Sometimes we talked about Ernest Hemingway getting in a fight with William Faulkner. Too many goddamn words, Hemingway would growl before punching Faulkner in the throat. We wanted Walt Whitman to sock Jack London in the jaw. We imagined Pushkin pulling Tolstoy down by his beard and trapping him in a headlock, Shakespeare dropkicking Christopher Marlowe, Ezra Pound going on a blind rampage and swinging at air. We often discussed these matters over cafeteria french fries and strawberry Jell-O cups, Samantha and I, while sitting outside the high school on our favorite bench. Hell is other people, someone had carved into the wood slats. We wholeheartedly agreed.
“Emily Dickinson vs. Sylvia Plath.”
“Emily, easily,” I said, employing the familiar first name as if Dickinson and I were grade-school friends and had grown up braiding each other’s hair. “Emily wouldn’t even have to do anything. Sylvia would beat herself up.”
“Wow. Cheap shot, Angie.”
“All right, Oscar Wilde or James Joyce?”
“It’d never happen,” I said. “Oscar wouldn’t condescend to fight. Next question.”
“Truman Capote or Flannery O’Connor?”
“Oh, Flannery, no question. She could kick anybody’s ass. You pretty much just ended the game.”
It was 1966 and we were seventeen and ruthless. We wrote short stories about girls kissing men much too old for them, stole lines from Virginia Woolf the same way other girls our age might shoplift a tube of lipstick from the makeup counter in Macy’s. We liked the words melancholy, angst, obliteration, and enigmatic. We loved phrases borrowed from other languages, ennui and übermensch and bourgeoisie. We considered ourselves Percy Shelley and Lord Byron reincarnated, female improvements on the originals. We told everyone, between smacks of gum, that the Kennedy family could have come straight from a Dostoyevsky novel. We pronounced Dostoyevsky wrong, but nobody noticed.
We were too smart for high school, we decided.
That was the year we found Fielding Duke, a new student from San Francisco, in the desk behind Samantha in homeroom. Fielding Duke: the name had the false ring of a pseudonym. I pictured it in big block letters on the cover of some lewd romance novel, right under a man’s glossy navel. Fielding’s literary ambitions, we soon found out, aimed much higher than his name suggested.
“I had a feeling there might be an empty desk behind a girl who writes,” he told Samantha when she asked him in accusatory tones what brought him all the way from California to New York City. She had been jotting something down in her journal. “I happen to be a writer, too, you know.”
“Oh,” said Samantha, shutting her notebook, “are you?”
I read too deeply into this question and thought it was an insult. Surely Samantha wasn’t interested in this boy. A tattoo on his right forearm instructed us in nearly illegible cursive to rage, rage against the dying of the light. He wore wire-framed bifocals too large for his head. His hair fell around his face in loose waves, inviting you to picture him reclining against a tree, reading aloud from Wordsworth.
He had all the features of our kind—our kind being, specifically, fledgling virtuosos suffering through high school under duress (this is copied verbatim from an old high school journal entry). But certainly his looks were specious, a clever ruse; there simply was not room in our school for a third teenage genius.
We were Shelley and Byron, Samantha and I—an exclusive pair with no room for expansion. I had forgotten, I suppose, about Mary Shelley.
“So, what kind of stuff do you read?” Samantha asked Fielding as class was letting out.
She had a persistent facial tic in her left cheek that jostled her glasses out of place, a twitch that grew more severe in cases of social anxiety. Her glasses were known to fly off during class speeches; as she walked alongside Fielding, she held them steady.
“Mr. Thomas, here, of course,” he said, referring to his tattoo, “but what I’m really into right now is the Beats. Ginsberg, Burroughs, that crowd.”
He claimed to have met Jack Kerouac in a Burger King.
“Sure you did,” I taunted him. “And what did he order?”
“Just a root beer,” he said, stuffing his hands smugly in his pockets.
This revelation had me in hysterics. “You mean to tell us he ordered a beer without alcohol?”
“He was driving back home to New York.”
“Don’t think driving ever stopped him before.”
Samantha’s sudden obsession with a piece of hair that would not lie flat made me suspicious. “What’d you say to him?” she asked.
While we stopped at our lockers, Fielding set for us the sordid backdrop of his encounter: a dingy Burger King, tile floors that stuck to your shoes, broken ketchup dispenser, cashiers who rolled their eyes when they thought you weren’t looking, Jack Kerouac. The best of the Beats, a citizen of the road (these are, please note, Fielding’s words, not mine), a little haggard in his faded flannel shirt and dusty blue jeans, no doubt a consequence of living madly under the stars, in line right in front of Fielding, fishing for quarters in a cracked leather wallet.
“Oh, no, I’ll get that for you, sir,” Fielding had told him before slapping down the appropriate amount of change on the counter. He felt stupid for calling Kerouac “sir.”
“I’ll bet,” I said.
He fidgeted with his shirt collar. “He didn’t mind. He actually talked to me while I waited for my food.”
Samantha looked up from her locker. “Like, a real conversation?”
