"Maya didn't mention you had plans this weekend," Natalie's mom sounded skeptical at breakfast the next day. Then again, Natalie's mom always sounded skeptical where Maya was concerned. Elena considered her ex-sister in-law "constitutionally unreliable" and frequently clucked over Maya's "selective memory," not that Natalie had ever seen evidence of either of these supposed flaws in her aunt.
Natalie sighed and considered her predicament. Nick was still in bed, and Teddy had left super-early for work—7 a.m. on a Sunday!—so Elena could devote all her energies to her daughter. Perfect.
"Well, did you ask her if we had plans?" Natalie retorted. She felt jumpy, even a little nauseated, in the aftermath of whatever had or hadn't happened with Josh the night before. Why had she thrown herself at him like that? And why had he recoiled?
She wasn't exactly sure why she'd lied to her mother about her brunch with James. Or rather, she'd told the truth about where she was going (Bar Six) and what she was doing (having brunch), except instead of mentioning the random older girl with a boy's name she'd met an audition Elena knew nothing about, Natalie had simply substituted in Maya.
"Er, no," Natalie's mom said, arching her eyebrow at her daughter. "It's just I never pegged Maya for much of a bruncher."
Oops. Elena did have a point there. Maya—the much younger sister of Natalie's late father, Izzy—wasn't really the eggs Benedict type. She ran a wildly popular "yoga and lifestyle studio retreat" in SoHo and spent most mornings leading group meditation.
Luckily for Natalie, Elena had never been close to her first husband's younger sister. Even though they lived 30 miles apart, the former sisters-in-law saw each other only once a year, on the anniversary of Izzy's death.
Natalie spooned another bite of oatmeal. "I know, but today she has this yoga for athletes thing she wants me to try."
The lies kept coming fluidly, probably because they were tweaked versions of the truth. Maya violently disapproved of high-impact exercise and was always warning Natalie that if she didn't take stretching more seriously, she'd have cause to regret it. "Yoga moves with the blood; running goes against it," Maya said. "You of all people should take that truth to heart."
Natalie of all people. She disliked even the best-intentioned reminders of her disease. Wasn't it enough that she could lose a pint of blood to a paper cut or that she spent three days a month crouched over the toilet with agonizing cramps and the other 27 splattered with repulsive bruises?
"I'll be back in the early afternoon," she told her mom.
Rather than risk more suspicious commentary from Elena, Natalie went bare-faced to the bus stop; it'd be safer to do her makeup in a stall of Port Authority. She'd been careful to choose a Maya-approved outfit: leggings and a soft blue shirt. She'd tucked a glittery scarf and pair of mega-hoop earrings in her bag.
The trip under the tunnel went quickly on Sunday mornings, and Natalie alighted from the bus a full hour before she was scheduled to meet James.
Natalie had visited New York countless times over the course of her life, but that morning the city felt unfamiliar, even a little haunted. It was a bright day, which only exaggerated the desertion of the streets, and Natalie's shadow seemed to stretch 20 feet ahead of her. The only signs of life flickered through the windows of the few cafes already open at this early hour; even the buses moaning past were bereft of passengers. It almost felt as if the city belonged to her and her alone. Natalie sighed: She just couldn't wait to move here and stay forever.
She often thought she owed her appreciation of all things NYC to her father, Izzy Pollock, who had been born and raised in the East Village, attended architecture school at Cooper Union, and—aside from the occasional house commission upstate—stayed in the city for all of his adult life. Well, almost all of it. Izzy had died the year after he, Elena, and baby Nat had moved to New Jersey. Like that needed any interpretation.
Slowly as she tried to walk, stopping to admire the goods in store windows, Natalie arrived at the restaurant with almost half an hour to spare. As she peered inside, a hostess boinged to the door with a menu in her hand. "Brunch?"
"Uh, yeah," Natalie responded after some hesitation. It'd probably look weird to say no and then reappear 20 minutes later.
She was seated in a corner booth, next to two college-aged girls who were rifling through vacation photographs from somewhere with lots of sand and surfboards. The bizarre thing, Natalie realized after a minute of blatant eavesdropping, was that neither of the girls had actually been on the vacation they were discussing with such animation.
"Check it out—the house they rented came with its own maid," one of them said.
"That woman?" The other girl leaned in to get a closer look. "She's, like, a walking peepshow!" The pair laughed in a way that made Natalie's ears heat up.
Surprised, Natalie looked up to see James skidding toward her table—was it naive to assume glamorous models were always a million hours late to everything? It was still 20 minutes before their designated meeting time.
James shimmied out of her black leather jacket and folded her delicate body into the booth. Her face was make-up-free, and her black curls were piled up in a bun, a few tendrils falling down her back. She looked amazing and smelled even more so—like sweet tobacco or the pollen of some extinct tropical flower. The girls at the next table paused to take her in.
"What are you doing with that sentimental garbage?" James said of the copy of The Lovely Bones that Natalie had been pretending to read. Before Natalie could even blush, James shot her a blinding grin. "I'm totally kidding, cutie. I've read that book twice. I'm a sucker for anything simultaneously creepy and beautiful. It's my absolute favorite combo."
Natalie's insides loosened up and she laughed, both at her own jumpiness and at James' flair for maximizing the dramatic potential of every syllable she uttered.
