Chapters 2 & 3 from A Spy in Stilettos
Last week I posted Chapter 1, where we meet Melody as she has to handle a drunken guest at the mansion where she's working as a parlor maid.
In chapters 2 & 3, we learn a bit of how she ended up in that predicament—as a parlor maid for the 1% of the 1% (aka the 0.1%).
I hope you enjoy it.
A Spy in Stilettos
Eighteen hours earlier, I was sitting in the quiet of Café Proteus, my local haunt in East Harlem, working on my third refill of dark roast, and staring at my computer and the unavoidable reality that my rent was four months past due, my student loans were crashing down, and—despite having spent a year bent over The Chronicle of Higher Education’s job listings and sending one hundred and thirty-two applications into the academic void—I had not gotten a single interview, even by phone.
It didn’t help knowing that I had made myself some kind of academic Typhoid Mary when I had decided on the topic of my dissertation: “Deconstructing Deconstruction: The Rhetoric of Postmodernism and the Demise of Critical Thinking”—which sounds impressive, sure, but so far had not impressed any English departments anywhere. If my academic advisor at Columbia had warned me that I would emerge from my 246-thousand-dollar, student-loan-financed education regarded as an academic blasphemer, maybe I would have picked a safer topic, like “The Existentialism of Lady Gaga” or “The Shakespearean Tradition in Reality TV.” I don’t know. I think Professor Markley was amused by my hubris.
So now my only job prospects comprised serving drinks at Skoochy’s Cabaret in Midtown or serving carnal pleasures as a girlfriend-for-hire.
I needed options.
I refreshed the jobs page, and a new listing gave me hope:
Immediate Opening: Full-time Research Assistant
Must be smart, organized, presentable, resourceful self-starter who needs little supervision and embodies grace under pressure.
• Strong writing skills. Graduate degree a plus.
• Compensation: commensurate with ability.
Perfect! Research I could do. I had a kick-ass graduate degree. I was more than ready to work full-time. And here I was, with my financial world crumbling all around me. Grace under pressure described me to a tee. But the last line of the listing killed me:
• Location: Hudson River Valley, outside of Cold Spring.
I sat there, alternating between staring at that listing and staring out the window. I did not want to leave New York City—not a chance, not to work a day job.
And Cold Spring, where the hell was that? I looked it up. Way the fuck out of town, up in the wilderness, where people get bitten by deer ticks, horseflies, vampire bats, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes! I was quite certain the roads wouldn’t be paved and cafés would be scarce. And there was no way I’d be able to buy oranges at three a.m.
It would be life in the sticks. Or an epic nightmare of a commute from the city.
But: Graduate degree a plus.
And I needed to do something.
But with my checking account running on vapors and only forty-three bucks in my purse, I wasn’t likely to be buying much of anything anywhere at three a.m., or any other time.
I emailed them my CV and refilled my coffee.
Twenty minutes later, I received a reply:
Excellent qualifications. Are you able to come in today for an interview?
I blinked. Right there on my screen was the first interview request I had received since graduating. I couldn’t believe it. For a solid minute, I read and re-read the email, daring it to change into the typical rejection. But it didn’t change.
I jumped out of my chair and shattered the peaceful quiet of the café. “Yes!”
For the first time in four years, I stood before my mirror in my navy Tahari suit, which never would have fit had I not been subsisting for the past three months on a daily diet of one hard-boiled egg, one-half can of white tuna, and coffee—lots of coffee. You see, I’ve always been on the large side. My mom would always say I was just a big girl. That was me. Big girl. (In middle school in California, it was pretty much unbearable to be around the other girls with their petite bodies and dainty hands and cute little feet. The still-shrimpy boys, who scarcely came up to my shoulders, would call me Blondezilla and roar like monsters before dashing away, giggling. Annoying little fucks. That ended when we moved to DC and my breasts started growing. Then the boys named me Boobzilla. High school, the fount of maturity.)
In the context of my usual, sensible big-girl-in-the-big-city fashion line of sweats, jeans, sneakers, and concert T-shirts, the suit gave me a feeling of being a real professional, even if managing grace under pressure in the one-and-a-half-inch heels of my matching navy Mootsies Tootsies pumps would possibly present a challenge.
Someone knocked on my door, but time was short—only forty-five minutes to catch my train—so I ignored it and brushed out my hair into something more presentable than a rat’s nest and set to applying some make-up. After quickly inserting my good-luck pilcrow earrings (because what marks a new paragraph in life more than getting a new job?), I made one last mirror check.
I was dressed for interviewing success.
