THE DAY I CUT my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.
It is late August. I am ten. Babs is in the kitchen talking to Andie, who comes Saturday afternoons for Bloody Marys and eggs Benedict. Babs doesn’t drink alcohol. She always nurses a Baccarat champagne flute of freshly squeezed juice (grapefruit, plum, raspberry) cut with a heavy pour of Perrier. Fruit has way too many calories. I’m not even sure she likes the taste, but it looks pretty.
“So, Andie,” Babs says, “we are doing the Card tomorrow. I can’t decide if I should go summer or for more of a holiday feel. No matchy-matchy reindeer sweaters, of course, but maybe a tad less controversial than last year’s. I know the nudity was tastefully done, but I don’t want that bitch Nona Cardill writing nasty things about me in her column. That biddy probably never takes off her underwear. And all the calls from school. No sense of humor at all; no points for creativity.”
All the kids in my grade at Chicago Day were really mean when our Christmas Card arrived last year. Yes, we were naked, but I was sitting on Babs’s lap and covered her privates. That didn’t make things any better. They said I was totally weird to have my picture taken without my clothes on. The best I could come up with was that it wasn’t my idea.
“It was very avant-garde, Babs. I still have it up on my fridge,” Andie says.
I think this is kind of creepy. Babs just laughs.
I’m sitting on the floor by the kitchen table, almost out of view, reading Tiger Beat, which has my idol Brooke Shields on the cover. Babs got me a subscription to it for my tenth birthday and it’s one of the best presents she ever gave me. I watch them smoke and ash into their Villeroy & Boch plates—Babs’s “weekend” china. It doesn’t matter that we eat off these plates; Babs can turn anything into an ashtray. She and Andie lean into the white marble island as if they need help remaining upright. Babs wears white short-shorts and a white Playboy bunny tank top, a silver bunny head outlined on it in rhinestones.
Andie wears a brown wrap dress that is so wrinkled it looks like she dug it out from under her bed. She has Birkenstocks on her feet. When she came in, I could see the hair on her toes.
Babs is beautiful, and I wish I looked like her. She has blond hair, which she wears up in a messy French twist, and blue eyes. You might think Babs was Grace Kelly’s twin if GK said words like cock and pussy and hit little kids. Babs always said she would much rather look like Brigitte Bardot, sexy, fluid, and open-ended like an unmade bed, but she doesn’t have the curves to pull it off. She is very tall, five foot ten, and cut like a boy: slender hips, no butt, no boobs.
Babs’s legs are right in front me, and like she says, they are so fucking fabulous. Her calves are shea-butter rich and smell of South African lemons, thanks to her Veritas lotion. She almost never wears pants or pantyhose. She uses their bareness to take advantage of the elements: they goose-bump in the cold, glisten in the sun, go slick in the rain. Since I am her daughter, I think she might let me touch them some time. I hope I will even grow into my own pair one day. But her body is off-limits to me. It is almost as if she were afraid my small hands would leave fingerprints and ruin them forever.
Andie isn’t even remotely attractive, and this is exactly why Babs is friends with her. She has curly hair with gray in it, and big horse teeth. She always agrees with Babs, no matter what.
“That’s the difference between our Card and other people’s. As you know. Don’t just snap something and send it to your friends. Spend some time on it. Surprise people when they open the envelope. I was thinking about a Turning Point theme, both of us with buns and matching leotards. But with a holiday twist. I’m afraid most people won’t get it. It’s just too bad we don’t know Misha. Those fabulous tights.”
I don’t get it. Buns and leotards? Who is Misha? Since when does Babs like ballet?
“Anyone who doesn’t get that movie doesn’t deserve your Card, Babs.”
Today, Andie is surprisingly authoritative, making up standards for Babs’s friends. I think she hopes this Card will narrow the pool of people Babs likes and give Andie more of a shot. As it stands, Andie is just a daytime friend. She’s never invited for dinner when other people come. But Andie thinks if she just keeps showing up, Babs will bump her up on the roster, make space for her at the table. This will never happen. Babs makes up her mind about people and doesn’t allow for upgrades. Like me, Andie is taking the standby approach, but it just doesn’t work. There are always better people available to take the good seats.
Babs spots me listening in on their discussion and says, “Bettina, stop hovering. Go find your own fun.” Hovering is fucking annoying, so I stand up and leave.
Babs says things like this all the time and I am used to it. But still, I don’t want to find something else to do. I’m an only child but completely lack the mythical powers of only-child imagination. Unlike Eloise, I cannot make a day out of fixing a doll’s broken head or spend hours feeding raisins to a turtle.
I do have a nanny, but not the doting or fancy kind. Stacey is twenty and isn’t from England, but Lyons, Wisconsin. Before coming to work for Babs, she lived in a small ranch house with her family. The average tenure of my nannies is about nine months, and Stacey has been with us for two years now. A real achievement.
Stacey’s favorite parts of the job are smoking Virginia Slim menthols (Babs would never hire a nanny who didn’t smoke) and speeding down Lake Shore Drive in the Pacer Babs has given her to use. She reads Cosmo and highlights all the passages on how to drive a man to ecstasy. She really has no interest in me.
I don’t completely blame her. I am a little girl who offers no easy conversation and doesn’t do tricks. I don’t like stickers, don’t play with Barbies, and think cartoons are stupid. What matters to me is someday being friends with Brooke Shields. Babs met her once at Studio 54 and had Brooke autograph a cocktail napkin for me. I was so happy I put it in a Dax frame along with a cut-out picture of her. This is the best thing I have.
Unlike Brooke, I am not gorgeous, or even a tiny bit pretty. I am four-three with flat brown hair that won’t hold curls. Once, Babs tried to give it volume by attacking it with a curling iron, but the only thing she accomplished was burning my scalp. Babs promises that when I turn eleven, she will get me professional streaks for my birthday.
The one thing I seem to have going for me is that I’m thin, and Babs loves buying clothes for me. She spends lots of money on them: suede or leather pants she picks up in Paris, silk-screened T-shirts with Warhol prints on them, gray crinkled-silk pinafores with black velvet ballet flats. But none of this really matters. I’m a match that just won’t strike.
When I leave Babs and Andie, I decid...