Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
What are we talking about in 1993? Waco, Texas; the World Trade Center bombing; Arthur Ashe
; Lorena Bobbitt; Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson, and Demi Moore; NAFTA; River Phoenix; the EU; Got Milk?; NordicTrack; Rabin and Arafat; Monica Seles;
Sleepless in Seattle;
the World Wide Web; the Buffalo Bills losing the Super Bowl for the third straight time; Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer; Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You.”
hen we first meet our girl Mallory Blessing (and make no mistake, Mallory
our girl; we’re with her here through the good, the bad, and the damn-near hopeless), she’s twenty-four years old, living on the Upper East Side of New York with her very best friend in the whole word, Leland Gladstone, whom she’s starting to despise a little more each day. They’re renting a fifth-floor walk-up in a building with a French restaurant on the ground level, and during the week, the line cooks give Leland the duck confit and lamb shank they have left over at the end of service. Leland never offers to share her culinary windfall with Mallory; she accepts it as her due because
found the apartment,
negotiated the lease, and
made seventeen visits to ABC Home for furniture. The only reason Mallory is living in New York at all is that Leland made an offhand comment (while drunk) that she might want a roommate, and Mallory was so desperate to get out of her parents’ house in Baltimore that she misconstrued this as a full-blown invitation. Mallory pays one-third of the rent (even that amount is so astronomical that Mallory’s parents are footing the bill), and in exchange, Mallory sleeps on a futon in a corner of the living room. Leland bought a faux-Chinese screen that Mallory can put up for privacy, though she rarely bothers. This sparks the first argument. Turns out, Leland bought the screen not so Mallory can have privacy but so Leland doesn’t have to see Mallory reading novels while all wrapped up in the hideous calico-print comforter from her childhood bedroom.
How about some self-respect?
The issue of the screen causes only minor friction compared to the issue of the job. Leland moved to New York to work in fashion—her dream was to “do creative” at
—and when Leland told Mallory about an opening for an editorial assistant at
Bard and Scribe,
the hottest literary magazine in the city, Mallory immediately applied. The mere prospect of such a job transformed Mallory’s idea of what New York might be like for her. If she became an editorial assistant at
Bard and Scribe,
she would make new, artsy, bohemian friends and embark on a fascinating life. Little did Mallory know that Leland had already applied for the job herself. Leland was granted an interview, then a second interview, and then she was offered the job, which she snapped up while Mallory looked on, silently aghast and yet not at all surprised. If New York were a dress, it would fit Leland better, whereas Mallory would always be tugging and adjusting in an attempt to become more comfortable.
Now, every morning, Leland heads to the
Bard and Scribe
office, which is housed in an airy loft in SoHo complete with a rooftop garden where they throw chic soirées for people like Carolyn Heilbrun, Ellen Gilchrist, Dorothy Allison. Mallory, meanwhile, works as a receptionist at a headhunting firm, a job she was offered because her own “career consultant” felt sorry for her.
However, on May 16, 1993, Mallory receives the phone call that changes her life.
It’s a Sunday, eleven thirty in the morning. Mallory went for a run in Central Park, then stopped for a coffee and a sesame bagel with scallion cream cheese, and she is ecstatic to come home and find the apartment empty. This happens only in small bites—on the rare occasion when Mallory gets home from work before Leland or leaves after her—and the sense of freedom is mind-altering. Mallory can pretend that she’s the lady of the manor instead of a 1990s-Manhattan version of Sara Crewe, living in the garret without coal for a fire. On the morning of May 16, Leland is at Elephant and Castle, having brunch with her new
Bard and Scribe
friends. She faux-generously extended an invitation to Mallory, knowing Mallory would decline because she couldn’t afford it.
The phone rings, and before answering it, Mallory goes to the stereo to turn down “Everybody Hurts,” by R.E.M., which she has on repeat. It’s her favorite song that year, though she’s forbidden to play it when Leland is home because, for Leland, Michael Stipe’s keening is nails on a chalkboard.
