Daria’s morning destiny was a second meeting with her PhD tutor in the Starbucks lobby of a ginormous bank. Mariette’s was a rendezvous with Brother Frank amid the daffodils at Bryant Park. For a short walk, their destinies coincided.
“I’ve decided to move out of Upstate Manhattan,” Daria announced excitedly as they headed out. “I realize it’s kind of sudden since I’ve been at this job five days. But I need a place of my own.”
Mariette’s round, seventies sunglasses seemed to separate all that was distasteful from the mind locked securely within the strands of her insanely tight hair. “So where’s the Promised Land?”
She shook her head. “You’re hopeless.”
“They say it’s quickly gentrifying.”
“And how is that a good thing?”
“Don’t rain on my parade before it’s even left the Stop and Shop lot. Washington Heights is for old people.”
The glasses remained impassive. “It’s a Heights-on-Heights crime you’re perpetrating.”
“But I can get samosas 24/7.”
Mariette inhaled as if to gird herself for what lie ahead. “My uncles and cousins are supers all over Inwood. I’ll text you. They’ll find you cheap movers.”
“Thank you for that.”
Because Mariette couldn’t wait for her coffee, they stopped into a deli on Sixth and stood at the end of a line. Whereas Mariette’s glasses remained calmly in place, Daria’s had been flipped atop her head because she couldn’t see.
“You look like a mother at a playground when you do that.”
“No, I don’t,” said Daria. “I look like a Jackie Susann paperback.”
Mariette’s glasses turned to Daria with an accusatory glare. “You’re telling me you’ve actually read Jackie Susann?”
She didn’t know why she had to be caught out on everything she said. “No,” she admitted, “but I have a poster of Dolores over my bed.”
Still the accusatory glare.
“OK, so the poster was given to me by a gay man. But it’s still my bed that it’s over.”
Mariette look behind the glasses said “whatever.”
Daria looked around. “I can’t believe I’m getting coffee when I’m meeting the tutor guy at Starbucks.”
When Mariette opened her wallet to pay, Daria’s eyes were instantly drawn to the large smiling face behind the acetate rectangle denoting the beloved. She burst out laughing. “Is that Newman?”
“Newman from Seinfeld?”
“I’m not gonna settle.”
Outside in the sun, it was Mariette’s turn for questions. “So what’s your life like, Daria? You don’t have a boyfriend, right?”
“And I’m sure you do.”
“No, in fact, I don’t.”
“I messed up,” Daria confessed. “I’ve had two rich boyfriends and neither gave me anything of value.”
“You mean like emotional fulfillment or something to take into pawn shops?”
Mariette snickered. “Didn’t you read what I put on the iPad? At Hap you’re preaching ‘experiences over stuff.’ ‘Want what you already have,’ Daria.”
Daria shook her head. “You can’t pay the rent with what you already have.”
“Well, I hope you learned a lesson from messing up.”
“Of course I didn’t learn any lesson!” she protested. “All I have is a wound. The first one, Jonathan, didn’t really count. I had planned to marry him when I was seventeen because I wanted his family’s money. I mean, I thought at the time I would stay with him and have kids and all. I was sick of not having money—having to lunge after it every day, seeing my family do the same. He was my high school boyfriend and I thought I’d just hold onto him.”
“Until he slept with the girl with the broken foot.”
“Her foot wasn’t broken till afterwards.”
It still burned Daria to think that Jonathan was the one who stood to gain. Marrying her would’ve been the best thing that ever happened to him given his train-wreck family. He was already on his way to being a dangerous drunk at twenty-five, bumbling along at Brown Brothers Harriman. His friends used to blast his windshield with paintballs to keep him from driving when he could barely stand up.
She remembered the Christmas in Hawaii she spent with the drunk and medicated Cantors, when she valiantly tried to get Jonathan into a heart-to-heart during the “climb” up Diamond Head. “You’re going to die if you don’t stop drinking and eating junk and smoking pot with your cousins.”
“Weed is the only decent hangover medicine,” he said with a laugh.
