Sometimes when you''re having the shittiest of days, you need to take one more tequila shot and splash some water on your face. Then, as absurd as it seems, you''ve got to go to a restaurant opening.
On one such shit day-the day that would end up setting everything in motion-I stood in front of a storefront lit with lanterns. In the window, my reflection wobbled, a disheveled figure in a corduroy miniskirt, dark curly hair all mussed from the windy September evening. That afternoon, I''d lost my job. The idea of hobnobbing in a crowd of loud, sparkling people made my stomach turn.
But I had to go inside. This was Raf''s opening. He was fancy now, profiled in Vanity Fair as the hot new celebrity chef on the scene, but he was also still the stringy boy down the block. After my parents divorced, when my mom needed a place for me to stay with free supervision until she got home from work, I''d spent multiple afternoons a week in Raf''s living room. Raf had always shared his Doritos and listened to me declaim the terrible poetry I''d written when I should''ve been paying attention in math class.
In and out, that was the plan. I threw my shoulders back and walked into the chatter, the sweet garlicky smells. Raf''s parents had grown up in Cuba before immigrating to the States together, and the press loved talking about how this fast-rising chef was reinventing the food of his roots with distinctly American twists. The breads were baked in-house. The meat came from a farm upstate where the animals were treated like family, until they were slaughtered.
I gave my name to a young woman at the door, and she scanned the clipboard in her hand, then waved me into the throng. There were two contingents in attendance-the older investor types, and then a smattering of New York''s privileged millennial crowd, who dropped by restaurant openings as casually as I dropped by my neighborhood bodega. Waiters carried trays of mojitos, or plantains speared with toothpicks. One of them offered me a miniature deconstructed Cubano, tiny and glistening with oil, like a sandwich for a doll. I popped it in my mouth, then paused to marvel at the taste of it. It was just so full of flavor, life bursting in my throat. I grabbed a mojito and took a long sip, scanning the room for Raf.
There he was, in a corner, wiry, tall, and tan, with a tattoo snaking up one arm, wearing a freaking baseball cap and T-shirt to his own opening. God, a woman could never get away with that, but if anything, it increased his appeal, judging by the gaggle of model-types jockeying for his attention. Raf was cute enough, but he wasn''t the kind of guy you''d stop to look at twice on the street. Now, though, he had status, so he could go home with any woman he chose. We all wanted to feel that we were special, and if a special guy wanted to sleep with us, that seemed close enough. I rolled my eyes at the machinations of the women around him (although I''d been that way too in my early to mid twenties, hadn''t I, jumping into bed with a visiting professor at my nonfiction graduate writing program and thinking that it made me unique). Then I walked toward him.
"Jillian!" he said, his eyes crinkling with relief to see a familiar face. He stepped away from the others and wrapped me in a bear hug. He was a little sweaty, uneasy at being the center of attention. "Oh, thank God, someone I know how to talk to."
"Hey, Raffie," I said into his chest, then held him at arm''s length. "Look at you, you''re such a big deal!" I leaned in and narrowed my eyes, all conspiratorial. "Tell me the truth, how much of a fuck boy are you being right now?"
His grin turned sheepish, and he tugged on his cap. "Not . . . you know . . . Maybe a little bit of one."
I laughed, or tried to anyway, and he looked at me. "Hey, you okay?"
Well, I wanted to say. You know how I had to put my career on hold to take care of my mom while she slowly died of cancer? And how I just came back to work full-time, ready to write the zeitgeist-capturing journalism I''d spent the last couple years dreaming about? Today, the billionaire who owned my news website shut us down because he''d rather use his money to buy a second yacht. So I''m not okay at all, actually.