Mallory drops into one of the chic but uncomfortable café chairs that Leland purchased at ABC Home. It’s Mallory’s father. Realistically, it was only going to be one of a handful of people: her parents; her brother, Cooper; her ex-boyfriend Willis, who is teaching English on the island of Borneo (he calls Mallory on Sundays, when international rates are lowest, to brag about his exotic new life); or Leland, saying she forgot her ATM card and would Mallory please get on the subway and bring it to her?
“Hi, Dad,” Mallory says, her voice barely concealing how underwhelmed she is. Even hearing Willis talk about Komodo dragons would have been better.
“Honey?” her father says. He sounds so dejected that Mallory perks up in response. Mallory’s father, Cooper Blessing Sr.—referred to by Mallory and her brother as simply “Senior”—is a CPA who owns four H&R Block franchises in greater Baltimore. As one might expect from such a man, his manner is reserved. He may be the only person in the history of the world born without emotions. But now his tone is heavy with something. Has someone died? Her
No, she decides. If something had happened to her mother, her brother would have called. If something had happened to her brother, her mother would have called.
Still, Mallory has a strange feeling. “Did someone die?” she asks. “Dad?”
“Yes,” Senior says. “Your aunt Greta. Greta died on…Friday, apparently. I found out only an hour ago. Greta’s attorney called. I guess she left you something.”
Do things like this happen in real life? Obviously they do. Mallory’s aunt Greta had had a massive coronary. She was at home in Cambridge on Friday evening making pasta puttanesca from
The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook
with her “housemate,” Ruthie. (
is Senior’s word, as though Greta and Ruthie were two Gen Xers on
The Real World.
) The detail about the puttanesca is one that Mallory supplies from her own imagination because she has visited Greta and Ruthie at the house in Cambridge for weekends often and knows that Friday evenings they cook at home, Saturdays are for museums followed by dinner out and sometimes the theater, and Sundays are for bagels and the
then Chinese food for dinner while watching an old movie on TV. Ruthie called the paramedics, but there was nothing they could do. Greta was gone.
Ruthie arranged for Greta to be cremated and contacted their attorney, a woman named Eileen Beers. It was Eileen Beers who called Senior. Senior and Greta had been estranged for ten years, which was how long it had been since Uncle Bo passed and Aunt Greta moved in with a Radcliffe colleague, Dr. Ruth Harlowe, who was more than just a housemate. Eileen Beers informed Senior that Greta had bequeathed to Mallory the startling sum of a hundred thousand dollars and her cottage on Nantucket.
Mallory starts to cry. Mallory alone in the family had maintained a relationship with Greta after Uncle Bo died. She wrote letters each month and secretly called every Christmas; she invited Greta to her college graduation over her parents’ objections; she had ridden four hours on the bus to spend those perfect weekends in Cambridge.
“Is this real?” Mallory asks Senior. “Greta is dead? She left me money and the cottage? The money and the cottage are mine? Like,
-mine?” Mallory doesn’t want to sound like she cares more about the money and the cottage than about her aunt’s passing. But she also can’t ignore what might be a life-changing reversal of fortune.
“Yes,” Senior says.
When Leland returns from brunch, she has a Bellini glow; her skin actually appears peachy beneath the asymmetrical bangs of her new haircut. It takes Leland a moment to process what Mallory is telling her: After Mallory gives proper notice to the headhunting firm, she’s moving out. She’s going to Nantucket.
“I still don’t understand why you would leave the center of the civilized world to live on an island thirty miles off the coast,” Leland says.
It’s now two weeks later, Sunday, May 30. Leland is treating Mallory to a bon voyage brunch at the Coconut Grill on Seventy-Seventh Street. They’re sitting at an outdoor table on the sidewalk in the broiling sun so that they can be properly observed by the boys with popped collars and Ray-Ban aviators who are on their way to J. G. Melon’s for burgers and Bloody Marys. One such specimen—in a mint-green Lacoste—lowers his shades an inch so he can check out Leland. He looks like the Preppy Killer.
Leland sounds perplexed and also sad. The announcement of Mallory’s imminent departure promptly restored love and affection between the two friends. Over the past two weeks, Leland has been sweet. She not only tolerates the sight of Mallory’s messy bedding, she sits on the edge of the futon for long, gossipy conversations. And Mallory can absorb the changes taking place in her friend—the edgy haircut for starters, the leather jacket purchased for a whopping nine hundred dollars at Trash and Vaudeville, the switch from Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers to proper bottles of Russian River chardonnay—without feeling resentful or left behind.
