A Dangerous Age
• • • • • • • • •
Billy Sitwell’s apartment
167 Ludlow, Lower East Side
Tuesday, June 3
Lu, we’re listening,” Sarah said. “Go.”
“Okay, first question: underwear. Are you boy shorts, G-string, or commando?”
We were sitting on the floor of Billy’s apartment, legs crossed Indian style like some nursery school powwow. There were sticky spots on the floor that we were all—except for Billy, because they were her spots—trying to subtly avoid, and the apartment was unbearably hot. Lotta had already raised an eyebrow at me about it more than once.
“Other,” Billy said.
I was making us take a sex quiz for a fluff piece I was writing for Cosmo. “?‘Other’ isn’t an option,” I replied.
Long-limbed Lotta with her deep-blue Nordic eyes and smoky accent gave a dramatic sigh. “How many questions are there? And are we ordering anything? I’m starved.”
Billy was already on top of it, making a charcuterie plate from the oddball things in her refrigerator and the crackers and crudités we’d brought.
“There’s just a few,” I said to Lotta, who nodded but wasn’t listening because she was texting, or on Snapchat, or commenting on her Instagram feed. “It’s nothing big.”
Life doesn’t unfold: it pops open, the way a man rips off lingerie. That’s a thing my mother, Cheri, likes to say, and she’s right. Twenty-four years ago I was seventeen, sitting in first class on a flight from Chicago to JFK. I was drinking champagne because Cheri said we deserved it. I was leaving my small Midwestern town to be a model. I had an agent, I had a contract, and I was sitting across the aisle from Titus Brockton, one of the most famous artists in the world. Picasso-like famous. I didn’t know who he was but Cheri did. He was dipping a tiny spoon into a small tin of caviar. I noticed this right off because it was the first time I’d seen anyone eat caviar. It was also the first time I’d been on a plane. The dream was right there in front of me. Love, adventure, career—I was ready for all of it.
Fast-forward to tonight at the start of a restless New York summer. I’ll be forty-two next month and I didn’t see this coming. I’m sitting in the same apartment with the same friends, having a version of the same conversation we’ve been having for twenty years. The rearview mirror looks more like a halfhearted quickie than the sultry, slow striptease I’d imagined.
The four of us get together every Tuesday—we’ve done it for years since we all found each other here, when we were young and eager and fresh. We’re not so fresh anymore. We share two divorces and two failed careers, among other things. We’re in staggered states of disarray.
Billy’s unemployed and broke. Her mortgage check just bounced, again. She’s trying to finish and sell the cocktail-entertainment book she quit her job for, which hasn’t seen one full draft that I know of, and she’s running an “adventure supper club” out of her apartment for extra cash. Strangers pay to come to her home and get drunk while she feeds them kinky foods they can tell their friends about—
things like fermented eel bisque and sheep’s bladder au vin. She’s a high-end foodie hooker.
Lotta’s recreational drug use is turning into a full-time job. She’s forty-five and still closing down Marquee. Every night. It’s become more than she can manage, and we’re not sure what to do about it. It’s not a good long-term plan.
Sarah’s filthy rich with an adoring fiancé and six frozen embryos, so she seems the most solid, but now she wants to be a “socialite.” We don’t quite get it. She’s going to galas and funding philanthropies, and she’s assembled a “team” whose sole job, it seems, is to keep her on Page Six. She’s also now completely obsessed with her hair.
Me? I’m a cliché. I married young, I had so much time. I thought I’d have two kids, a doting husband, and some sort of intellectually fulfilling career by now. Instead I have a set of outdated head shots, a pile of underwhelming clips, and my marriage is falling apart. Not in the Burton-Taylor way, either, with passion and smashed plates, but quietly, without fanfare. Like it never even happened.
We’ve fallen out of love or lust or something or everything, I’m not even sure. It’s the oldest story in the book.
Tonight, though, it’s the girls. We’re all here. We’re all good.
