The Bucket List
I’m having a bad nipple day. This morning a new bra smoothed my little rosebuds into nonexistence. But now, midafternoon, they are clearly visible through my top, as perky as a pair of sitcom stars. I realize this ten minutes into our weekly all-hands meeting, when it’s too late to throw a scarf around my neck or change clothes. Instead, I slowly and surreptitiously start to hunch forward, trying to get the material of my top to stop clinging so obviously to my chest. But my nipples refuse to be silenced.
Of course, I am aware the nipple can and should be freed. We all have them; why deny it? An argument of distraction is clearly victim blaming, while propriety feels revoltingly Victorian. But, I am not a ding-dong. I was alerted as to what was happening with my boobs via a brief but devastating frown from one of the company’s most influential fashion editors, Eloise Cunningham-Bell. Her look of distaste was all the information I needed: nipples are not welcome at Hoffman House. Everyone knows I’ve been coveting a job on Eloise’s team since I was an intern. And so everyone could guess who is in charge of my nipples. Not I, my friends. Not I.
As a member of senior staff, Eloise has joined those sitting around a table the size of a beach. The company’s quite literal inner circle. I’ve joined the ones lining the walls. To an untrained eye, we wall liners appear impeccably styled and socially relevant. But the truth is, we are junior sales. Bottom-feeders.
Collectively the inner-circle editors look like a casting call for “diverse Brooklyn fun person.” Their expertise ranges from youth culture to city and lifestyle to menswear to interiors. They’re always jetting off to or coming back from London or Milan, Tokyo or Berlin. I’ve just gotten
back from the café downstairs, where a rather sad kale salad and I had a brief and underwhelming winter fling.
Senior staff talk. Junior staff listen. I continue to hunch.
The meeting lasts about an hour. When it comes to an end and we all rise to exit, I find myself unexpectedly in step with Eloise herself. Even now, I’m still intimidated. But I force myself to speak. “Hey.” I smile, friendly as I can. “I was just wondering if you got the reports I emailed you last week?”
She glances at me, with the chilly impenetrable beauty of a Nordic queen. “I did.”
I have no response planned. “Great! I’d love any tips. Or feedback. Feel free to use them—”
“I’m late,” she says, striding ahead.
Feel free to use them. What a dumb thing to say. I collapse into my chair at my cubicle, resisting the urge to groan. Eloise doesn’t need to use my reports. Her work is perfect. Her taste is perfect. She’s probably on her way somewhere unspeakably glamorous: a private showing of a new collection, perhaps, to be viewed with a glass of champagne and inside jokes. Why do I even bother? Oh, that’s right: So I can stop scraping by on commission. So I can do something creatively fulfilling, so I can travel. So I can occupy a workspace big enough to merit a door. A door of one’s own: this is my Holy Grail.
I duck my head below my cubicle wall to answer my bleating phone. “This is Lacey.”
“Lacey Whitman?” The man’s voice has a cut of authority.
“This is Dr. Fitzpatrick at Midtown Medical. I’m calling because you missed your last appointment.”
My four o’clock pushes open our heavy glass door, brushing snow from her coat collar. She smiles at our receptionist, making a joke I can’t hear. “I’m sorry, Doctor”—his name escapes me, so I idiotically repeat—“Doctor; it’s been bananas in here. ‘Here’ being work; I’m at work.”
“When can you come in to discuss the samples we took during your Pap smear?” Doctor Doctor is insistent.
“Discuss?” Apprehension, just the suggestion of it, sniffs at my feet. I kick it away. “Can’t we speak over the phone?”
“We don’t give out test results over the phone, Ms. Whitman. You’ll need to make an appointment. When can you come in?”
My four o’clock catches my eye and does an awkward one-finger wave. I point to the phone and mouth, One second. “I’m sorry, I really don’t have time this week.”
