Society Hill, Philadelphia | June, 2000
So the book club. Finally going. I get off the bus and find my way to the appointed corner at the appointed time and find a hardy Daryl, he of the acne and the long black ponytail, just parking his car. He’s flanked by two breathless young beauties. This makes him look like a programmer or a rock god, because otherwise how could he ever…
“Balero, my man! This is Zelda and Katie.” Silent hellos, waves. “So glad you could make it. This is going to be fun! We have two new members tonight, including you. Let’s go!”
We snake through tightly packed mauve brick colonials. I’m still thinking some swanky restaurant around the corner is our destination until Daryl & co let themselves into a big beautiful old apartment building, a filigreed fantasy in rainy grey.
I stand back to take it in. “This place?”
“Yep, this is it. Neat, huh?”
Neat. It’s a castle.
“Someone you know lives here?”
“Willow, silly. This is her Philly address. You should see the one she has in Manhattan.”
We float through a marble lobby toward a row of gilded elevators. On the way up it hits me that the elevator probably costs more than the bus I rode in on.
The apartment is huge, like celebrity huge, with amazing views of the neighborhood below. The décor is more or less retro future. I was somehow expecting to wind up in a nineteenth century salon filled with ladies in complexly beaded dresses and men in tuxedos discussing spiritualism and the Orient through a thick tobacco haze. Instead everything is very ‘60s modern: stark white walls, long boxy grey sofas, large rectangular paintings of solid primary colors, inexplicable silver chair-size orbs, metallic coffee and end tables, ‘50s UFO lamps that spin colored light out in strange directions, and a giant fucking orange shag rug.
We assemble in the library, which is a bit more old-world and takes on the dark red and green of old money. Whoever lives here—I guess Willow—is making a point to show off how much they can afford to blow on interior decorators.
“I know, right?”
Daryl keeps close, which I appreciate. The crowd is pressing in and I don’t recognize anyone. Must be thirty people here easy, all more or less our age. Mostly less.
“Wow. You guys don’t fucking play.”
“Seriously, you’ve got to come to Manhattan with us sometime. You will jizz. Your pants. You will jizz in them.”
“Must be a pretty good racket in the self-help business.”
A girl with a ‘60s beehive approaches us, It’s been too long, gives Daryl a hug. Seconds later he’s pulled away because he just has to meet someone. He turns to me before disappearing with a one-minute finger, then I’m on my own.
“You must be new. Hi, I’m Nichole.”
I turn around. A devastating redhead in a sapphire cocktail dress extends a hand. I actually do the thing where I spin around to make sure that I’m the intended object of her attention.
“Balero. Hi. And yes: new.”
We shake hands for a beat too long. She smiles and tilts her head sideways without taking her eyes off me.
“You’re probably wondering if you’ve crashed the wrong party.”
I look around and shove my fists in my pockets.
“Mandy invited you, didn’t she?”
“Yes. Mandy. That’s right. Mandy. Of the short black hair.” I hit that point particularly hard in case she actually does think I crashed the party.
“Thought so. She loves the look you newbies give at your first meeting. Lives for it. Part of the initiation ritual.”
Daryl returns to my side, holding a bright pink napkin and sucking grease off of his thumb.
“Daryl. Always a pleasure.”
Nichole’s eyes glow with mirth. She might as well have been rubbing her hands together. Did they fucking eat the newcomers here?
Mandy joins us, same hungry look in her eyes.
“Hey, nice to see you again! Balero, right?”
She’s stunning. Wearing a small red cocktail dress and swirling a glass of white wine. A fire roars behind her.
“Not what you were expecting, huh?”
That look again, that secret joke, flies between them. The white gems on Mandy’s ears don’t look fake. Between that and Nichole’s bejeweled cocktail dress it really starts to hit me just how underdressed I am in jeans, hoodie, and sneakers. Not that anyone seems to care.
Someone shouts, “We’ve got a reporter!”
“Excuse me.” Mandy sets down her glass and moves into the living room.
Daryl washes down his appetizer with what looks like champagne and clears his throat. “We’ve started attracting attention.”
“What the fuck do you guys do up here?”
“That’s what the reporter desperately wants to know, and you’re about to find out.”
We sit down on one of the huge leather sofas. It’s softer than a marshmallow. A burnt, sugary, goddamn marshmallow.
Daryl actually snaps his fingers at a passing waiter.
“Steve, bring our new friend something to drink. What would you like?”
I’ve already hit the pipe a few times today, and don’t want to miss a single detail of whatever the hell is happening around me.
“I’m good. Water? Fruit juice?” Something virgin for the virgin.
The caterer dude closes his eyes and nods before weaving back into the crowd.
Mandy is back already.
“OK is everyone here? Yes? Shall we begin?” She claps her hands twice. Within five seconds all conversations come to a stop. People alight on sofas and chairs and ottomans and large cushioned window sills. Someone shuts the giant library doors from the other side. Only the fire is audible.
“We have a few newcomers tonight. Balero over there, and I’m sorry young lady, I didn’t catch your name. Would you both care to stand? Please! Don’t be shy.”
Up I go, blood throbbing in my face like from the convention, uncertain where to look. I half-smile and wave lamely to no one in particular. The other newcomer, a girl, looks about as embarrassed as I’m sure I do, so at least there’s that. She also looks just as underdressed as me.
Everyone says it at once, perfectly timed, cued by nothing.
Mandy turns to me and extends her palm, her smile blazing brighter than the fire.
“Balero, why don’t we start with you? Tell us a little about yourself.”