how much I want to devour a monster-sized bread bowl of pasta carbonara right now.”
I glanced up at the clock and noticed that it was noon. How did time manage to slip away so quickly from us?
“If you want, I can run down to Heart of Buddha and grab us some lunch. You don’t think Bennie will be back while I’m gone, do you? She has this way of making me feel guilty whenever I go eat or use the bathroom.”
“I know. She’s obviously judging me as less than a man whenever I eat a pastry in front of her … but it is Heart of Buddha, and their cinnamon dolce lattes are much more addictive than I would like to admit. They practically taste homemade.” Manny said wistfully. “You don’t mind going? I think we’re all set here and way ahead of schedule. We can afford to take an actual lunch break, with real food. For once. Some of my buddies think I’ve completely lost my mind when I tell them about how crazy this place can get.”
I grabbed my camel colored Italian stadium-cloth wool coat and wrapped it snuggly around my body. For what was supposed to be a regular September day, it felt like winter was just around the corner. After fumbling around in the dark abyss that was my oversized tote bag, I found my favorite peppermint flavored lip balm and applied generously. The cold was always brutal on my skin.
“Seriously, we deserve to eat! Should I get the turkey presto aioli wraps?”
“Def. With extra melted provolone.”
“Okay. If anything comes up, just text! If Bennie gets here before I do, tell her I’m on an errand for my father. It’s the only excuse she’ll be willing to buy!”
After an epic mouth-wateringly successful lunch/coffee run (I still couldn’t understand why Sage had been so dead set against Heart of Buddha—Manny and I loved it there!), I ran back toward the gallery, balancing a cardboard tray—made with 100% recycled cardboard—of two oversized cinnamon dolce lattes and a Heart of Buddha’ssignature brown paper shopping bag—made with 100% recycled paper—bursting with goodies. Why just stop at lunch?I had thought to myself. Why not throw in some dessert, and maybe even tomorrow’s breakfast, too?”
Too consumed in deep in thoughts of soon-to-be delightful carbo-loading sugar highs, and of course, the added pressure to get there before Bennie, I failed to pay attention to my surroundings and was caught completely off guard by a high-pitched, super obnoxious squeal several steps ahead of me.
“O-M-G, FARRAH! Is that you? Your hair looks fabulous. As if it wasn’t enough that you look like you’ve dropped two dress sizes since I last saw you! You weren’t already skinny enough!”
It was Allison, one of those friends that I was supposed to adore but secretly couldn’t stand. She was always showing off about something—clothes, cars, brushes with A-list celebrities—ever since we met a few years back as college freshmen. It wasn’t that Allison was a bad person, per se, or even an annoying person. She simply embodied every single possible ideal a person could ever hope to live up to—in other words, a constant walking billboard of everywhere you fell short.
It was also slightly irritating that she acted as if she had just noticed my hair, considering it wasn’t that long since we’d last seen each other.
My mother would say that Allison was the girl you loved to hate. If you asked someone like Sage, she might say that Allison was a woman who always reminded you to shift your animosity toward the patriarchy that had created such unattainable standards, to begin with. Either way, you couldn’t win. Which, I had to admit, was somewhat hard for me, since I always tended to benefit fromthose unreasonable standards.
“Hi, Allison,” I said, dryly. “Yes, well, if I look smaller that’s because I’m fasting in the morning. Manny, who also works for the gallery, read a blog post a couple of weeks ago that went into all the nitty gritty scientific details about it. We’re trying the diet together.” I realized just how ridiculous I sounded explaining our morning fast ritual, while holding an oversized brown paper bag filled with carblicious treats in one hand, and precariously balancing a tray of mammoth-sized lattes in the other. The extra whip probably didn’t help my cause, either.
“Really?” Allison asked skeptically, and if I wasn’t mistaken, she let out a subtle snort of disapproval. “You’ve always been in such great physical shape. We all need to be a bit more cognizant of the dangers some of these fads can cause. I read a great blog post the other day, completely debunking the validity of those detox juice cleanses. Everyone thinks they’re getting closer to the perfect body, but all the detox does is make you lose water.” Allison shrugged. “Oh well. Your body, your choice.”