Mallory and Leland will miss each other. They’ve been friends since before memory, having grown up three houses apart on Deepdene Road in the Roland Park neighborhood of Baltimore. Their childhood years had been idyllic: they biked to Eddie’s Market for jawbreakers; they listened to the
soundtrack on Leland’s turntable, stuffing their training bras with rolled-up socks and singing into hairbrushes; they sat in the Gladstones’ hot tub on snowy nights; they watched
after school in Leland’s rec room, playing hands of spit on the shag rug during commercials. They had been perfect angels until high school, when their shenanigans started. Leland’s father, Steve Gladstone, bought a convertible Saab when the girls were seniors. Leland had taken it without permission, swung over to Mallory’s house in the middle of the night, and thrown pebbles at Mallory’s bedroom window until Mallory agreed to go for a joyride. They’d put the top down and driven all the way to the Inner Harbor with the cassette player blasting Yaz’s
Upstairs at Eric’s.
They were caught, of course. When they arrived back to Deepdene Road, their hair blown crazy from the wind, all four of their parents were standing in the Gladstones’ driveway.
We’re not angry,
they said. (This must have been Steve Gladstone’s influence; he was the most lenient of the four.)
Mallory had been grounded for two weeks, she remembers. Leland had been grounded too, but she got out of it after three days.
“I need to try something different,” Mallory says now as she dunks a sweet potato fry into the maple dipping sauce. “Set out on my own.” Besides, the center of the civilized world is already a cauldron, and it’s not even June; the concrete is baking, the trash can on the corner stinks, and there’s no place less hospitable than the platform of the 6 train. Who wouldn’t want to be headed to Nantucket for the summer? Or for forever?
Six weeks later when Mallory’s brother, Cooper, calls to say that he has proposed to Krystel Bethune, his girlfriend of three months, and they will be getting married at Christmas, Mallory is so intoxicated with her new island life that she forgets to be properly shocked.
“That’s great!” Mallory says.
“Aren’t you going to ask if I knocked her up?” Cooper says.
“Did you knock her up?”
“No,” Cooper says. “I’m just madly in love and I know I want to spend the rest of my life with Krystel, so I figure, why wait? Let’s get married as soon as we can. Within reason. I mean, I don’t want to elope. Senior and Kitty would kill me. As it is, they aren’t too happy.”
“Right,” Mallory says. “How’d you two meet again?”
“Krystel was my waitress,” Cooper says. “At the Old Ebbitt Grill.”
“Nothing wrong with being a waitress,” Mallory says. Mallory is waitressing herself at the Summer House pool out in Sconset three days a week. “Did she go to college? Like, at all?”
“She went to UMBC for a while,” Cooper says.
meaning a few semesters or a few weeks? It doesn’t matter. Mallory won’t judge; they have their mother for that. Kitty Blessing is downright obsessed with education, breeding, social standing.
“You’re getting married at Christmas,” Mallory says. This is a phenomenon she has never understood—Christmas is already so busy, frantic, and filled with angst; why make it worse?—but again, she won’t judge. “Where will it be?”
“In Baltimore,” Cooper says. “Krystel’s mother has no money and her father isn’t in the picture.”
Mallory tries to imagine her mother’s reaction to this news. Kitty has lost the war but won a crucial battle. Krystel’s family is a disappointment, so there will be no dynasty-building. However, that means Kitty will have no competition in planning the wedding. She’ll insist on tasteful Christmas (white lights, burgundy velvet bows, Handel’s
) rather than tacky Christmas (elves, candy canes, “Jingle Bells”).
“I’m happy for you, Coop,” Mallory says. For what might be the first time in her life, she’s telling the truth about this. For all of her twenty-four years, Mallory has suffered from a chronic case of sibling envy. Cooper is the golden child to Mallory’s silver. He’s the chocolate chip cookie to her oatmeal-raisin, which people like, just never quite as much.