“Words and everything.”
“N-no,” she stuttered, “I mean, was it a real conversation, or did you just talk about, I don’t know, the weather, is what I meant.” Her cheek jumped spasmodically. For a brief second, her glasses were airborne, but they managed to land safely on the bridge of her nose.
“Of course not,” he said. “You don’t talk to Jack Kerouac about the weather.”
Samantha nodded in grave understanding, as if Fielding had recited an obvious rule of etiquette.
“We talked about poetry. My poetry, in fact.”
Fielding was something of a Beatnik himself, a vestige of the fading literary movement. The responsibility of saving it from inevitable roadside death rested solely on his shoulders, so he had us believe. Saturday evenings in San Francisco found him, along with anyone who was anybody in the counterculture scene, reading his dated poetry to crowds nearly moved to levitation with ecstasy.
He had to use a fake I.D. to get into his own readings.
“I like to always keep my journal on me,” he said, “just in case the old muse shows up unexpected—”
“Because the old muse sure does like a good burger.”
“—so I showed him a few poems. The shorter ones.”
“You are not actually serious,” Samantha said.
He was, he said, indeed actually serious.
“What did he say?”
He paused, clearly enjoying the suspense. “He loved them. Said I have real talent. He thinks I can really make it.”
Whether or not Fielding was a talented writer remains unknown to me—I never read a single word of his sodium-inspired poetry—but he was at least gifted in prevarication. The truth only emerged several weeks later, after Samantha and Fielding became close: he hadn’t shown Jack Kerouac his poems. To call their interaction a conversation was a misnomer; it was only an apology. Fielding had accidentally bumped into him and spilled french fries down his shirt, a man who looked exactly like but never confirmed he was the famous author.
“I guess the story kind of got away from me when I was telling it,” was his feeble excuse.
She pardoned his lie. In fact, she embraced it. The man might not have been Kerouac, but who’s to say he wasn’t? She was a fiction writer, after all, and like all good fiction writers, Samantha believed wholeheartedly that truth could not be found, only created.
We were destined to be famous writers. We knew this to be true. After school—and sometimes in lieu (another word we loved) of school—we rehearsed for our futures. We took the subway from our modest Brooklyn neighborhood to Manhattan, from our past to our futures. In Brooklyn, we were ducked heads in math class, makeup cluttered on cramped bathroom sinks, refracted light, broken images of who we thought we were.
Between the two of us, we had one mother and one father, two Brooklyn Public Library cards, six siblings, five pairs of jeans (we wore the same size), 127 yellowing books, and one obsessive-compulsive apartment deskman named Cecil whose strange habits we found fascinating; as thirteen-year-olds, we once stood in the lobby of Samantha’s apartment and watched him pick at his ear until it bled.
But in Manhattan, we blossomed. We became literary celebrities, the contemporaries of such figures as William Styron and Tennessee Williams. Even as self-proclaimed romantic writers, we understood the importance of realism. We would wander into La Caravelle at lunch time and inform the host we had a table for two reserved under Alfred Knopf. We never entered the Strand without our journals, from which we would read aloud our bloated prose, telling those gracious enough to listen to look out for our new novels. When we felt particularly daring, we would roll empty suitcases into the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, where we would sit, ankles crossed, tossing around lines from Eliot (occasionally in our best British accents) until some nosy busboy inquired if we needed any help with our luggage.
On one occasion of startling audacity, we even tried to hitchhike to Yaddo, but our plans were thwarted by a kindly truck driver who lived firmly by the example of Jesus Christ, and Jesus, he claimed, would no doubt return us safe and sound to our mamas.
Our literary endeavors regularly brought us to the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, an establishment frequented by faces we dimly recognized from book jackets. We sat at the bar and discussed what our own author photos would look like: We wanted cats draped across our shoulders, our faces cast in sepia-toned shadows, to stare pensively at some imperceptible point and make our readers forever wonder what captivated our attention.
We memorized the Oak Room’s wine menu, practiced pronouncing the names of liquids we were too young to drink. Pinot noir, we would say, relishing each syllable as if the act of speaking alone could inebriate us. Sauvignon blanc. Chardonnay.
“You might be surprised to know the real thing tastes much better than the words,” was the first thing Truman Capote said to us.
Samantha and I were forever on the lookout for famous writers, especially since Fielding had come into our lives. Our closest encounter with literary genius occurred in Lord and Taylor, where Samantha bumped into a man who claimed he was the elusive J. D. Salinger. We knew this was a lie when we later saw him handing out perfume samples.
But we knew the man in the Oak Room was no imposter, no spurious facsimile of greatness: Truman Capote had just spoken to us.
I looked at Samantha. Samantha looked at me. We looked at Capote, who had sat down beside us at the bar. His wide-brimmed hat completely concealed his white-blonde hair, and a long silk scarf coiled around his neck like some exotic snake. My mother might have critiqued his posture, had she cared about such things; he sat hunched over a black-and-white composition book, the stance of a writer thoroughly captivated by his own imagination. That he did not pose on his barstool, making seductive eyes at some unseen camera, surprised me.