We have a system with our Tuesdays. The first one is fitness. We take a class until we get bored or exhausted by it, then move on to something else. We switched from Bikram yoga to SoulCycle last month because Lotta could not stand the heat. Before that, we did Barry’s Bootcamp, climbing subway stairs and jumping park benches. We got in fantastic shape but it nearly killed us. Sarah was sidelined with an ankle sprain for eight weeks.
Second Tuesdays are cocktails. Locations vary, but Rose Bar and the Standard are our go-tos. Third Tuesdays are always a proper dinner out, where we are seated at a table and handed menus. Until three months ago, Billy was the restaurant critic for Gastro Eat magazine,
and she can get us in anywhere on no notice, which is no small feat in New York. Then on the fourth Tuesday we stay in, rotating apartments. If there are five Tuesdays in a month, we skip the fifth, and that’s how it works.
Tonight is first Tuesday. We’ve switched it around, which sometimes happens, so they can help me with my piece. So instead of a park run, we’re at Bill’s and on edge. It’s eighty-five degrees outside and she doesn’t believe in air-conditioning. Billy is always saving the environment in small and insignificant ways, and one of those is refusing to artificially cool her air. That’s how she puts it.
“It makes no sense,” Lotta reminds her each time we’re here when it’s hot. “You won’t artificially cool your air in June, but in December you artificially heat it. What’s the difference?”
If we were a TV show, all of it would look great. Cocktails, witty lines, a minor drama to resolve, and then we’d shop. We could do this forever on television.
Sarah pecked at her phone, while Billy judged the wines we’d brought. Lotta cracked a window open and fanned herself with one of the books stacked up on Billy’s chair.
“Sarah,” Billy said, “are you crazy? This is a two-hundred-dollar Bordeaux. I’m not opening it.” Sarah shrugged.
Though it was Bill’s night to host, I’d taken charge and there was a growing impatience in the room. After my modeling career, I got a journalism degree and put it to work writing hard-hitting articles for magazines with airbrushed celebrities on the cover—things like “Hair Down There Is Back!” and “Kiss Like a Kardashian!” It’s not the stuff of dreams. But Noel White had just offered me a column in his magazine, SNOB. It’s edgy and smart, and they don’t do quizzes. He gave it to me because of Titus, I knew, and I was writing on spec, so he had nothing to lose. It wasn’t the most promising start, but I was fine with that.
“You guys, focus. Come on, it’s important,” I said.
“It’s a sex quiz,” Sarah said.
“No. It’s not. It’s the experience of four friends discussing how they think about and relate to men and sexuality through the construct of an exercise that happens to be a staple of every popular contemporary women’s magazine. It’s a statement.”
I caught Sarah rolling her eyes. She should have been. The piece was titled “Are You Hot?”
“Humor me,” I said.
“We are, Lu. Chill.” This from the girl who is steadfastly anti-chill.
My modeling career was short-lived. Partly because the business throws you curves. I was far from aging out, but I also wasn’t new anymore. New is everything. One day I walked into the office to meet my agent and there was a girl at the booking table I didn’t recognize. She was wearing my sweater. The same baby-pink Azzedine Alaïa teddy bear sweater that Azzedine had given to me. The one you can’t get anywhere else, but in Paris, from his store. From him. It was like seeing lingerie that isn’t yours on the shelf your boyfriend lets you use in his apartment. Men are careless.
But mostly, it was cut short because of Titus. When we started dating, he took a strong stance on my “career,” which is how he referred to it. With quotation marks in his voice. Every man in New York wants a model, but they’re not all so crazy about being married to one. So instead of the new Chanel ad, I got a husband, a degree in journalism, and a Master of Fucking Arts (as Billy calls it) from NYU.
Somewhere in all of that, though, I misplaced an entire decade. If I were arrested tomorrow for committing aggravated assault on my thirties, I wouldn’t have an alibi. Okay, yes, Officer. I did it. None of us would.