Your body, your choice. I knew that in her own Allison way, she had meant them to be encouraging words of empowerment, but somehow I was left feeling like a big letdown to enlightened women everywhere; not exactly the “girl power superhero” I had often encouraged my female friends to be whenever life let them down.
“Right,” I replied shortly. “Well, I’m going to see if it works. So, I must ask. What brings you here? When you texted the other day, you didn’t mention anything about being in the area for an extended time. I thought you were just in the city for your brother’s show.”
“Really? I live here now. Seriously, I didn’t tell you? It must have slipped my mind. Farrah, you wouldn’t believe it. I have been soooo incredibly busy these past couple of months. It’s simply impossible for me to keep up with every little change, let alone fill everyone else in! Well, let’s see, I did go down to D.C. for about a week. The women’s march—OMG, what an experience. It felt like true sisterhood. But I don’t have to tell you that, with your father running for Congress. Won’t you be living there soon enough?” Allison tenderly placed her hand over her heart and sighed. It was such a completely genuine, yet at the same time, incredibly irritating gesture.
“I don’t have much of an interest in politics, Al, you know that. I’m fine right here. But I will admit, D.C. is an exciting place. Was the march that inspiring?” I asked, trying to appear more validating than condescending. Maybe the problem was that I was just jealous—plain and simple.
“It was marvelous. You should have gone. Well, now I’m back!”
“So where are you living? I always thought you’d stay in the Boston area.” I asked.
“Boston? I did that for a little while, but needed a change. I mean, I’ve lived in the area practically my whole life. I’m in SoHo! I’ve been living there since June,” Allison shared, her voice radiating with pride.
SoHo. Of course. Not that I could exactly balk over the grandiosity and excitement of it all, living in Tribeca myself. Still. She always managed to one-up me. “How amazing is that,” I replied.
“Oh, it is. You mentioned a coworker. You’re working down here too?”
“Yes. Manny. We work at Unconditional Acceptance. It’s an art shop down by—”
Allison’s jaw dropped so fast I thought I was going to have to help her pry it off the pavement. “Unconditional Acceptance!?!?! Oh, I know exactly where that is! So, you’re the competition?”
Allison’s eyes seemed to grow larger and larger by the nanosecond. “Well, not really competition. I own Break Through Blocks. It’s an antique shop, technically, but we manage to find prints and all sorts of fun, artsy stuff all the time. You would be amazed by what treasures some people are willing to throw away! I know all about Unconditional Acceptance—that’s owned and run by Bennie MacKenzie. She’s simply genius. You do realize that you’re like our biggest competitor. How adorable is that?”
I felt like I was going to choke on the air itself. Did Allison seriously just say what I thought she did? She was the one behind Break Through Blocks—the very place that was blowing up social media by storm? The very place that Bennie would not shut up about?Was Allison right up there with Bennie, except half-a-century younger?
“Own?” was all I managed to say in response.
Allison nodded, her head excitedly bouncing like one of those obnoxiously creepy bobblehead dolls. It was like every little nuanced movement she made was exaggerated and completely over the top. “Yes! I’m a small business owner! Well to be fair, my father did give me an extension on the inheritance. He was completely reasonable about it, too. He totally understood that it was an investment that would only yield greater dividends in the long term. But yes, it’s amazing. I’ve been running the space since July, and we have really made a name for ourselves.”
Then she paused, and I could literally see the wheels turning in her head as she developed, what she thought, was the most fabulous idea known to humankind since the glazed donut met the butter croissant.
“O-M-G, Farrah! You could totally work for me!”
There it was. The backhanded complimentto end all backhanded compliments; that I was such a fantastic person, that even Allison could consider hiringme—under her. And I was livid! It felt like Sage had suddenly possessed my body as I fought every urge to come back with the snarkiest comebackto end all snarky comebacks. Maybe it was because I was too blind-sighted by the slight, or simply not as combative in nature, but either way, I stood there wordlessly like a complete and utter fool. All I could do was smile and hope that she would interpret my silence that to mean whatever she wanted it to mean.
“How amazing would that be, Farrah. Aren’t you working toward an advanced degree in art history? I could use someone with your eye and talent. Not to mention style. You have just the right look for us—you wouldn’t believe the clientele we’re getting. I can’t really name drop, you know, but a certain someone from last summer’s certain blockbuster came in the other day and let me tell you. She bought an original for ten thousand dollars. Just like that.” Allison snapped her fingers for emphasis.