I glanced around the dining room, suddenly possessed by the irrational fear that Flannery O’Connor might show up in boxing gloves.
Capote merely smiled at the bartender, who then grabbed an empty margarita glass and disappeared. We were stunned—evidently Truman Capote’s command of language was so powerful that he did not even need to speak to communicate. Samantha and I watched him in awe as he turned his attention again to his notebook.
“What’s he writing?” Samantha mouthed to me.
“What are you writing?”
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
We were done for. He would call security. These girls are harassing me, he would say. Our secret would be exposed: that we did not belong in the Oak Room, that we were anomalies amongst high society, that we should have been at school, drinking chocolate milk from paper cartons.
But we were seated by Truman Capote, a man who lived to surprise. “Say you’re hosting a ball,” he said to us. “Who would you invite—Norman Mailer or Carson McCullers?”
Capote’s pen had not stopped moving, nor had he deigned to look up at us. Samantha and I exchanged frantic glances. Did he truly expect us to answer? Did he value our unsullied, seventeen-year-old wisdom?
His question was simple enough. He wanted us to choose between Carson McCullers, a half-paralyzed Southern writer, and Norman Mailer, who was off-limits in our imagined literary fistfights: he had stabbed his wife, which violated the rules Samantha and I had meticulously designed. We did not condone weaponry.
“Well, Carson McCullers wouldn’t even be able to dance,” I said, astounded by the words falling so effortlessly from my tongue, “so the obvious choice is Norman Mailer.”
Capote’s pen stopped moving. With what felt to us like agonizing slowness, he lifted his head to look at the anonymous girl who had dared speak to him so candidly. Samantha’s hand found mine and squeezed it for support. His blue eyes were inscrutable behind his tortoise-shell glasses. I do not recall breathing.
His lips twitched, squirming with some latent reaction to my crack at Carson McCullers—which seemed to me in that moment the most morbid and cruel words anyone had ever spoken—and a brief, high-pitched laugh, or something resembling a laugh, escaped from his mouth.
“What are your names?”
I suppose we told him. Whenever I look back on this day, I am haunted by a suspicion that in that exact moment, nothing but nebulous, unintelligible sounds spilled from my mouth, that the English language had completely eluded me. But I must trust that we announced our names in clear voices. I must trust he scribbled them in his notebook as the bartender returned.
“I’m planning a ball,” he told us. “I daresay you’ll hear about it soon.”
We waited for him to speak to us again, to provide us with some explanation for our brief encounter, but the moment was over. We quietly got up and left Truman Capote to his drink, a beverage that, at seventeen years old, we could not identify.
That evening I came home and found my eight-year-old sister, Eloise, lying on the living room floor. She was staring fixedly at the ceiling fan, her head mimicking its jagged circles.
“Riveting stuff, Eloise,” I said, following her gaze.
She nodded in agreement but did not break her concentration.
The overhead fan either had a bolt or screw missing and hung precariously above us. It oscillated wildly, swinging back and forth like a pendulum, threatening to fly off the ceiling. I had grown up fearing decapitation by fan.
“Where’s Denise?” I asked.
Denise was our mother. Neither of us had fathers—Denise insisted this was true. She called my sister Eloise, and she called me Angela. We called her Denise. Our household did not indulge in pet names.
“Stop that with your head. You’re going to get dizzy.”
Eloise froze. Her hair, splayed out around her head, looked like the extended quills of a porcupine.
“I’m guessing you’re not speaking tonight, then?”
She scrunched up her face, her nose a gravitational force on the rest of her features. I took this as an affirmative.
Resting on the cushion of a floral print couch, the only seating available in the room—unless, like Eloise, one preferred the floor—was our telephone. Its placement was the product of Denise’s keen eye for interior design; it gave the room a chic, disheveled look. It alluded to the captivating life of a single woman constantly tying up phone lines. It concealed a hideous spaghetti sauce stain. I dialed Samantha’s number. Somehow, standing in this living room, the afternoon’s events seemed impossible, and I needed Samantha’s confirmation I was not afflicted with some type of literary psychosis. I lay down on the floor next to Eloise as I waited for someone to pick up on the other end.
“Hello?” It was one of Samantha’s younger brothers. She had five of them and they all sounded identical over the phone.
“Is Samantha there?”
He paused to give this question thorough contemplation. “No.”
“Oh. Where is she?”
Another moment of reflection. “Dead,” he said at last. “She fell in the sewer and got ate by an alligator.” Then he added hastily, a desperate appeal to ethos: “I saw it happen.”
I assumed I was speaking to Cole, the youngest. “And you didn’t even try to save her?”
“I punched him in the stomach twelve times but—”
Unintelligible shouting came from the receiver until Samantha’s voice broke through.
“Oh! I’m expecting a call from him tonight. Sorry.”
“Glad to hear you’re alive and well after that alligator attack,” I said, stopping the discussion of Fielding before it went any further.
“Yeah, uh, apparently some kid at school informed Cole about the sewer gators, and he’s been a changed man ever since.”