“What’s the question again?” Billy said. She was up now, standing alone in her cramped kitchen, decanting the reds.
I repeated it. “Boy shorts, G-string, or nothing?”
Billy did a sommelier’s pour into four glasses, starting us off with a “crisp” pinot gris. She’s a wine snob, though she prefers aficionado. She makes a distinction between pinot gris and pinot grigio, she won’t let us call American bubblies “champagne,” and she tastes hints of pine and charred beet greens in what seem to me the blandest of reds. My point is that Billy is a person who won’t drink a pinot gris that isn’t “crisp,” and there better be some scent of pear.
“Nothing,” Sarah said. I gave her a wary look.
“What?” she said. “You’re giving me bad options. So, nothing.”
If I were to put these women on canvas, like Titus does, I’d start with background.
Billy, like me, is from a small town. She’s from my small town, actually: we’ve known each other since fourth grade. I graduated early to move here and she followed me out the next year. We’re like sisters. I know that phrase is overused and everyone says it. I use it purposely, though, knowing that while it sounds trite, we just are. Exactly like sisters. Billy modeled, too, briefly, but mostly for catalogues. Her auburn hair and brown eyes are a great look, but at five-eight, she was too short for the runway. Her passion, though, has always been food. She served a foie gras torchon at her twelfth birthday party. Seriously. It took her five days to prepare, and it made two of the girls cry.
Sarah is a New York private school product. Her mother divorced early, then often, and they got by on a string of Mrs. Porter’s husbands, and then afterward, their settlements. She has four stepfathers, whom she refers to by number. As in, I had dinner with Three last night. Or, Two just got engaged, again. Sarah has an uncanny knack, like her mother, for pulling money and suitable men out of the air. This socialite thing, though. It’s one of the most cutthroat vocations in New York and she’s jumping into it now? At forty? Is she crazy? We aren’t sure.
Lotta is Swedish, literally. As in, she hasn’t bothered to get her citizenship yet, even though she’s lived here for twenty years. She’s outrageously beautiful—bone-white hair that most girls in this city would kill for and Julie Christie’s pouty lips. She loves men and she loves sex. She should. She has a man’s attention span, and a man’s insatiable appetite for stimulus. She’s an art dealer, and she’s good, but she loses focus and it gets her in trouble. If she put half the amount of energy into her career as she does into getting stoned by four o’clock, she’d be on New York magazine’s list of power brokers every year.
“Billy. Come on. Boy shorts, G-string, or nothing?” I prodded.
“I’m with Sarah,” she said. “I don’t like the choices. What if I just like white cotton?”
“It’s not a thesis dissertation,” I said. “It’s a quiz. Pretend you’re killing time in a waiting room. Just pick an answer.”
Lotta gave me another dramatic sigh. I put her down for G-string. I took “nothing.”
So that’s background. As for palette, we’re all over the place. Billy’s the earthy one, she’s a Hopper. I’m a Rothko. (Titus would cringe to hear me say that, he hated Rothko, but I am.) Lotta, wearing a skintight black dress tonight over her six-foot-long body even though it was just us, the girls, is definitely a Klimt. Sarah is a Modigliani. She was wearing, right then, feather slippers.
Sarah had a quick divorce in her twenties, but is now engaged to Brian Banks (yes, Banks) of Goldman Sachs. He’s conventionally handsome, conventionally dressed, and has conventional money, a lot of it. He helped underwrite the Twitter IPO. He can afford to fund her new hobby.
Billy, single, dumped her last serious boyfriend at the same time she dumped her job. He was a city tour guide who mumbled. No
great loss. She most recently dated Marcus, a musician she found on PlentyofFish who had four roommates in Queens. He was good in bed but not for much else, and, as Billy pointed out, it wasn’t even his bed. When he started to leave things at her apartment—first a toothbrush, then his dog—she ended it quick. “I’m not a sugar mama,” she told us. She has an online dating habit she can’t seem to break. She updates her profiles compulsively, the way some people bite their nails. It turns up odds and ends. Mostly ends.
