Queen Bee

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I was still wearing sweat pants under a dress coat when I got to The Countess’s house. I hadn’t changed since I got home from school and I’d run out of the door and down the street on converse high-tops, purple, inscribed with Smiths lyrics, boys’ initials, and that Oscar Wilde quote about the gutter and stars. January needled my lungs and numbed my fingers. I must have looked horrible, all greasy-haired and sniffling when I barged into her kitchen. She looked like a vision—all white and gold– a coronation Queen Elizabeth I in leggings and oversized sweaters and a Christmas-themed apron. She was slicing a pecan pie. Her specialty. I said, I’m having the worst day of my life. I wish I were dead. Which, because I was sixteen, was both gospel truth and complete hyperbole at the same time.

The Countess wiped her hands on a tea towel. She pulled three bottles from her father’s liquor cabinet, and poured a generous slug of each in three different Wedgwood teacups Vodka. Whiskey. Tequila. Drink each one, really fast. Then put this on. She held up a tube of lipstick, blood red.

 I was a novice drinker, then, and the tequila—would there be worm bits in it? smelled highly suspect, but I cowgirled up and  took the shots. While my eyes watered and esophagus burned, she gestured again with the lipstick. It’s critical. I applied the lipstick by my reflection in the kitchen window. I thought it accentuated the gap between my front teeth and made the rest look yellow. I felt warm and woozy.

Better? She asked.

My reflection blurred into something inoffensive. I nodded. I was.

The Countess hollered at her little sister. If Dad comes home, tell him I forgot something at school. She put on her father’s barn jacket. I felt in my pocket for cigarettes and we went out to the car.  

*

The Countess was not really a Countess. She looked a painting or a Renaissance princess and aspired, above all, to beautiful things and perfect hospitality. We spent hours driving around fancy neighborhoods, imagining which houses we might live in and how we might entertain once we did. A garden party, I think, she’d say. With champagne cocktails and portrait hats. The men would wear seersucker suits and mascara. She’d smile, pleased with her own cleverness. She liked transgression so discreet as to require a double-take, Was it? Could it?  It would be years before I knew she stole that line about the seersucker and mascara from someone else.

In general, subtlety was not The Countess’s strong suit. She had big moods. She made bold statements. She climbed the stage at morning convocation in her preppy flats and white dresses—she  only disaffected teenage girl in the 90s that preferred white clothes—and report on church signs we passed on our smoking circuit.  According the Woodfin Baptist Church, only the wide awake Christian can sleep with Jesus. What do you all make of that? Then, after a beat, she’d  stride grandly off the stage as if she’d dropped a mic in front of the Nobel Committee.

*

 She drove too fast, squealing into the bend, shooting out onto the Avenue, where the speed limit was an impossible 25 mph for everyone but The Countess, who thought nothing of passing a slower car as if it were rush hour on the expressway. We listed off bullet points about each of the mansions on the right.  That’s the house where Emily lived. That’s where Susan lost her virginity. That’s the so and so’s dad had  sex party. Hand to God.   The strange stone art deco villa in the ivy? Owned by a socialite tarot card reader. The Countess lit another cigarette with the lazy dash lighter and when she opened the window, she flooded the avenue with music. She liked spirally songs with ethereal female vocals. Cocteau Twins.  Lush. A bunch of other bands we’d later call shoegaze, or shoegaze-adjacent. She also had a weakness for Enya, which was hilarious. From my bedroom, I could hear her approach to Orinoco Flow played at death metal volume up the narrow corridor of ranch houses that led to my house. We’d moved there after my parents divorce divested us of the big house by the lake.  My mother and sister hated it there. I understood that the smaller, shabbier house under the mountain felt like a step down, but I liked where it was. I could walk to the grand hotel around the corner or  downtown and when I said the name of my neighborhood, people imagined I meant one of those Gatsbyish summer cottages clinging to the curves of  Sunset Mountain. The ones Thomas Wolfe wrote about.

I didn’t correct them.

*

The Countess lived at the bottom of the hill in a stone and shingle cottage, scarcely grander than my house. The summer previous, I’d run down the hill during a soon-abandoned flirtation with jogging. She flagged me down in her front yard. She’d had mono, she said. She’d been desperately bored, horribly lonely. Had I heard from anyone? Was I still hung up on Poetic Bangs? Had I really gotten a car? Would I like a dinner? Could we sit in the smoking section because God she was dying for a cigarette.