“So,” I said, “I certainly had an interesting afternoon.”
“Did you now?”
“I did. Happened to run into Truman Capote. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
“What a coincidence—so did I.”
“Sure is. Hey, remember when we met Truman Capote?”
“You should come over here so I don’t convince myself that I just dreamed up the whole thing. Denise isn’t here, but I don’t think she’d mind.”
“Where’s she at?”
“Don’t know. Eloise refuses to speak, so...”
“She’s still doing that?” Samantha asked.
“Looks like it.”
For reasons unknown, Eloise had recently taken a vow of silence. Whenever she was upset or angry, she would sometimes not talk to Denise and me for days at a time, but she had set for herself an impressive new record: we had not heard her voice for nearly a month. According to Samantha’s younger brothers, who, at my request, kept careful espionage on Eloise during recess, my little sister acted perfectly normal at school.
But at home, nothing would bring her out of herself. I had tried baiting her with Tootsie Rolls, spit-shined nickels—had even offered to take her to Manhattan with Samantha and me, a common request of Eloise’s I always denied. We were writers, not babysitters. The rich and famous toted around pink poodles with hair ribbons and Maltese puppies small enough to fit inside handbags. My sister would not fit in my purse, and so she remained at home.
Eloise’s requests became most frequent around Christmastime. A few years ago, Denise had carted us around Manhattan when giant Christmas trees seemed to materialize out of nowhere on every street corner.
“Santa put them there,” Eloise explained to us, staring up at the giant tree in Rockefeller Plaza. “No, wait. It was the elves. The elves did it.” She was five years old.
I shook my head, playing along. “Elves are too tiny to lift up a Christmas tree that big.”
“Some of them have really long arms, probably.”
Denise then revealed the true magician behind New York City’s myriad Christmas trees, also the man who had inspired her to bring us downtown in the first place: “Jack helped put that tree together.” Jack was her boyfriend at the time. “Said those ornaments were a real son-of-a-bitch to hang.”
Jack and Denise’s eventual break-up spoiled what little Christmas spirit my mother had; she claimed she could not look into the glassy surface of a tree ornament without his reflection staring back at her. This hallucination ended all future excursions to Manhattan in December, but Eloise was determined to go back.
“Please please please please please?” she would beg each year.
“No no no no no no,” Denise would say, and the discussion would end there.
Eloise’s silence compelled me to approach Denise for maternal wisdom—a clear indicator of the problem’s severity. I asked her if we should be worried about Eloise, but Denise dismissed me with a brisk laugh and said Eloise had always been quiet; now would I mind making myself useful by taking out the trash?
“Well,” I told Samantha, “it’s a Friday night, so, knowing Denise—”
“She’s on a date?”
“If that’s what you want to call it.”
“How’s what’s-his-name? Stan, right?”
“Stan’s history. We’re no longer allowed to speak his name. Certain events transpired.”
“Events transpiring. Never a good sign. What happened?”
“Can’t say now. Young ears in the room.”
“Anyways, she’s moved on to Jody the security guard.”
“Jody the security guard. Sounds like a real winner.”
“Speaking of dates…”
I sat up. “Yeah?”
“You know how I told you on the train earlier that I’ve been talking to Fielding a lot lately? And you know how I said Fielding is supposed to call me tonight?”
“Completely forgot. Who are we talking about again?”
She ignored this comment. “I, uh, I think he’s gonna ask me on a date.”
“Why?” I rephrased my question. “I mean, what makes you think so?”
“I found a note in my locker the other day with some lines from Hamlet written on it—”
“It was the ‘get thee to a nunnery part,’ wasn’t it?”
“Aren’t you clever. No, it was the poem.” She recited it for me with dreamy conviction: “‘Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.’”
“Wasn’t Hamlet kind of crazy when he wrote that?”
“I think it means he’s gonna ask me on a date. I am ninety-nine percent sure.”
“You know, why do we always pit authors against each other, but never characters? Imagine Hamlet getting in a fight.”
“He put a poem in my locker. In a logical sequence of events, romantic dinner inevitably follows.”
“I know he’s incapable of action, but I think people severely underestimate him. Hamlet could do some serious damage.”
“A romantic dinner is too conventional for Fielding though, don’t you think? We’ll go ice skating. No, book shopping.”
“I mean, let’s look at the facts. He kills Polonius, and doesn’t even—”
“I really like him, Angie.”
My breath stopped short. “You do?”
“The twitch is in overdrive.”
“Oh,” I said solemnly. “Then it’s serious.”
“My glasses are vibrating at a frequency only detectable by dog ears.”
“I get the picture. You really like him.”
“Yeah, I guess I do.” She giggled. She actually giggled. “I probably need to go, anyways. I might have missed his call.”
“You might have. But don’t tell him about Truman Capote. Not yet. I have to be there to see his face.”
“We’re not going to gloat about it, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Oh, yes we are. We are absolutely going to gloat.”
“I just—why don’t you like him? I can’t understand it. Give me just one reason.”