Lotta’s divorced, too, from David—a music producer who now goes by Danielle. They never lived together but they were married for five years. He helped her get her apartment, and now she still steps in when Lotta slips on the rent. He was nice, we all liked him. He’s the only stability, I think, she’s ever had besides us.
Me? I have Titus. We’ve been married for eighteen years. And it’s complicated.
“For his birthday, what do you give him: a watch, skydiving lessons, nude selfie?”
“See?” Billy said. “These answers are limiting. Because it depends on how long you’ve been together, and then the age spread, what he does for a living, and why you’re even bothering with him at all. If he’s just a sex fix, then the selfie. If he’s older, then you get skydiving lessons to make him feel young, and a watch? He should already have a watch. The watch is too personal. Who am I to buy a man a watch?”
“I don’t even get it,” Lotta said. She was still working her phone, flipping from Tinder to Snapchat to Tinder. She obviously had later plans.
“Well, if I’m just screwing him,” Billy continued, “if I’m just with him because I’m lonely and he doesn’t knock me out but I’m fine with the sleepovers, then I’ll give him selfies. You have to be really into someone to jump out of a plane.”
Sarah cut in. “But nude selfies should be just in the beginning, or maybe the middle if you think you’re losing him. It’s tricky because you have to send them before someone else does, I think. Once someone else starts sexting him, you’re screwed. You have to preempt with selfies. There’s a strategy.”
See? This is what I wanted. Smart are you hot? repartee.
Billy refilled my glass. I stopped her halfway. The crisp pinot gris with its notes of pear was a little too sweet. It was making me dizzy.
“Luce,” she said. “You have to play, too.”
“Okay, I am. Let’s keep going. You’re talking to someone you’re interested in. Do you twirl your hair, lick your lips, or look away?”
“Lick my lips.”
That was Sarah, Billy, and Lotta in that order. I was “twirl.” Which celebrity did we most want to be like out of Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift, and J-Lo? Aniston. Aniston. Aniston. Even Lotta.
“Okay. Here’s a good one. What kind of girl are you? Lotta? Are you naughty and nice, dirty and perverted, or flirty?”
Lotta laughed; she almost spit out her wine.
“Dirty pervert, all the way.”
“I think I’m flirty,” Sarah said. “I’m definitely not naughty.”
“Hmm,” Billy said. “I’ll take dirty pervert, too.”
In bed, Lotta talks sexy, Sarah is playful, and Billy takes control. If we were jeans, Lotta would be skinny, Billy would be cutoffs, and I, too, would be skinny. Sarah took “boyfriend.”
We were on to the reds now, and the room was not quite as hot. I cleared my throat, took a drink of my wine.
“Okay, last one,” I announced, through a mouthful of bread. “Is love more important? Or sex?”
Lotta was up and helping herself to Billy’s liquor cabinet. A methodical
clink, clink, clink of ice and a generous pour of Grey Goose. “If you love sex, and then you find great sex, bingo, you have both,” she said.
Sarah said, of course, love.
Billy smirked. “I mean . . . really? I think love would be nice if he has his shit together. Nothing against sex. Sex always comes first, though, so it’s just a nice bonus to get love. Luce?”
Lotta had downed the first drink fast and was refilling her glass.
“I don’t know,” I said. “They’re both tricky.”
“Don’t ever make us do one of these again,” Sarah said.
A man and a woman were shouting on the street. “No, fuck you!” the man yelled. We got up to watch out Billy’s window. A few seconds of angry-looking gestures and then the woman, head down, walked quickly across the street. He didn’t follow.
Sarah turned away. “What was that about, do you think? Love or sex?”
“That was definitely love,” Billy said. “Luce, pass me the wine.”