Visible on a lower plateau of the volcanic tuft cone were his parents wheezing like geriatrics. They each held Starbucks vente cups. His mother wore a yachting cap with braided gold and sunglasses with more gold and had two hands full of gold rings and a Hermès silk jockey jacket and it only got worse as you went down. “Look at them,” ordered Daria. “In Jurassic Park they’d be the first ones eaten.”
Now, called to count before Mariette’s sunglasses, Daria could see the sad light. “I can’t believe he was my boyfriend for nine years. It was crazy to be intentionally running into the tornado just for financial security. He’s such a mess. He’s going to die driving drunk. I know it. And of course he didn’t even care about me—and that really hurt. But then right after that I met Compton. You know Gunther Pruitt?”
“Another dud I take it.”
“Basically, there were two parts of Compton’s life: The first he spent on a blog called Squeeze from the Top, and then he found Twitter.”
Mariette smiled. “And neither included you.”
“Don’t even talk to me about that fucker. I bought him an electric violin.”
“I thought his father was rich.”
“He was disinherited. And wanted an electric violin.”
“You have friends here?”
“Yeah,” she said with a sigh. “A girl and a guy from college, but both are married—not to each other. And then friends from my old jobs, but seeing them is pretty painful. And then lots of what I call soft friends—you know, people who are always up to do something with you because they don’t have serious friends. That’s never a good sign. And then my friends from Boston come down to whoop it up. I don’t even think they have a good time. But everyone likes to say they spent the weekend in New York.”
What Daria couldn’t bring herself to confess was that she was lonely. Insanely lonely. And not because she left one city for another but because she left one life for another. All those people she’d invested years becoming close to now seemed inconsequential, like napkins on an outside table that happily blow away at the slightest provocation. She felt the need to add, “I don’t have friends the way everyone has friends because I don’t have a social media presence.”
“I know,” said Mariette with a laugh. “That’s probably the main reason we hired you.”
This piece of information not only hurt but did so unexpectedly, causing Daria to clam up.
At Bryant, legions of daffodils had seized the park’s perimeter with their obscenely dense fragrance, but there was no sign of Frank.
“Smell all that flower?” said Mariette. “Well, get it while you can. When Frank arrives things are likely to change.”
The two sat at a metal café table. The day felt saturated with anticipation as the legs of the chair Daria pulled closer to Mariette scraped against the concrete. Finally the not talking reached a point Daria could no longer stand. “Do you know who Ted’s mother is? He said she was a model.”
Mariette shook her head. “She was some second- or third-tier face at Ford, mostly in the eighties.”
“Ted seems to have issues.”
Mariette laughed. “Ted Brand is Cinderfella, complete with the two ugly stepsisters.”
“He never had to live with them, did he?”
Mariette shook her head as she sipped her coffee. “They’re way older.” She paused. “You knew that and you were baiting me.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes, you were.”
“I’m not conspiring if that’s what you mean.”
“I suppose you asked Ted how I killed my mother.”
“I consider myself above that.”
After further silence, Mariette said, “There’s some sort of cult surrounding Ted’s mother. There was this conceptual artist who did pieces of her in the late nineties. Now he just films her as art. I don’t know what the purpose is, but people watch it at museums.”
“What’s his name?”
“Jurgen something—German, Austrian, some kind of Kraut. All art is alien to me.”
“Because museums are for white people.”
“You don’t look like you’re not a white people.”
“You’re lucky I’m the only one who heard you say that.”
“It seems weird hearing someone who looks like you and went to Harvard talking like you’re on the margins.”
Mariette sat back, composed behind the glasses. “Ethylynn always said the reason black people didn’t get killed much in horror films is that the predominantly white audiences were shockingly unmoved by carnage done to black bodies. It could have something to do with the extreme of blood against white flesh versus black. Or that a black life is worth less, like maybe three-fifths of Ryan Gosling. But in horror films at least, blacks aren’t worth killing.”
Daria looked at her. “And you want revenge for that?”