“Boys with tattoos are trouble, Sam.”
I was echoing advice Denise had given me before I left for my first day of high school.
“Give me a good reason.”
I plucked the stretched phone cord idly, trying to pinpoint what made Fielding so insufferable. It wasn’t his hair, his glasses, the insouciance with which he name-dropped poets, his apparent friendship with Jack Kerouac—I had nothing against pretension. He was a potential boyfriend, and I had learned early on to dislike boyfriends, these arbitrary men shuffling in and out of our apartment.
“His name is stupid,” I said. “Fielding Duke. What is that?”
I sighed. “I don’t know why. I’m sorry, but I just don’t.”
“Oh.” Her voice sounded far away. “Well, let me know when you find out.”
The receiver clicked, and I hung up, stunned. Our arguments usually did not transcend the books we frequently exchanged with one another; once, we didn’t talk for an entire week after I accidentally left Samantha’s first edition copy of The Sun Also Rises on the subway. We were in on a secret that evaded the poor, silly girls at our high school: the world was full of much more important things to argue over than boys.
I lay back down next to Eloise, who had resumed copying the fan’s motions with her head.
“Looks like Samantha found herself a boyfriend,” I said. “Don’t tell me you’ve secretly got one, too, and that’s the reason you’re not speaking.”
Eloise turned to me with a timid smile. Her lips parted. For a brief moment, she looked poised to speak, but her mouth fell shut.
I had no choice but to accept Fielding, for in the month that followed, Samantha and Fielding’s friendship evolved into something dangerously resembling romance. That’s how I chose to view their longing glances and laced fingers, anyways, as an optical glitch, a trick of the light, a practical joke courtesy of my own eyes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, I also developed minor gastrointestinal complaints, ailments Samantha chalked up to senior year stress. I didn’t correct her, but I knew she was wrong: it was hard to properly digest salisbury steak and oatmeal cookies while listening to Fielding and Samantha’s lunchtime conversations.
“You really wouldn’t dump me for F. Scott Fitzgerald? I mean, if he came out here right now, got down on one knee in front of this bench—” he demonstrated the pose dramatically, “—a rose between his teeth and everything? Say he even wrote you a poem.”
“Absolutely not. I never liked The Great Gatsby much anyways. More like the Just Okay Gatsby. The Overrated Gatsby. The Very Nauseatingly Purple Gatsby, if you get my drift.” She pointed a french fry at Fielding, who prostrated at her feet during lunch each day like some pathetic suppliant. There wasn’t any room for him on our bench, and I refused to relocate. “Ask me another one.”
“Hmmm. Okay. What about Hemingway?”
“Misogynistic, horrible man. Not to mention he killed elephants.”
“John Keats. ‘Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—’”
“Blech.” Samantha stroked him affectionately with the toe of her sneaker. “Fielding Duke, I wouldn’t dump you for anybody. Not even T. S. Eliot. And that’s really saying something.”
My stomach lurched. These writers were supposed to be brawling in an alleyway somewhere, not vying for Samantha’s hand in marriage. I had gotten into the habit of bringing along reading material in case of such circumstances; today’s selection was Suzy Knickerbocker’s gossip column in the New York Post, an indulgent choice of which I was not ashamed.
Suzy Knickerbocker was friends with Truman Capote, and so we were equals.
“I get it,” Fielding said. “You’re just holding out for Truman Capote, since you guys are like this.” He held up crossed fingers.
“Don’t think he’d be particularly into me.”
“Valid point. Angie’d be jealous, anyways.” He looked up at me, his head lopsided, and grinned. I knew he meant no harm, but I had chosen to interpret everything he said to me as malicious. “Whatcha reading?”
“The news,” I lied. “Vietnam stuff.”
He pulled the newspaper down.
“Huh.” He made an expression of mock surprise. “I didn’t know Suzy Knickerbocker had moved up into politics. Good for her.”
I chose not to respond. Samantha was listing the various demerits of dating Kafka (“a man with daddy issues, just imagine”) when I shoved the newspaper into her lap.
I didn’t say anything. She picked it up and began to read, only pausing to mutter various curse words.
Truman Capote’s black-and-white masquerade ball would be the Party of the Century. Frank Sinatra would be there. Joan Fontaine would be there. Andy Warhol would be there. People who weren’t invited were leaving the country, threatening to kill themselves. This entire furor had begun, Suzy Knickerbocker claimed, with a black-and-white composition book, in which Truman Capote had been fastidiously revising and reworking the guest list, his magnum opus. He wanted his party orchestrated as if it were some living piece of art, with only the best dancers, the biggest names, and the prettiest women.
My first thought upon hearing this news was that Samantha and I were going to have to book a weekend flight to the Caribbean, or else forge a suicide pact. My second thought, once it had registered in my brain what I had just read, was that Samantha and I had made it as writers.
“You know what this means,” I said.
“Our names are in that book. We’re going to the party of the century!”
Samantha shook her head. “Not so fast, Ang. It says he’s already sent out invitations. He doesn’t even know our addresses.”