We fell immediately into that intense I can tell you anything for hours at a time thing that can make you go all “Anne of Green Gables”  bosom friends after twenty minutes and a shared plate of nachos at the Mexican greasy spoon. I let her smoke in my car. Then I started smoking in my car because I drove her to a school. We pooled the gas money our parents gave us and used it to buy cigarettes, coffee and doughnuts, but only when the HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW sign was alit at the Krispy Kreme.  When the Countess pointed out that I wasn’t actually inhaling the smoke, I did and became an actual smoker with a preference for black coffee, because The Countess had, like, zero time to wait for me to  add cream and sugar.  After I totaled my car, she would come for me after hours in her Dad’s jeep and  stand outside my bedroom, banging on the window with a downed tree branch, until I dressed and joined her. Sometimes we’d walk up the grand hotel lobby to do our Latin homework. I’d imagine the entry to Aeneas’ underworld looking like the big stone fireplaces on each end of the lobby. The Countess would coerce a lonely, aging tourists to buy her vodka tonics at the bar. She never got busted[1]

*

I’d known The Countess since we were babies, but she spent part of her childhood in parochial school. When we were reunited in the fourth grade, she was unusually tall and seemed in all ways about two decades older than the rest of us. I went to her house for a play date. She gave me a cool appraisal at the door and announced that she’d recently come into some blazers, shoulder pads, and silk blouses so we’d be playing Divorced Businesswomen. Pretend I’m Cybil Shepherd. You can be Kathleen Turner or Diane Keaton or something. She handed me a wine glass full of Fresca and started complaining about her imaginary ex-husband, Mark.

Our friendship didn’t take then, probably because I kept trying to get our Divorced Businesswomen to fight wizards and dragons outside the swanky Upper East Side Apartments the Countess imagined they’d live in. The Countess would give me a withering gaze and explain that there were no dragons on the Upper East Side. This was accurate. Dragons are definitely more of an Upper West Side thing. But I hadn’t even been to New York City yet, so how was I to know?

*

I didn’t really feel the alcohol until my second cigarette. By then we were most of the way across town and The Countess had just Evel Knieveled her way over a curb  onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. I told her I felt lightheaded and she asked if I was going to puke. I said no. She turned up the Slowdive, a gift from some dude  she was seeing. He was older.Sometimes she said he was twenty-one. Sometimes she said he was twenty-six. She was so over men our age.

She rolled down the windows once we outran the city lights. The black shadows of pines lorded over us on either side of the road. It was cold. She tapped the console. I brought a flask, she said. But the cold i good for your skin. Fresh air prevents wrinkles. I rested my head against the door frame and looked up to see if I could make out the moon.

*

The Countess found academic endeavor a largely dull affair, though she was not, strictly speaking, a bad student. Our school was full of smart kids and rich kids, and a few rich, smart kids. Neither the Countess nor I were rich enough to slack off entirely, so on the multitude of days we called in sick together[2].  I helped her with her papers and she helped me lie to my mother. Her dad was rarely home and seemingly oblivious to the Countess’ agenda when he was. As time progressed, her house became a one-stop for whoever happened to be out and looking for a place to hang out unscrutinized, often with a crowd.  A wander into her living room on a Saturday night usually meant you’d run into a motley assortment of Day Students and a bunch of  kids from the public high school I’d naively  believed I’d never see again. The latter were mostly boys, and all, at best, indifferent to me, unless I had money to throw in for beer or pot, like, even five bucks would help.

Those boys would send their girlfriends home and come over to have a cold one before curfew. None of them dated The Countess. She’d obtained the sort of capital R Reputation prim mothers caution their daughters against somewhere around seventh grade.  I never questioned the stories I heard and the assumptions people made about her because everything about the Countess hinted of sophistication. She was the kind of sixteen-year-old that could mix a perfect martini from memory and apply lipstick without looking in the mirror. It stood to reason she was also a libertine. We’d been friends for about three hours when she told me her actual greatest sin had been hitting puberty a few years before the rest of us, and being a pretty girl who  genuinely liked hanging out with boys.  Her romantic experience, in those days anyway, was scarcely more controversial than my own.