“Remember what I told you about the Bugs cartoon The Case of the Missing Hare? Well that was the G-rated version of my story. To get the real feel you should see the Michael Caine movie Get Carter.”
“I’ve never even heard of it.”
“He’s a killer and a gritty crime type. In fact, everyone in the movie is a gritty crime type. But there’s this elegance in the way he settles the score.”
“By killing people?”
“In the most famous scene he walks through the streets buck-naked, shooting at guys with a shotgun.”
“That sounds inspirational.”
Mariette sighed. “It’s the metaphor for my life. He goes back to the north of England to find the people who killed his brother. One of the crime guys asks him why he’s come there, and he says he’s visiting relatives. ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ the guy says. ‘It would be,’ Michael Caine replies, ‘if they were still living.’ ”
“I don’t get it,” said Daria. “Why is that a metaphor? I thought you said you killed your mother.”
Mariette’s stiffening her back informed Daria that Daria would never comprehend such complex things as a simpleton from Milton, “Mass.”
“What about your brother with the burns?” Daria pressed. “Is he OK?”
Mariette looked away. “They took him to Presby. They did what they could.”
Daria’s face went blank. “My God, he didn’t die, did he?”
Mariette still looked away. “He’s had a lot of problems. He still suffers.”
“Couldn’t they do anything at the Shriners hospitals?”
Mariette shook her head at Daria. “Aren’t we lucky to have those circuses to raise money for all the poor black kids burned like candy wrappers in tenement fires?”
“My friends!” Frank exclaimed in his shuffle toward the two. Mariette jumped up and rushed toward him, the impulse culminating in a bear hug.
Daria was taken aback by this display of legitimate feeling on Mariette’s part. The priest was attired as such, though dismally, with stains visible on the black and blue.
“And this must be our new friend, Daria,” he said pleasantly as he walked toward her with extended hand.
She took his hand and relished it, the experience of being instantly liked by a face-to-face stranger. He didn’t even allow her the one decisive pump taught to her at Harvard, for he kept shaking her hand and finally clasped his other hand over the top to cement the deal.
Then he reached in his jacket pocket to produce twin carnations of the boutonnière variety. “For two lovely ladies.”
He placed one behind Mariette’s right ear. The glasses had come off, so she looked extremely gorgeous bearing the white flower against her brown skin. He tried to do the same to Daria, but the flower couldn’t be rooted; it kept falling out.
Mariette laughed. “Why don’t you wear yours in your cleavage—throw them off the scent?”
Frank made a face to say Nonsense! “Daria requires no adornment. Why paint the lily?”
Just then a woman with a camera invaded their space, asking if she could take a photo of Mariette who looked ‘so fabulous in the fashion park.’ The technicality that this was no longer the fashion park didn’t seem to matter.
Daria said goodbye and left to meet the tutor, Sumi, whose English she could barely understand. Much later in the day, she was excited to be pushing her way through the throngs at Penn Station to meet Quentin, who was visiting for the weekend.
“Guess what?” she said after hugging him. “I know who The Whiskey Priest is.”
“That’s good because I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s on Twitter.”
He shook his head.
“You know, ho-ho-ho and mi-stle-toe and presents for pre-tty girls?”
“You’re a total loon, Dar.”
“But you’re a lapsed Catholic.”
“Yeah—accent on lapsed.”
Daria hugged him again.
“OK,” he said, “so who is this Whiskey Priest?”
“Brother Frank—a homeless guy. Former priest. I think he was a monk of some kind.”
“The drinking kind.”
“So what’s The Whiskey Priest like?”
“He mixes blue priest shirts with black priest coats, like a bruise.”
He squeezed her shoulders with glee. “Oh my goodness you’re changing before my very eyes with this fast new set you’re travelling with! Soon I won’t even recognize you!”
“Is that a line from Auntie Mame?”
“If it’s not I’m going to make it one!”
Daria hadn’t been so happy in months. She’d been enamored of her best friend from the moment she met him at Harvard. “Quentin,” she mused upon introduction. “That’s a cute name.”