Instead, I waved my hand through the air and took another long sip of my drink. "I''m golden," I said. The last time I''d seen Raf was at the funeral a couple months ago, when his family had sat with me in the pew. I''d sent my asshole father a few e-mails over the course of my mother''s illness to let him know what was happening to the woman he had once loved and left. But I hadn''t expected him to come back for her service, and he''d proven me right. Instead, the Morales family had stepped in as honorary relatives, providing casseroles and company. And during the years my mom was sick, Raf had regularly taken the subway all the way out to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to rake her leaves and shovel her snow, even after I moved home and could have done it myself. No way in hell did he deserve to spend his restaurant opening listening to my problems.
"Besides, I''m not the important one right now," I said. "Don''t try to distract me from your amazing food."
"Really," he said, putting his hand on my arm, looking at me with such genuine concern it made a lump rise in my throat. "I know I''ve been MIA with the prep for the opening, but if you ever need anything, I''m here-" And for a moment the rest of the party fell away. It was just me and Raf on the couch in his living room, and I wanted to recite my misery to him like one of my old poems.
"So you''re Rafael Morales," a voice said, close behind me, pitched at a husky, thrilling tone. Raf and I both turned at the same time to see her: Margot Wilding.
She was all Edie Sedgwick eyes gazing out from under dark brown bangs, her hair falling-shaggy and curly-halfway down her back, her skin glowing and smooth and like she''d just spent the summer out in the sun. If she''d been born fifty years earlier, she might have been a muse with a tragic end, a beauty who flamed out too fast, immolated by the power of her unused ambition. But now she was a maverick in a floral-print jumpsuit. Behind her, she left a break in the crowd, as if the unique force of her energy had parted the waves of partygoers. God, how were such perfectly made people allowed out in the world? Didn''t they know that the rest of us had to be out here with them? It was rude.
I felt an urge to shut myself in a cabinet. It wasn''t that I hated my body. I just didn''t love it. I never quite knew how to move it gracefully, how to sit comfortably. Growing up, I''d longed to be one of those compact girls who got to make an adorable fuss about how they could never reach things on high shelves. But I''d just kept growing, not quite tall enough to be a model (also not pretty, thin, or interested enough), until I gave off the vibe of a grasshopper trying to masquerade as a human. My mother had once told me that when I stood still for a moment, I could be striking. But she was my mother, so she had to say that. All in all, my body and I were like coworkers. I appreciated when it performed well, I got annoyed about all the skills it lacked, and I didn''t want to have to see it on nights and weekends.
"I''ve been wanting to meet you," Margot said to Raf, staring up at him through her long eyelashes. She didn''t look at me-her world was filled with brighter things. "I haven''t eaten pork since I learned that pigs are smarter than dogs, and I''ve bragged about it to everyone, probably quite annoyingly. So you can''t tell anyone what I''m about to tell you. Do you promise?"
"I . . ." Raf blinked as she raised one of her thick, perfect eyebrows at him. "Sure, I promise."
She leaned in. "I just broke my rules for you, and it was worth it."
"Thank you . . ." Raf said, hesitating in the space where her name should have gone.
She laughed, delighted by his na•vetŽ. How fun, that he didn''t know who she was, didn''t realize that her mere presence at his opening could change his life.
"Oh, I''m Margot," she said to Raf, holding out her hand to shake his. Then she clocked that his hand was occupied, still pressed on my arm in its familiar way. And suddenly I mattered, at least a little, as a curiosity or maybe as competition. She fixed me in her gaze, a pleasant, faraway smile on her lips as the thoughts passed through her head: Was Raf dating this ordinary lump? What had I done to be worthy of his attention?
I stuck my hand out. "Jillian Beckley." My voice came out very loud, like a car honk. Sexy.
"Jillian Beckley," she repeated, and the way the name rolled around in her mouth made it seem special somehow. "Lovely to meet you."
She didn''t know it, but we''d crossed paths before.