And yet those boys, the same one that had gossiped about her in the halls, showed up at her house and lounged with cases of cheap Fake ID beer, while she held court with elaborate desserts she made from scratch, while they still ogled her every time she stood and still talked the same old shit about her every time they left her house.

Why do you tolerate it?  I’d ask.

You don’t really understand about men, she’d say and she’d be right. I didn’t really understand about men. I didn’t understand about a lot of things.  My failure to grasp the convoluted social protocols the Countess rigorously adhered to—even at sixteen she sent thank you notes, even when the party ended with her swinging, half-dressed, from a front porch column, lip-synching Madonna and drinking convenience store champagne straight from the bottle—seemed in danger of upending our careful equilibrium

*

The best Parkway overlook was the one two up from the river, far enough away from the city below that there wasn’t much traffic, close enough that could skedaddle back to civilization if the Parkway turned out, as my mother suggested, to be a hotbed of psycho killers trolling for victims. I took us there first in my car. Then she took us in her car. And once the second overlook became a popular make-out destination, she’d shine the headlights of her new car through our friends’ fog-covered windows, park ranger style, to see who she could startle in flagrante delicto.

 *

It occurred to me, at some after-dance party, during senior year that every after-dance party was at The Countess’ house, which, by then, we’d started calling the Sodom and Gomorrah House. This was because of the lack of parents. This was because the Countess always had plenty of alcohol and an inclination to experiment with cocktails. Have you ever had a Gin Rickey? Let’s try daiquiris! This was because the Countess never went to the dances herself.

It’s not that she couldn’t have. I’m sure she was invited. She was beautiful. She was popular. She was funny. She was fearless. She was magnificent.

*

That night, we were the only ones up there.  The Countess turned off the car. We sat in silence, puffing out curlicues of smoke.

“We could talk about your bad day,” she said “If you want to.”

*

There are stories about The Countess that beggar belief. Some of them are true. Most are the stuff of legend soon lost on the infinite palimpsest of local rumor. Those stories are not mine to tell. And at some point, the Countess herself stopped telling her stories, or, at least, telling them to me.

I would come home from college and hear conflicting reports. She was married to a British lord. She was a nanny for a family in Ohio. She’d moved to Hollywood. She’d opened a boutique in Georgia. All seemed equally plausible.

What I want to tell you is that I’d had best friends before The Countess, but The Countess was the first real best friend I ever really had.

*

Every time a high school reunion comes up, and they do every five years at schools that rely on alumni donations, there are a few names I always look for on the RSVP list. I tell myself, I’ll go if they do, even though, especially though, I know they won’t.

I know she won’t.

I still dream about The Countess. I think it’s because we never actually got to be thirty-something businesswomen, bitching about our exes, battling the dragons, drinking actual white wine, being real grown-ups.

In my dream, she is always hosting a dinner party in one of those old mansions we used to drive by. I’m so happy to see her. When I come in she’s wearing a variation on this green velvet party dress she used to wear at all sorts of non-party dress events—to the grocery store, around the house, to the punk rock coffeehouse downtown. That dress made her hair look like shiny copper. That dress made her look like an empress.

I told her that once.

She said, this old thing? It’s basically a rag.

*

 I didn’t really need to talk about my bad day. So we didn’t. We just sat and smoked and  watched the stars, for long enough that my cheeks went numb with cold, until I worried about homework, until I worried about my mother worried about me, until I could tell The Countess was bored.

You’ll be okay, she said, finally, before she turned the key.

I believed her.

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[1] By contrast, I got busted repeatedly for trying to sneak upstairs in the hotel on a pilgrimage to the room where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to stay in the hotel, because at the point in my life, sixteen, early seventeen, I still believed in the totemic, transformative power of places. If I could touch this doorframe, that maybe he once touched, then maybe just maybe that would make me a better writer.

 

[2] “Did you know that you and [The Countess] have broken a school record for simultaneous absences? I just want you to keep that in mind given that you’re in the final stretch of your last semester“—Dean of Students, Senior Year.

The Author

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