“So?” I’m sure I had a manic gleam in my eye. “This is what we do—we just show up. He’ll remember us. He’ll check the book. He’ll let us in.”
“Surely you don’t believe that,” he said.
“I didn’t ask you,” I said.
“Well, I just don’t wanna see you guys get your hopes up for nothing. You can’t just walk into a Truman Capote party.”
“Maybe you can’t, but we can. We’re in the book.”
A silver bell on the side of the school rattled. We picked up our lunch trays and headed for the lunchroom.
“Look,” Fielding said, “that’s just not how it works.”
In an unprecedented burst of immaturity, I shot back: “I wouldn’t expect someone who hangs out at Burger King to understand.”
Fielding smiled tentatively at this remark. I thought he was going to respond—I hoped for a brief moment we might engage in a fistfight of our own—but he merely told Samantha he’d catch her later and left the lunchroom.
Samantha stared after him, her glasses trembling with affection. “I know you hate him,” she said, turning to me, “but he might actually be right.”
“We’re in the book,” I said, perhaps trying to reassure myself more than Samantha. “We made it.”
November 28th, 1966: We were two girls in black floor-length gowns we had sewn in home economics class, our identities marred by plastic Batman masks we had purchased at F.A.O. Schwartz and covered in sequins. We even carried white fans, as Suzy Knickerbocker suggested we should. When we boarded the subway, everyone stared at us, perhaps in envy, perhaps in admiration. It was November 28th and we were wearing black masks in New York City—surely everyone knew exactly where we were going.
When we arrived in Manhattan, it began to rain. A romantic effect, no doubt, and probably planned by Truman Capote himself. Rain added drama, mystique. We held our fans over our heads, makeshift umbrellas, as we walked down Fifth Avenue. The sidewalks swarmed with people: photographers attempting to immortalize that night’s celebration, journalists cursing the rain spattering their notepads, and bystanders hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars. Commoners, average folk. How we pitied them as we sauntered through the crowd.
“Can you believe it?” I said. “This is a Truman Capote party. Truman Capote. Anything could happen.”
“Anything,” Samantha repeated as I pretended to not notice her lack of enthusiasm. Maybe, I decided, she was upset about her glasses, which she had shoved awkwardly over her mask.
“All these celebrities in one room,” I continued. “Something’s gotta happen. Someone’s gonna fight. Joan Fontaine’s gonna be there. Get her and Olivia de Havilland in the same room—or even the same city—and you’ve got the first skirmish of a war.”
“Nobody’s going to fight. It’s a Hollywood party.”
Her curtness stung me. “Somebody’s in a bad mood.”
A glazed look that usually preceded tears fell over Samantha’s face, but she immediately stiffened and said, “Yes, I suppose somebody is.”
We walked on wordlessly, our heels clicking against the pavement providing a soft cadence to fill our awkward, if not hostile, silence. Samantha’s inexplicable sullenness alarmed me. Now that she had a boyfriend, perhaps the glamour of our double life no longer appealed to her. She might have preferred a romantic evening with Fielding to partying with the elite.
She suddenly had more in common with Denise than with me.
And then, there it was, the Plaza Hotel. We should have been making our entrance as adults, sophisticates, members of the upper echelon of New York City, but Samantha had ruined that—she had regressed into a teenage girl.
“What do we do?” she asked. “Just walk in?” She stood on her toes, peering at the building. “They’ve got policemen at the doors.”
“Of course they do,” I said. “It’s an exclusive party.”
I motioned for Samantha to follow, and we pushed our way to the hotel’s main doorway. A man dressed in a black suit and tie, his hair slicked back—by either rain or pomade, I was not sure—stopped us.
“Your cards, please,” he said in a nasal voice.
Somehow, I had not anticipated this. “Uh, well, w-we don’t have cards,” I stammered. “But our names are in Mr. Capote’s notebook. We saw him write them down.”
The doorman looked bored. “Mr. Capote’s notebook,” he said in a tone that suggested no emotion at all. I took this statement to be a question, and informed him of our brief encounter with the author, which, as I told the story, turned into a friendly luncheon.
“We have lunch together quite regularly, in fact,” I said and elbowed Samantha. “Don’t we, Samantha?”
She had been quiet throughout the entire conversation and remained that way despite my prodding. She gave a small nod.
“See?” I said. “Our invitations must have just gotten lost.”
The doorman surveyed our gowns. “Is this really what you’re wearing,” he said flatly.
His tone suggested no question mark, so neither Samantha nor I felt we could answer him. We merely stood there, rendered unable to speak.
“Well?” he finally asked.
“You’re holding up the line,” he said. “Please leave.”
“But we were invited,” I said, panic straining my voice. I tried to appeal to Samantha for support, but she would not look at me. “Go ask Mr. Capote. We’re on the list.”
“This is not a game of dress-up.”
I would have known the voice anywhere.
“Just shooing away two party crashers,” answered the doorman.
And there he was, once again irrefutable proof that divine intervention appealed to even the vainest of prayers: Truman Capote stepped out of the darkness. In his black mask, he might have been a superhero sent to our undeserved rescue.