ItÕd happened about a year ago, thanks to my editor, Miles. Ever since IÕd stepped back at the news website-Quill-to take care of my mom, Miles had been assigning me fluff pieces that I could do on my own time to justify keeping me on staff. Though Miles was an intellectual powerhouse destined for bigger things and he couldÕve gotten away with being a dick, he really looked out for his writers. Then, last September, heÕd texted me:
Beckley. You said your mom loves that mayoral candidate Nicole Woo-Martin, right? Nicole had knocked on our door one day, canvassing while I was out doing errands. I hadn''t even heard of her before that, but my mother had gushed about their conversation nonstop since. Miles kept typing. I''ve got two press passes for a gala where she''s giving the main speech. Want to come with? You can recount it all to your mom afterward and make her week.
I accepted immediately. Miles was so kind.
I''d assumed that the gala-for an organization encouraging more women to run for office-would be a typical nonprofit fund-raiser, filled with staid Upper East Side matrons, some nice hors d''oeuvres. But it was far more glamorous than that.
A beautiful woman floated past us, so close to me that her dress swished against my skin. I recognized her from Page Six, and nudged Miles. "Holy shit, Margot Wilding''s here? We''re in the presence of royalty. Hope she doesn''t realize we''re peasants."
"We might be worse than peasants," he said as we found our table. "We''re journalists. Did you see that interview where the reporter asked her about Nevertheless?" He pulled my chair out for me, speaking in a low, wry tone, a crooked smile flashing across his face. "I thought for a moment there that Margot might have her shot for her impertinence."
"What''s Nevertheless?" I asked.
"Ah," he said. He leaned forward and his voice got even softer. "Supposedly it''s a very secretive, very exclusive club for the elite millennial women of New York." As his breath tickled my ear, I shivered.
I''ve neglected to mention that, in addition to being so kind, Miles was also so dreamy. I''d noticed it in an abstract way before, but as we sat next to each other in our formalwear, the abstract became very real.
He went on. "Word is that they''re the influencers. Not the Instagram kind, who get paid to write about how much they adore certain brands. The real influencers: the puppeteers who pull all of our strings, whether we know it or not."
"Ah yes, my kind of people," I said, and he laughed. "Can''t wait to receive an invitation."
We were interrupted by a petite, red-haired woman at the microphone. "Hello, I''m Caroline Thompson," she said in a high-pitched voice, "and I''m the founder of Women Who Lead." She basked in the ensuing applause for a moment. "Now, it is the pleasure of my life to introduce the woman who I feel confident will be our next mayor, Nicole Woo-Martin!"
Nicole jogged onto the stage. She was a forty-one-year-old public defender from Brooklyn with no polish, no political pedigree, and no chance of winning against the establishment candidate. But as she waved to us, her fierce, unexpected charisma on full display, suddenly we were no longer at a fund-raiser. We were at a rock concert. "Hello!" she shouted, and the energy in the room turned electric.
As Nicole began to speak about why female leadership was so important, Miles and I grinned at each other. I snuck a glance around the room. Everyone leaned forward, as if Nicole were a magnet pulling us all in. Some of the women watching had tears in their eyes. Only one other person was looking at the audience instead of the speaker: Margot Wilding. Her lips curled into a strange, secretive smile.
As Nicole wrapped up her speech and the thunderous applause began, my phone vibrated with a text from my mother. How is it???? she''d written, the text accompanied by roughly a million emojis. (She''d gotten very into emojis.)
I showed it to Miles. "I think someone is excited that I''m here."
He smiled wide. "I''m glad." He nodded to where Nicole was shaking hands and posing for pictures as the applause continued. "I know we''re supposed to try to remain neutral, but she''s incredible, isn''t she?"
"She is. Thank you so much for bringing me."
"Of course. We miss you around the office," he replied. "I can''t wait for you to come back to writing full-time and blow everyone away." Suddenly I had a hard time meeting his eyes. Dammit, I was developing a very inconvenient crush. I turned back to watch Nicole, and Miles turned too. As he brought his hands up to clap for her, his ring flashed in the light.
Yes, in addition to being so kind and so dreamy, Miles was also so married.