Later, I’ll remember this afternoon as the Last Day. It wasn’t the Last Day where I was free and happy and had the perfect life: show me a contented twenty-five-year-old in New York City and I’ll show you a secretly unhappy liar or a deluded happy fool. No, this was the Last Day of feeling like I was in control of my future. It was the Last Day of believing that you only get a set amount of trouble. It was the Last Day of my small life.
Doctor Doctor draws a long breath. “Ms. Whitman, you tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation.”
The words land with the concise clarity of custard hurled against a wall. I can’t stop blinking. “What?”
“I’ve made an appointment for you with a genetic counselor tomorrow to discuss your options.”
“My options? I thought we were talking about my Pap smear.”
Papers shuffling. His voice is curt. “You asked about the best time frame to start mammograms. We discussed a test that could help determine that time frame. Do you remember that?”
Blood bubbling into a vial. I made a joke about vampires. “Yes.”
“Do you know what this means? Do you understand the ramifications?”
I’m having trouble focusing. “But I came in for a Pap smear . . . Just a routine—a regular . . .” I run out of steam. I stare straight ahead, breathing through my nose.
“Ms. Whitman? Are you still there?”
* * * *
I take my four o’clock: the creative director for Target. There I am, in one of the small, bright conference rooms, presenting next year’s fall with lunatic talk-show sincerity. “The trend for the tweed is continu
ing as an organic-looking base, and the demand for trouser suits isn’t going anywhere.” My voice sounds unnaturally loud. “Is it loungewear? Is it sportswear? Personally, I’m excited about shearling. I think we could see the caplet get reinvented.”
I laugh too hard at my client’s jokes. Leap too excitedly on her insights. I feel drunk. Drugged, dreaming, split in half. One version of me is saying my lines—or a bizarre, dadaistic performance of my lines—while another version is running around in the wings, unable to find the stage.
When the show’s over, I have a missed call from Vivian. Her quick, sardonic voice plays back: “Hey babe, my flight was diverted to Newark because of the weather, so I’ll be a little late. New Jersey, yay. Brush up on the latest download numbers, hopefully we can bust them out tonight.”
I’d forgotten about the party. I could tell you exactly what I wore to my middle school dance, down to the color of my socks (leopard print, and you better believe they had a lacy frill), but I’d forgotten about Hoffman House’s holiday party. Which is, of course, tonight.
I don’t think about . . . it. It’s not a conscious denial, it just feels like something I can outrun, and so I do. I familiarize myself with the fashion editors’ new reports, skim Women’s Wear Daily, and attempt to get on the list for a few Fashion Week parties by sending flirty emails to various publicists. Just before seven, I fish out my day-to-night makeup bag from my bottom drawer.
The gray-tiled bathroom is cool and empty. I lay out my products on the marble counter, a ritual I’ve always found soothing. Curling mascara, dark pink lip liner, blush . . . my hands are shaking. A wave of nausea sweeps over me. I hold my hair back over the toilet bowl, ready for my sad kale salad to make a surprise comeback. But my body refuses to be sick, settling instead for a slight tremble and overall queasiness.
Ghastly is the word my reflection inspires. My hair, which I’ve been carefully bleaching a silvery white-blond ever since I moved to New York three years ago, makes me look as sallow as the zombie light of a midnight subway train.
A calendar notification pops up on my phone: 7:00 p.m.: STOP WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING, get ready for party now. Not in five more minutes. NOW.
I keep a few dresses in the coat closet for events. Tonight, I need bright armor to protect me. Romance Was Born, the electric, extroverted Australian label known for high-flash high fashion. My client at Saks gifted me the dress for Christmas (a sample, not complaining). Chiffon, floor-length, keyhole neck, quarter-length sleeves. The edge of the skirt is red and yellow fire, melting into a print of exotic bird feathers. Iridescent greens and cerulean blues give way to an almost all-white bodice. Paired with my trusty black fedora and a face full of makeup, I’ll look like everyone else at a Hoffman House party.