“You were going to leave my poor Oak Room swans standing in the rain?” he said, surprising us all. “Why, they helped me plan the guest list. Come, come.”
He gestured for Samantha and me to follow him inside, leaving the poor doorman silently fuming in our wake.“Who are you, anyways?” he asked as we walked down a long hallway. I fell effortlessly into step next to him, Samantha trailing behind us. I motioned for her to join, but she was preoccupied with her fan, which she folded and unfolded with intense concentration. “I mean, what do you do?”
Names must have been irrelevant here; one was defined by what they wore, what they did. I gave him my best version of the truth: “Writer.” And for added legitimacy: “Not published yet, but I’ve got something in the works. A nonfiction novel with, uh, Random House.”
I waited for him to commend me on my nonfiction novel, but he stopped mid-stride and looked me up and down with one eye closed. “A writer. You don’t look a day over sixteen.”
I bristled. “I’m twenty,” I said. “I mean, twenty in January.”
“Only nineteen and already writing. Poor girl.” A shadow fell over his face. “You’ve got a long life ahead of you, darling.” Those were the last words he spoke to me; he then disappeared into the party.
We had arrived. The atmosphere was as light as the bubbles in Mia Farrow’s glass of champagne; she was standing by the door as we walked in, no doubt in anticipation of our grand entrance. The ballroom was a menagerie of monochromatic peacocks, feathers splayed for everyone to admire, strutting and dancing across a backdrop of scarlet tabletops: Ralph Ellison and Lauren Bacall laughed together at some private observation. George Plimpton waltzed with Joan Fontaine. Frank Sinatra shared a glass of wild turkey with Norman Mailer (poor judgment, I thought, on Sinatra’s part).
Jack Kerouac was noticeably absent. I can’t help but imagine he was slouched over a bar somewhere, further abusing his cirrhotic liver.
Genuine tears of joy blurred the room into a photograph negative. “This is it,” I whispered to Samantha. “This is our debut.”
For all my brazenness, I was wrong. How could I have known we were attending a farewell party, if not an unorthodox funeral, for a gilded age when words still retained mysticism and glamour, when even a writer could end up betrothed to Marilyn Monroe? Here were writers and musicians and actresses willingly donning masks and blindly kissing each other’s cheeks and posing for photographs—how could I have comprehended the rarity of the situation? I was only seventeen.
“So, who are you ladies?” Frank Sinatra asked us, Frank Sinatra deigning to speak to us, the One and Only Frank Sinatra. “Part of the Kansas outfit, I presume?”
He was referring, of course, to several individuals Truman Capote had interviewed for his novel, In Cold Blood, who had been charitably invited to the party. He smiled; I saw Frank Sinatra’s teeth in person. A brown particle of food was wedged between a canine tooth and his gum.
Mia Farrow gave us no time to defend ourselves, to let Frank Sinatra know we were most certainly not backwater hicks from Kansas and maybe he’d know if he gave us a chance to speak so we could say that we were New Yorkers born and bred and the best damn writers ever produced by Brooklyn—she sauntered up and kissed him on the cheek. She still radiated the warm, pink glow of a new bride, even though her wedding had been in July. Perhaps this was a side effect of marrying Frank Sinatra.
“Look, darling, these folks are from Kansas.”
“Marvelous,” she said, staring distractedly at someone across the room, before pulling Frank Sinatra away from us with a tight-lipped smile that seemed vaguely antagonistic. Samantha startled me by breaking into heavy sobs. Potential energy must have been gathering behind her glasses the entire night—they leapt from her face and clattered to the floor.
“Samantha!” I rescued her glasses and led her to the most vacant table I could find. A large man I did not recognize was sitting at the table, idly sipping something out of a glass. “He didn’t mean it,” I said. “You look like a New Yorker if I ever saw one. Now—”
Samantha tried to speak, but a gurgling sob rendered her incomprehensible. A couple in matching cat masks looked over at her. I wanted to remind them that curiosity tends to kill their kind, but I thought the better of it.
“Shhh,” I admonished her, and then, more gently, “take it easy, okay? What’s wrong?”
Ignoring my request, she coughed wetly into a gloved hand, eliciting more stares.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said at a volume that made me cringe with embarrassment.
“Everything okay?” the large man asked.
“Yes, sorry.” I must have sounded hostile, because the man got up and walked away, leaving behind his drink. “Here,” I said, grabbing the glass, “drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”
But Samantha only shook her head at this gesture. The cat couple had grabbed a girl disguised by a swan mask and pointed in our direction. A whole zoo was watching us now, except our positions had been reversed: Samantha and I were the ones on display.
“I want to go home,” Samantha said miserably.
“Home?” I hissed. “People are killing themselves over this party, Sam. But literally killing themselves.”
“I want to leave,” Samantha said again.
“Why? How could you want to leave?”
She murmured, her head lowered in shame: “Fielding.”