He told her he got it because he’s the eighth and youngest child in an Irish Catholic family.
“Wouldn’t that be something like Octavius?”
“Maybe technically yes,” he replied, “but luckily, God, no! Octavius? How Gladiator would that be? Jim and Irene wanted a number name, but the only number name they liked was Quentin.”
He was raised in the kind of family that rarely happened anymore—one with five bedrooms but a capacity two kids to a room. Because the Donahues welcomed two or more Fresh Air kids every summer, the local paper would usually do a human-interest article with the same headline: “Eight Is Never Enough.”
When they found a bar to make a toast to Daria’s new career as the bluebird of happiness, Quentin asked with mother-hen exactitude, “So your plan is to work for a few months at Hap and then find another job?”
She wrinkled her nose. “They’re paying me a hell of a lot of money.”
“Yeah, but you’ll only get taxed more. And then you’ll get used to it and feel poor within two pay stubs.”
She slapped his arm. “I thought I told you not to tell me how it ends!”
He laughed. “Someone just told me that Harvard doesn’t like the way the Hapsters present themselves as Harvard-anointed. They’re using the Harvard brand off-label.”
She nodded. “They were going to call themselves A Harvard B.”
He was deciding how he felt about this. “Well, at least they have a sense of humor.”
“In some twisted way they’re like all the negative qualities inside of me,” she said. “I suppose I like encountering them because it makes me feel normal. I’ve never felt normal before.”
“That’s not a good rationale for a job.”
“I feel bad for Mariette Bonilla. She grew up with a crackhead mother. She has so much anger.”
“Why can’t they just get counseling? They’re approaching their problems the wrong way.”
“But they do have Hap the man. The funny thing is, Quentin, he’s not like that at all. He’s so easygoing. It’s like he has no baggage at all. Like no one did him wrong.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I guarantee you, honey, there are people who’ve done him wrong.”
“That’s precisely what I mean. There has to be some secret in his past.”
“Well, of course. He was a priest.”
It struck her that the people who used to make fairly decent priests—gay men who were super-nice rather than degenerates—don’t even have to mess with that anymore. When Quentin decided at the age of ten that he wanted to be a priest, his parents were overjoyed because it would mean an in-house wedding officiator for the other seven kids. He spent his youth playing priest to his older brothers and sisters, giving them communion with Cape Cod crackers when they skipped mass, performing masses for his own designated religious holidays for domestic pets—“This is the feast of Saint Bernard” . . . Saint Yellow Labrador . . . Saint Wire-Haired Terrier Mix.
“I just hope he’s not a pedophile,” she told him.
He made a face. “Dar, I’m worried about you. You seem to be getting sucked into this thing. Don’t tell me you want to be like Mariette—phony in front of an audience.”
“You know what she just told me? The main reason they hired me is that I’m not a big Facebooker. That certainly made me feel great.”
“We treated you well, didn’t we—at the Div School?”
“You mean your boss who fired me?”
Now he made a sourball face. “You were laid off. It was the economy.”
“All I want to do,” she declared, “is to prove to myself that I can do it, succeed at their game. First, though, I have to figure out what it is, understand where they’re coming from. Ted Brand acts like the blasé con man one minute, but then the next he’s upstanding citizen getting affronted when he thinks I’m comparing them to that book The Secret.”
Quentin sighed. “Remember when Bart Simpson gives his teacher a book called The Answer?”
“Why can’t I work with Bart Simpson? I understand Bart Simpson.”
“I hope it doesn’t take long to crack the code. Then you can get the hell out of there.”
“I haven’t even been there twenty-one days, right? I mean, that’s what it all hinges on. If you do something for twenty-one consecutive days it’ll stick. And I guess you’d have to count only the workdays, not calendar days.”
“I don’t care what you count. I don’t want anything to stick if it means the Daria I’m looking at is going away.”
She smiled to reassure him, but she knew that the Daria he was looking at wasn’t even the Daria from yesterday.