“Well … I’m just so … happy where I am now. It doesn’t seem right to leave Bennie.” What I wanted to say was that there was no way the threat of hell itself could convince me to work fora former classmate—especially her! The backlash from my mother alone would make it the worst decision ever, right next to developing a shoplifting habit or airing our family’s dirt on reality television. Yet, at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder just how awesome could this shop possibly be if Allison was drawing in big-name Hollywood millennials. How stupid had I been to not know about all of it in the first place?
“That’s so sweet, Farrah. Well, if you ever change your mind, stop by. I promise not to put you through the whole interview process. I’ll take you right on the spot!” she squealed with delight.
How incredibly considerate of her. UGH!
“Sure, thanks. It’s good to know I have options. Hold on, this is important.” I thrust the tray of lattes at her and reached inside my tote for my phone. Feigning shock, I pretended to read a surprising text. “Oh no! It’s … important… I better go now!”“
Is everything okay?
“We’re prepping for an important showcase tonight. Don’t think I can stay out much longer. Bennie needs me. Very important text here. Need to go.” Yes, an important big showcase that big important people would attend. Allison wasn’t the only hot act in town. So what if I had totally made up the text up? Bennie could be looking for me—theoretically speaking.
“Of course! Of course! Give me a hug!” Allison threw her arms around me and rocked from side to side like I was about to receive an indefinite sentence to Siberia, and there was no telling when I might return. I had this nagging feeling she had managed to splatter latte and whip on my coat in the process. “Take this,” she handed back the tray. “Remember. We’re just around the corner.”
“Thanks,” I said, wondering how Allison’s dramatic hug hadn’t resulted in our lunches and lattes completely smashing against the pavement. “I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
I wasn’t going to change my mind.
I quickly waved and pivoted sharply, needing to get out of there, ASAP. As I walked ahead, uncharacteristically looking down at the ground below me, I fought against every feeling of anxiety and insecurity that threatened to take over my entire psyche. Yes, Allison’s father technically purchased the gallery for her. It wasn’t as if she had suddenly pulled herself up by her own pointy-toe-pump-straps to become one of the most sought-after young entrepreneurs under twenty-five. Of course, my father’s hands were temporarily tied and couldn’t help on that front. Otherwise, I might be in a similar situation. What made matters worse was Allison’s ever-so-smug, disguised as helpful, job offer. Who was she to think that I couldn’t pull off the same feat, should my parents give me the same financial help?
“I’m running for the United States Congress on a social justice platform, Farrah.” My father had lectured, emphasizing United Statesas if I were a second grader who didn’t quite understand the significance of our government—or anything beyond Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. “This is it. All we need is for someone on the other side to take swings at you to get to me. It’s ugly out there, Farrah. One of our own participated in a photo shoot wearing clothing the magazine gave her, and the papers wracked her over the coals for it. I can help with the apartment, but wait until the election is over. Try to remain low key in the meantime … I will not be the candidate who loses what should be a given New York seat.”
I despised politics. The only thing worse than being an elected official’s daughter was being an elected official’s daughter during an election year. For years, I had managed to stay out of it. But this was the big one. The one that would most likely take the family straight to Washington, and open up doors previously thought unimaginable. Everything my parents wanted—but it wasn’t my dream.
When I returned to the gallery, I swung the door open a bit too hard, and Manny jolted up from the front desk, startled, a far cry from his usual cool and collected self.
“Don’t hurt me!” He threw his hands up in mock defense.
“Ha. So funny, I forgot to laugh.”
“Hey there! What happened to you? And why is there cream and cinnamon on the back of your coat?” he asked.
Slamming the Heart of Buddha bag down onto the counter, along with what remained in the tray, I took a moment to gather myself before flashing my own award-winning smile. Even though he was my work friend, Manny would never get it. It wasn’t worth getting into. My parents had taught me a thing or two along the way. Sure, I hated the game. That didn’t mean I didn’t know how to play it.
“Nothing,” I lied through smiling teeth. “Help me move those prints over to the left. Bennie will be here any second now.”