When I stepped out of my apartment, I saw tacked to my door a document:
WRITTEN DEMAND FOR PAYMENT OF PAST-DUE RENT
I had three days to pay up or move out. It listed the thousands of dollars I was in arrears.
Fuck fuck fuck! I know how much I owe!
I decided I had to deal with this later. I couldn’t miss my train. Besides, wouldn’t getting a job be dealing with it?
Forty minutes later, the dazzling sunlight shining through the windows into Grand Central Station stopped me in my tracks. It felt like a cathedral, except with no pews and the four-sided clock serving as altar. Footsteps and voices of the bustling travelers echoed in the hall. For a few moments I just stood there, picturing myself among the commuters, marching with purpose to and from work.
A clean-shaven, raw-boned man with pitted pink cheeks and a rumpled plaid jacket appeared in front of me, standing too close and smelling vaguely of bleu cheese. In a crackly voice, he recited as if by rote, “Please, can you help me, I was robbed, they took my wallet, I don’t have enough money to get back home.”
My automatic city response kicked in and I stepped away, muttering, “Sorry.”
“Fucking cunt bitch!” he snapped at my back. Did I tell you that’s another one of my names? You can collect quite a few on the streets of New York. (Some of my other favorites are Yo Lady Suck My Dick, Hey Babe Come To My Place And I’ll Open New Worlds To You, Fuck You White Whore, and You Know You Want It. It’s all quite creative, don’t you think? Maybe I should collect them all in a baby names book and donate the profits to a women’s shelter.)
Getting on the train actually felt something like reaching sanctuary. I found an empty seat, hunkered down against the window, and put on my public-transportation grimace to deter people from sitting next to me. It worked for a few minutes.
Facing this trip into the unknown, I had to tell Petra. I pulled out my phone and texted:
Going upstate for a job interview.
Petra was my one best friend. Unlike me, she had her shit together. She knew who she was, what she wanted, and how to get it.
Petra was pretty, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark aura that gave her a gothic aspect without even trying, which stood her in good stead in the city; yet it was her easy bearing, like she was the center of the universe, that struck me the first time I met her back when I moved into the university apartment she and I shared. I was new to the city and found it to be alien, noisy, aggressive, and exciting. By contrast, she, who had been in America only two months, seemed to be in her native element. Uptown, downtown, noisy street, Central Park, fancy restaurant, Katz Deli, it didn’t matter—she always fit right in like she was born to be there. I was the dorky blonde girl who didn’t fit in anywhere, so she was my pass into the world.
Maybe it was her Eastern European upbringing, but to her everything—everything—had an obvious truth to it or was not worth considering; and when she was questioned on it, a shrug sufficed as answer enough. “The President is focused on building empire.” Shrug. “Pluto is either planet or not planet.” Shrug. “Only women know how to please women.” Shrug.
“It’s not as simple as that,” I’d reply. And she’d shrug again. For me, everything had nuance. Nothing was cut and dried. Even facts had asterisks—qualifications to contextualize the limits of what was known.
“You always ask, ‘How true is true?’” she said to me once. “Why is this?”
I shrugged, which from me meant, I don’t know.
Through the window of the train, I watched the people on the platform, picking out the New Yorkers from the out-of-towners. The latter wore white sneakers and puffy jackets in fruit colors; the former tended to wear wool coats or leather jackets, power shoes (oxfords, boots, or vampy heels), and lots of black overall—black being the uniform for the city since the days of coal.
My phone clicked. Petra had replied:
No. A day job. I need to pay rent.
It’s a long shot.
hope good $
I’m at the point where any money is good money.
With a gentle nudge, the platform started sliding forward and I realized I was sitting in a backward-facing seat. Who the hell came up with backward-facing seats? Does anybody actually enjoy sitting backwards on a train? I certainly don’t. It made me sick—a sad fact I’d learned years ago in the very back of my mother’s ancient Buick Estate Wagon—the boat, as we called it. I glanced around the train car, looking for an open seat facing the other way, but they were all at least half-occupied, and just then I didn’t relish sharing a seat with an unknown person with unknown hygiene, unknown chattiness, or unknown manners.
My phone clicked. Petra again:
nester cming. Epic
Nester? I didn’t know who that was, or why she’d be so excited about him, but asking her was preempted by the unceremonious flopping into the seat next to me of a short, round, bald man with a fat flap-top briefcase and a face dripping with sweat. He smelled like garlic, rum, and peppermint.
I folded my arms and curled myself up as small as I could against the window. He didn’t get off until the stop before mine. At least he didn’t hit on me.