The Price of Illusion
Shrieks of lightning hit the parking lot at Linate Airport, but the flight from Paris had been smooth. I sheltered flat against the plate-glass wall waiting for the car and wondered where this storm had come from. I told myself it wasn’t personal.
The lightning and the rain created traffic jams through Milan that made me late to meet Jonathan Newhouse at Caffè Cova, where I’d been summoned for a talk before the first fashion show. When I arrived, I apologized for the weather.
He sat on a corner banquette beneath a display of porcelain, wearing new glasses that made him look like Rodchenko.
The teacups shone in the glass case behind him; the brass fittings on the mahogany glowed around us in the muted clatter of high heels and waiters’ shoes and teaspoons in china cups and distant bursts of steam nozzles foaming the cappuccinos in the front room. I could feel the tight armholes of my narrow tweed coat, the tug of the pink velvet seat against the crepe of my dress, my platform shoes tight over my toes. My laptop was at my feet in a Gucci case designed for me, next to my Prada bag. New look for the new season, every label in place.
“I want you to take a sabbatical, starting today,” he said.
“On the first day of the European collections? I can’t do that.”
months, starting now,” he said.
Sudden stillness. Ice water in my veins. Guillotine. It’s over. What did I do?
Two thoughts collided and set off a high-pitched whine in my head. No more Vogue. Back to writing. I’ve been on show watching a show for almost seven years, and it’s always the same show. I have nothing to write about.
That’s the end of the salary, the end of the job, why did I think salary before I thought job? How can I take care of Jules now? He’s eaten everything I earn. His apartment, Aneeta who looks after him, Johanna who relieves Aneeta, the studio for Johanna above his apartment, the taxi service, his doctors and his dentists, his meals, his clothes, his everything.
“This is between us, don’t talk to anyone,” said Jonathan. He pushed a piece of paper at me with one word on it, the name of the place where he wanted me to go. “It’s just two months, then you’ll come back. I’m doing this because I’m your friend.”
“Either you’re my friend, or you’re setting me up,” I said. “I choose to believe you are my friend.”
And having demonstrated to myself how gallant I could be, I decided to proceed to the next item on the typed list my assistant had pasted in my datebook. “I’m late for Prada,” I said, and before he could stop me I rose and carried my two bags through the steam and crowd of the front room, out into the rain to the waiting car, and on to the Prada show, where I stared at the shoes on the feet of the editors across the runway, and then at the shoes on the feet of the models on the runway, until it hit me that my opinion of the shoes, the dresses, the models, the hair, had entirely ceased to matter. When the show was over, the front-row editors headed backstage to congratulate Miuccia Prada, and I walked very slowly the other way, out onto the street.
Back in my hotel room, I stared at the bed, uncertain what to do next. Beautifully wrapped packages from fashion houses were piled everywhere. I knew the same gifts were in the rooms of every editor in chief in every hotel in Milan: small leather goods with logos, the new handbag, the new fragrance, the new scarf and tassel. Garment bags
lay across the sofa, heavy with the fall clothes I’d ordered from Missoni and Jil Sander six months earlier. Clothes for a life I no longer had. He’d said I would come back, but I knew that wasn’t true.
I looked at the name of the place where I was supposed to go. It didn’t occur to me to call my lawyer.
No talking to the press, no talking to anyone, no noise, no movement. He wanted me off the planet, invisible. I couldn’t stay at home; my apartment in Paris was in the center of a knot of fashion streets patrolled by attachés de presse and luxury-goods executives. I’d always thought that in a crisis I’d retreat to a friend’s ranch in central California, but we were in one of our periodic frosts and hadn’t spoken for over a year. There were others in America who’d welcome me; I could hide in their big houses by the sea as fall became winter, but there would be weekends and weekend guests and gossip, and I had been ordered to vanish.
My entire life had been one easy exile after another, but I’d lived in too many places to belong anywhere. I had nowhere to go. I looked again at the slip of paper Jonathan had given me. Cottonwood.