James's charm didn't wane over their coffees and French toast. She made fun of her bad taste in music—"Half my favorite bands are only played on easy-listening stations"— and copped to never buying expensive clothes. "I like secondhand shops," she said as she polished off her meal in record time. "Especially the scavenger-hunt aspect of it all. I'm a sucker for old crap like vintage Archie comics and random chipped teacups."
"My mom collects teacups!" Natalie cried. "There's this store in East Orange that sells them super-cheap."
"Oh, sexcellent, what's it called?" James said, pulling out a battered Moleskine notebook. "My memory is a total sieve, so if I don't write everything down instantly, I'm screwed. And who can say—maybe my next story will be set in a quiet New Jersey town?"
"No way! You write, too?"
"I try to," James said. "At least that's my official excuse for taking time off after high school—not that my mom gives half a shit whether I ever attend college."
Natalie was struck silent by this. In Edgemont, the college acceptance letter was the be-all end-all of existence—for the parents as much as the kids. She couldn't imagine parental indifference to such an all-important matter.
"But enough about me," James said quickly. "Tell me more about Jersey. I've always dreamed of living some place … functional like that."
"You're welcome to it," Natalie said, laughing.
And so their blissful exchange continued. At one point during the meal, James placed her hand on Natalie's and rasped, "I swear, you remind me so much of myself," causing Natalie to blush furiously. It wasn't a compliment she'd soon forget.
It wasn't until after they'd paid (or actually, after James had paid—"Please! I get paid squillions for doing squat") that Natalie mustered the courage to ask about the Dark Shadows callback.
James gasped. "Omigod! I totally forgot, and that's why we're supposed to be here, isn't it? Have you been sitting here this whole time just waiting for me to get down to business?"
"No, God, not at all—" Natalie protested.
"You must think I'm a total idiot, but it's your fault for being such a fun brunch date!" James said, then leaned conspiratorially forward and lowered her voice. "I shouldn't have called you Friday, but how was I to know?"
"Know what?" Now Natalie leaned forward, too.
"The thing is …" James scooted closer to Natalie in the booth. "Something happened yesterday—something bad. To Fiona, I mean."
"Oh, no! What do you mean?" Fiona had recently tweeted about her sister Tilly flying in from California to keep her company while she underwent some "itty-bitty bunion procedure." Could the bunion removal have been botched? Or maybe it had something to do with the crash diet Fiona had embarked on in preparation for her book tour?
"Can I trust you to keep a secret?" James waited for Natalie to nod. "Swear to God, you cannot tell anyone. I'd get killed if this got out." James was now so close that Natalie could smell the eucalyptus tang of her lip balm.
"I swear," Natalie said solemnly.
"All right, then," James said, her voice hushed and serious. "OK, well, the thing is, she … I guess there's really no nice way to say this, but, well, Fiona had something of a nervous breakdown last night. I mean, we're talking completely batshit, around-the-bend insane. She was air-lifted to the hospital and is now insisting on totally rewriting Dark Passages from the psych ward."
"What?" Natalie could barely breathe. Coffee cups clattered thunderously behind her.
Any casual follower of Fiona's tweets knew that the author had her share of eccentricities. In addition to her daily 4 p.m. cupcake quest (no two alike in a year), Fiona insisted on wearing a unicorn costume to all her readings and offered unconventional advice on the publishing process. And she'd definitely gotten into some serious trouble at the big book fair in New York last month. But still—a psych ward?
"Crazy, right? Like, literally." James spilled the contents of a sugar packet on the table and used her index finger to shape the granules into a triangle. "And since Fiona calls all the shots, she's decided to postpone publication for at least another year, which means they're also postponing the cover shoot." James shook her head. "The Dark Shadows branding team is completely freaking out, but trust me on this one, you cannot cross Fiona and live to tell the tale."
Then, noticing Natalie's dismay, James added quickly, "But don't worry—there will definitely be other shoots. What matters is that the camera loves you, and the casting director has your number."
"No, no, I don't care about that," Natalie said honestly. She'd been thinking about poor Fiona, and the difficulty of surviving another year without her next Dark Shadows fix.
"Good! Because you shouldn't," James said, scooting her chair away from the table. "You have a seriously bright future in this messed-up industry, Nat—I can't wait to show you the ropes."
Nat. Natalie had always hated that nickname. Nat was an old man wearing a tweed hat and chomping on a cigar. But uttered by James, "Nat" made her a co-conspirator, a fellow member of an exclusive society of girls with boy names. As she rose from the table, Natalie smiled shyly at her new friend. "That'd be so cool," she said. "And thanks so much again for brunch—it was great."
"No, thank you," James gushed. "I only wish I could hang out with you all day, but I promised my boyfriend Jonathan I'd go with him to some photography show his friend's curating in Chelsea." She rolled her eyes. "I swear to G, I'm, like, fatally sick of the fashion industry and all the numbskulls who populate it—and that's not necessarily excluding Jonathan."
"No problem," Natalie stuttered out. She still hadn't recovered from the Fiona bombshell. "I should get back to Jersey, anyway—I have a ton of work today."
"Well, OK, then, happy travels," James said, and leaned in to plant a wet kiss on the tip of Natalie's nose. "See you soon, sweet girl."
Natalie smiled up at the restaurant's pressed tin ceiling. "See you soon" implied a future, a continuation of this dizzying, completely unearned bliss.