“He broke up with me last night.” She would not look me in the eye, for she must have anticipated my disappointment. Samantha and I were supposed to be immune to such juvenile emotions as love and heartbreak. “I didn’t want to tell you right away and spoil everything,” she said.
“That didn’t go too well for you, did it?” I asked, all self-awareness completely lost. “He’s just a stupid kid who thinks he’s the next great American poet because he maybe met Jack Kerouac in a Burger King. Come on. He’s not worth crying over.” I stood up. “Come on. Let’s dance.”
Slowly, Samantha raised her head. I wondered what revelatory, disillusioning thoughts must have been forming in her head until she said, “Your mask is crooked.”
And so it was. My mask was crooked, dangerously obscuring my left eye’s line of vision, but I could still see the famous, disguised visages staring at me, their lipstick-stained mouths gaping in pity and fascination. Instead of fixing the mask, I tore it from my face, snapping its elastic band. I took Samantha’s hand and led her through the crowd of astonished celebrities to the door. By degrees, the party returned to its dizzying gaiety. Our spectacle seemed to have vanished from everyone’s memory no sooner than we stepped into the hallway, as if Mr. Capote’s guests had not developed object permanence. I gave the ballroom one last, sweeping glance before descending back into the city, feeling profoundly translucent.
It was still raining, the skyline slick and grey. Reality settled in, soaked our dresses, marred our vision. Samantha peeled off her mask and threw it on the ground.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that a room full of celebrities had just watched me yell at my best friend.
“You don’t ever have to talk to me again, if you don’t want to,” I told her, handing back her glasses. Samantha correctly interpreted this statement as an apology, its form disfigured by pride.
“What happened?” I asked.
She shrugged. “He said we were delusional, coming to this party. Said we were certifiably insane if we really thought Truman Capote would invite two random teenage girls to his party. He even said that maybe we just made it all up, out of jealousy.”
“Jealousy for what? The Burger King thing?”
“Jesus,” I said.
“He said that wasn’t his main reason for breaking up, though.”
“What was his reason, then?”
“Needed to focus on his writing, apparently.”
I barked out a laugh. “Yeah, because people in fast food joints all over the country are anxiously awaiting his next poem.”
Either Samantha smiled or her cheek spasmed--I wasn’t sure. “I can’t believe I let him ruin tonight,” she said. She took off her gloves and discarded them on the street, where they disappeared into a murky puddle. “I hate him.”
I pictured Fielding spilling french fries down Jack Kerouac’s shirt and bending over to clean them up, a boy kneeling in a man’s shadow.
“I don’t,” I said.
Samantha merely looked at me, and we finished our walk back to the subway in silence.
I took Eloise to Manhattan the next weekend and found it wrapped in tinsel, strung with lights, occupied by tin soldiers, each one receiving a proper salute from my little sister as we passed by. She balanced herself on sidewalk edges as if they were tightropes, her arms outstretched like airplane wings. She urged me to avoid any cracks in the pavement, lest I break Denise’s spine.
She spoke, and I saw the city through her eyes, reveled in its magic, slipped backwards through the years into a world I had not visited since I was a child. Following her guidance, I pressed my nose against window displays and listened to her give names to the porcelain dolls sitting demurely amongst gift boxes and candy canes.
“That one is Elizabeth, that one Lilly, the one with the ruffled collar Victoria, and that one is Angela, after you…”
I clung to each word, trying to remember the exact timbre of her tiny voice when she told an old lady ringing a Salvation Army bell to have a wonderful day, the melody of her laughter when she patted the head of a wooden nativity scene lamb.
Although I was afraid to demand an explanation for her quietness, lest she lapse into silence again, I decided I had a responsibility to ask, to make up for whatever transgression Denise or I had committed.
Eloise stared vacantly at a tinsel snowflake hanging from a stoplight. “Well,” she started, rubbing one eye with her tiny fist, “Denise got mad at me one day, so I stopped talking. I was waiting to see if she would tell me to talk again—” her voice faltered—“but she never did.”
We were standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, but I kneeled in front of her so our eyes were level. “You don’t have to wait for Denise, okay?” I said. “You don’t have to wait for anyone.”
She nodded briskly, and then we walked on, her mittened hand in mine.
When we came across a newsstand, a gossip column featuring a picture of Truman Capote scrutinizing his masked reflection caught my eye and lured me in. The article transported me back to last weekend, the rainy, dismal spectacle, but Eloise refused to let me linger too long.
“Come on,” she said, tugging on my arm. “There’s still more Christmas to see.”
She was right, of course; I put down the newspaper and we ventured back into the jolly chaos of New York at Christmastime, the parts of the party I had missed blinking in my memory like string lights until they dimmed and went out: Spaghetti and meatballs and chicken hash had been served at midnight. The Kansans had been the last to leave, not staggering home until well after three in the morning. Norman Mailer had tried to start a fistfight, but ultimately nothing came of it and he walked away, fists still clenched.
Aleyna Rentz is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University and a founding editor at Moonglasses Magazine. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and appears or is forthcoming in Blue Earth Review, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere.