She’d been living in the house for two months when they had the engagement party. Two months was a long time by anyone’s account, but in guest-time two months had seemed like a lifetime and she’d had to re-evaluate everything.
She’d been living with Kim and Ben since moving out of the place she’d been house-sitting. Her mother’s friend had come back from Switzerland, and that was that. The house-sitting had begun since her breakup with Mark. She’d moved out of his house and when she found her carefree time as a house-sitter drawing to a close while she still had no proper job, her options had folded in and converged on Kim.
Kim was her older sister by two years, willowy, elfish and pale. She was beautiful in the awkward way girls in high-concept magazines were, all angles, goggly eyes and curly short black hair. Growing up, Sadie had been considered the pretty one always, her blondeness, her round face, her sallow skin making her a right-of-passage crush while they were in school. This had made her bolder than Kim, sexually precocious, and for some reason, more highly-regarded by their teachers. Sadie and Kim got on, with only minor fights breaking out when Kim would spot her younger sister wearing her clothes across the hallway – a favourite skirt, a worn shirt that had been fished out of the dirty laundry basket. This always led to bitter fights and the inevitable repeat of the same outrage a few weeks later. When school ended Kim was accepted to Rhode Island School of Design on a scholarship and Sadie stayed and went to Trinity to do English.
Even then, she had not felt the difference so much as she did now, on the day of the party.
The house Kim and Ben lived in was over a noodle bar off Washington Avenue that alternated between smelling strongly of garlic and strongly of basil. It was a boring building from the outside, devoid of any Brooklyn charm, except for the fact of its proximity to the Tom’s Restaurant that appeared in Seinfeld. They’d decorated it in an un-thought-out manner that Sadie liked, piling in the few bits of furniture they’d accumulated individually, so that it felt crammed and yet there was never anywhere to put down a glass. There were throws everywhere, as well as candlesticks made out of old banisters that a friend of Kim’s made, so the flat achieved a sense of boho-lived-inness in spite of its modern interior.
“You’re going to want to put things at right angles all the time while you’re here,” Kim had said, laughing and kissing her on the cheek when Sadie brought over her bags. “If you think I’m bad, you’ve got to see how untidy Ben is! Here it is, Ta-da!” It was a tiny study Sadie had seen before, but Kim had gone to extra efforts to make it nice for her. There was a vase of flowers on the desk. “It’s lovely! I promise I will keep my tiny violin concertos and sob-sturbations to a minimum,” she said, “And the room is super cute”, “Oh good, I was so worried you’d be all “eek!” Yeh that’s fine, but you don’t have to swallow your tears, you’re allowed have a meltdown in our study, we’re cool with it,” Kim said, her face spreading and her eyes disappearing into a grin.
Kim and Ben had been living in the flat for just over a year, which was just a little under the amount of time they’d been a couple. Kim had dismissed any major life-changing potential that moving in together might have. She was good at that. Nothing ever had life-changing potential.
She had graduated from Rhodes Island over two years ago, ‘majored’ in photography and was now working as an assistant to a well-known Irish photographer who was a friend of their parents. The flat was plastered with the strips of paper with the words “Everyone is a fucking photographer now” appearing over and over again. Kim had met Ben outside at an Agnes Obel gig, where mutual friends introduced them and where the coincidence of them both having an Irish parent and an American parent, had offered them the excuse to hit it off and talk till dawn.
Thinking of this and of the three of them, Sadie sometimes worried that they were the type of people that others talked about and wrote about and hated – privileged lay-abouts. Their parents had paid for Kim to do a series of unpaid apprenticeships, covering her rent, giving her an allowance. Sadie had received more or less the same support, but unlike Kim, who fell into endless over-the-phone rows about money with their parents, Sadie experienced sharp pangs of guilt. She hadn’t received a full scholarship like Kim. In order to really be who they wanted to be they should have less, Sadie thought. The fact of their parents well-offness seemed to poison who they were and what they wanted to do, and not even the fact of them both working harder than anybody else seemed to redeem it. Kim didn’t worry about this, or about what people wrote. She was happy in what she was doing, believed in the solidity of being an artist, thought it was positive, and encouraged Sadie to think the same whenever she mentioned her worries.
What was true was that for the past year since they’d both been in the States they’d been on equal footing and in each other’s company for the first time in almost seven years. The amount of money they were spending was directly comparable, and Sadie had realized that Kim spent very little. What’s more, Sadie had been with Mark. He’d had the family flat and she’d made her soft landing in New York with the heart-stopping terror of rent removed from the equation.
“He’s so so lovely. Very gentlemanly,” Kim had said, when Mark had gone to the bathroom the first time Sadie introduced them in a bar. But when they’d broken up a few months prior, Kim had said, “I’m sort of glad. He didn’t seem to have much adventure in him, not enough for you anyway.” Barely perceptible under the spoken reassurance, was a disdain for him that stung her. Kim never said anything nasty. But what Kim was actually saying beneath the niceness, was how dreary she’d found Sadie’s hyper-normal boyfriend to be.
Kim had gone through all the awkward phases of believing thoroughly and obsessively in one thing or another when they were growing up – Kurt Cobain, dance lessons, Tom Waits, electronic music, no Facebook, lots of Facebook, money good, money bad, fuck-mum-and-dad, try-your-best-to-get-along. She’d believed in all of them without any irony, in a way that Sadie had never believed in anything. And now 1the remnants of Kim’s previous convictions seemed to hang about her like talismans, striking some kind of centered om that was neither one thing or another. She achieved that unobtainable pinnacle of contemporary existence and would’ve been described on all accounts as being laidback.
In the seven years that they had not been around each other, Kim had come into her own it seemed. Her photography had ended up in ad campaigns, she wore outlandish clothing, her accent had evened out into a nice drawl, she’d cut her hair short, and she’d made her peace with her parents. How Kim had grown so strong and happy was a mystery to Sadie. She herself had acted in two shows in the past year since she’d left college, but she could already feel her determination to stick with it waning. Since coming to New York she’d done nothing but bits of bar work, and being with Mark hadn’t helped. She’d met him in her final year in college while he was finishing his PhD, and when he’d got the fellowship she’d followed him to New York with the ease that her American citizenship and his free accommodation had afforded her. He was 11 years older. Since he’d broken up with her, she most often used the word “intolerant” to describe him. The bravery of moving over had disappeared since then, and she felt out of sorts, out-of-the-loop and too quiet for the brash fastness of New York.
Over the past year Kim had become a presence that moved around Sadie’s thoughts like a ball in a pinball machine. Barely noticing it, Sadie had begun to buy colourful clothes, make art collages that she hadn’t made in years, bleach her hair white-blond, and she’d lost her appetite. Only once, when she met Kim for a samosa near Washington Square after she’d gotten a haircut, did Kim remark “Are we going to play matchy-matchy? We’ve got the same hair and the same jacket!”
Ben had something to do with it. They’d announced they were engaged two weeks after she’d moved in, stroking each other’s hands under the table, laughing even though no one had made a joke, while she congratulated them enthusiastically, kissing them both and blushing for no reason. Sadie’s parents were liberal, had got married late, and the idea of getting married at 27 was far more counter to their family culture than being gay, poor, or not going to college. It made Sadie feel slightly embarrassed, as though it was all terribly earnest and intense, like a Jane Austen novel. It was for love, no one needed a Visa.
When Sadie worried about those other people who wrote about them being lay-abouts, thinking of Ben was often the only thing that reassured her. In spite of claims that he was Irish, Ben was more Italian-American than anything else – sallow-skinned, black hair and a permanently unshaven face. He was as good-looking as Kim. He came across as a weird product of home-schooling and hard work, gentle and smart.
If you were to walk into a room of strangers, you would spot Ben as the person who would be kindest to you instinctively, Sadie thought. He was the manager of a fancy restaurant on the lower east-side, paid for most of their rent, and spent his off-time running a small art-space in Queens with a friend. Their parents had met him once and loved him. He inspired confidence and made it all feel less like bullshit.
When Sadie submitted herself to forensic comparisons with Kim, she always emerged the loser. There was only one thing that she had over Kim, and that was brains. In school they’d known it, in college too, and even now, in this New York context where Sadie was playing the away-match, she clung to the knowledge that she was still more intelligent than Kim. Ben was smarter than Kim. Sadie had noticed this in overheard conversations, a passing reference. But Kim didn’t care or even notice.
The engagement party had started early and everyone had arrived on time, something that never happened in Dublin. She’d been going out a lot since the break-up and was glad to see that she knew a lot of Kim and Ben’s friends at the party. Everyone had known about the engagement before Sadie had, it seemed, and their parents still didn’t know, which lent an air of recklessness to the whole thing.
Sadie watched Kim as she made her way around the room, her unachievably-thin frame bopping in and out of groups of people, giving big hugs, emitting squeals as she came across a new arrival to the party. Kim had good friends. She had friends that phoned her instead of texted her, and who always Liked her work when she put it on Facebook. Her friends were lovely and kind, always polite to Sadie since she’d moved over, making it clear that she was accepted by inviting her to drinks and movies without Kim, perhaps prompted by her. They all had job descriptions that seemed to contain a half-dozen slashes between them – journalist/cheese-monger, curator/photographer/PA, PhD student/dj/blogger, chef/model/photographer. As she thought about their absurd slashes Sadie wished she could stop, wished she could just accept the room and the people in it for what they were, be kind to them and allow herself to enjoy something without feeling like a fraud. She wanted to enjoy what Kim had.
She was sitting slouched under a girl she knew called Zoe, who had just dropped 2CP and was sitting on her lap talking about Hitchcock. She hoisted Zoe off her, kissing her on the neck, and stumbled her way over to the overflowing bin bag by the open kitchen window. She stretched her leg over the windowsill and onto the roof, ducking and pushing herself up into the crowd of smokers. “Never quit or you’ll die of boredom,” her friend Colm always said, and he was right. Ben was sitting on one of the plastic chairs further out on the roof, talking to a young, nervous guy, who was saying something to which Ben was paying close attention. She sat down in the chair opposite them and looked out onto the greeny-yellow glare of the city sky and lit a cigarette from the packet that had cost her 13 dollars earlier that day. The nervous guy seemed to lean closer to Ben, until Ben let out a loud laugh and the guy sprang back, laughing imperceptibly under his hand, still looking at Ben, until he abruptly got up to get a beer.
In spite of how nice Ben was, he made Sadie nervous. If she woke up and it was just him in the house, she would avoid leaving her room until she thought he was gone. Whilst finding him hilarious, she checked her laughter at his jokes. But it was now three in the morning and she had taken something earlier.
Ben sighed, regaining his breath from the laughter, “That was the grossest thing I’ve ever heard, and he’s got all the gross stories!” he said, turning to her, stealing a cigarette from her packet after she nodded consent.
“Oh yeah? What was it about?”
“Nah, I can’t tell you, way too disgusting! Anyway you need to hear it the way he tells it. You know he drives the fat van right?”
“The fat van?”
“Yeh, it’s an ambulance that’s been designed for severely obese people, people who weigh up to 770 pounds. And John gets put on the fat van for some of his shifts. He’s a paramedic. It’s completely redesigned and all the things are, like, extra large to accommodate massively overweight people. Anyway, you’ve seen John, he’s a fucking super-skinny guy, and 2he ends up driving the fat van that services most of Brooklyn, carrying people down five flights of stairs because they’re too fat to walk, with the other paramedic Raoul, who is just as skinny, and it’s just the fucking funniest.”
“’Mmerrica!” Sadie punched the air and they laughed.
Ben’s pupils were dilated, even darker than normal, and she knew he was high, which was comforting.
“Hey! Do you want to hear a gross joke I was told today?” she said.
“Ok,” she started, “A family is having dinner. The son asks the father, “Dad, how many kinds of boobs are there?” The father answers, “Well, son, a woman goes through three phases. In her 20s, a woman’s breasts are like melons, round and firm. In her 30s and 40s, they are like pears, still nice, hanging a bit. After 50, they are like onions.” “Onions?” the son asks. “Yes. You see them and they make you cry.” The mother and daughter get pissed off at this. So, the daughter asks, “Mum, how many different kinds of willies are there?” Mum smiles, “Well, a man goes through three phases. In his 20s, his willy is like an oak tree, mighty and hard. In his 30s and 40s, it’s like a birch, flexible but reliable. After his 50s, it’s like a Christmas tree.” “A Christmas tree?” the daughter asks. “Dead from the root up and the balls are just for decoration.”
Ben smacked his knee and laughed. “Oh, that’s good. That’s a good joke, I’ll have to remember it.”
She went quiet.
“You know, I don’t think I should say this, but I feel like I have to. Like it’s my duty to say this.” Sadie stammered, “This isn’t good timing and in the cold light of day I’ll probably regret it, and no doubt I’m very, very wrong, but…”
“Jesus Christ,” Ben laughed, “What could you possibly be going to say to me!”
The room behind them suddenly emitted a roar of laughter followed by wolf-whistles, and turning around, they could see that some guy was dancing in the middle of the room naked except for his t-shirt. Sadie went on.
“I don’t know if you’ve considered everything entirely. Like, have you considered who you are and what you’re worth?” She was waffling. “Because I feel like you haven’t, and I was wondering if it had occurred to you that maybe you could do better than Kim?”
She didn’t even try to chase the words and corral them back into her mouth.
Ben looked at her blankly.
“You’re better than her, and no matter what happens after tonight, whether you guys get married or not, I want you to know that. I think you could do better. I think you’re sweeter and smarter than her,” she finished.
A screech of furniture and shouts from the room behind them made them turn around. Naked guy had seemingly pissed himself, the lack of pants resulting in someone being hit mid-stream, much to everyone’s delight. A few guys now seemed to be struggling to drag naked guy into another room, without coming across any of his bits or getting caught in the crossfire.
Ben stood up, head bowed, trying to see what was happening.
“Thanks Sadie,” he said.