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It was Wednesday and this time there were four of us going in to the city: Ari, Mimi, me and Lydia. Our mission: to get Ari outfitted well enough to look like a boy Amanda might actually go to a social event with. It was a challenge that even $100,000,000 might not be enough to meet.
I had given Mimi $50 before we left and Ari $500 so that Lydia wouldn’t catch on that I was the Sugar Plum Fairy when it comes to money. “That’s too much!” said Ari when I’d handed him the cash.
“I hope so,” I said. “But you should spend as much of it as you need.”
“Won’t Lydia get suspicious?”
“No,” Mimi said, pocketing her $50. “She’s so spoiled she probably doesn’t have any idea how much things cost or what a reasonable amount to spend is. She just assumes everyone has enough money to afford anything.”
“That’s why she stuck me with the bill at the Soda Squirt the other day,” I said. “I thought she was being cheap, but she was really just being spoiled.”
“Oh, that’s a lot better,” said Mimi.
“Don’t ever lose that girlish sarcasm,” I said to her sarcastically.
If I tell you this one little thing that happened on the train ride in, you’ll know everything you need to know about Lydia. But first you have to understand that Lydia doesn’t like me. Of course, she only doesn’t like me on those rare occasions when she actually notices me. The rest of the time, I’m not worth not liking.
So, the four of us are sitting on the train. I’m sitting next to Mimi and across from Ari. Lydia is sitting next to the window, facing forward, because that’s the best seat of the four, so of course she assumed it as her rightful throne. About twenty minutes go by. The three of us keep trying to engage Lydia in conversation. But she fans her face, says “Whatever,” and continues to thumb through her fashion magazine. I go out of my way to try to pull her into a conversation. “So, it looks like bright colors are coming in,” I say, pointing at the cover of her magazine.
Lydia rolls her eyes.
“You think bright colors aren’t coming in?”
Lydia rolls her eyes some more.
“So what do you think the new thing in fashion is going to be?”
“Look,” she says, “I’m trying to read, ok?”
In other words, it’s just a typical conversation with Lydia in which she makes it clear that I am less interesting than crusted-over porridge stuck on a bowl you find behind your bed that you forgot since last winter. Not that that’s ever happened to me. The point is: This is someone who really doesn’t like me.
But then Mimi gets up to go to the bathroom. And as soon as she’s gone, Lydia lowers the magazine from her face just enough to show her eyes. “You’ve got your own style, you know,” she says looking straight at me.
“Are you kidding me? I have style? I wear the same shirt a week at a time.”
“That’s a style. A style is your way of showing who you are.” Why did I feel like she must have just read that in her magazine? “And you show exactly who you are. You always have. Even when we were in third grade together.”
Oh, I remember Lydia in the third grade all right. She was the one who took the last piece of black construction paper just because she knew that I wanted it. She cut one little circle out of the center and then “forgot” to paste it on the drawing she was making. Yeah, sure, she was admiring my style back then.
“Well, you’re the first person ever to say I have anything other than a complete lack of fashion sense.”
“Why do you care what other people say when you have me saying something?” And she flutters her eyelids, smiles just a bit, and goes back to reading.
Ari looks at me amazed.
I look at Ari popeyed.
She’s flirting with me. Why? Because Mimi left and Lydia thinks she can and should control every boy within a thirty foot radius, even if – and this is the creepy part – she doesn’t like him.
Then Mimi returned, saw Ari and me looking at each other with our eyebrows practically on top of our heads with amazement. “Later,” I said to Mimi. “Later.”
* * *
When we got off the train, Ari turned to the right to head uptown. “Where are you going?” Lydia demanded.
“To Mr. Sidney’s,” Ari said as if it were obvious.
“Mr. Sidney’s” Lydia repeated as if Ari had said that he was eager to catch a case of bubonic plague. “Who goes to Mr. Sidney’s?”
“That’s where my…” Ari began and caught himself before admitting what we all knew: His mother takes him shopping. Just like Mimi. Just like me.
Mimi pulled Ari’s sleeve towards the left. “We’ll go where we usually go,” she said. “The Blue Gnu.”
“But we’ve never…”
“The Blue Gnu,” Mimi repeated insistently.
“Oh,” said Ari. “Yeah, the ol’ Gnu. I thought you said the, um, Boo Hoo, and I’m all like, what’s that, I never heard of it…”
“I can’t believe you go to the Blue Gnu,” said Lydia. “Actually, I totally believe it. That would explain so much,” she said, looking at Ari up and down, from plaid shirt to gigantic sneakers. “We’re going to La Plaz.”
“La Plaz?” said Ari. “Oh, yeah, that’s the other place we always go.”
“Taxi,” I shouted, and one zoomed to a stop.
La Plaz was the type of fancy shop that has a store window filled with symbols of decay. At the moment, it had a Roman Empire theme with broken columns over which were thrown sweaters so expensive that they didn’t have price tags. Next to the columns were three dead indoor trees from which hung three shirts, carefully crumpled. I don’t know why they think that anyone will look at that display and decide, “You know what I don’t have enough of? Crumpled up shirts lying around. And not just any old crumpled shirts: I’ve got to get myself some really expensive ones.”
We went in anyway, following Lydia, who seemed so at home there that I expected her to flop onto the floor and start doing homework…if Lydia ever actually did homework. A clerk dressed in a shirt with one short sleeve and one no-sleeve came over and pecked Lydia on both checks. “Lydia, my dear, so good to see you. Do come and take a look at what we have new for you.”
“Actually, Antoine, I’m here for…him.” She pointed at Ari as if he were a stain on the carpet.
“Oh. I see.” Then, remembering that he was a Style Professional, Antoine turned to Ari and said in a more upbeat tone, “Why don’t you come with me. My name is Antoine and I’ll be working with you.” Then, turning to Lydia again: “Is there an occasion?”
“He’s taking Amanda to a dance at the country club.”
“Oh my,” said Antoine, completely failing to mask his surprise.
Antoine whisked Ari away. Lydia followed, to pass judgment on Antoine’s suggestions. It was as if she were Ari’s clothing attorney, defending his rights in fashion court.
“We should be prepared for the unexpected,” I said to Mimi as we browsed among racks of clothing that would look very weird on us.
“Do you think Ari is cruising for a bruising with Amanda?”
“I don’t see how it could turn out well for him,” I said. “There’s no chance she’s actually going to fall for him.”
“And even if she did, that’d probably only make him more miserable.”
“Yeah, not much chance of happiness coming out of this.”
“So,” Mimi said as she held a thing with polka dots up to her, “what were you and Ari making faces about on the train?”
“Oh, it was so weird. You know how Lydia treats me like dirt?”
“Dirt? No, that implies that she notices you.”
“As soon as you left for the bathroom, she started to talk to me.”
“In fact, I’m pretty sure we actually made eye contact.”
“But I finally figured it out. She was flirting with me.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure. It was just so weird since she doesn’t even like me.”
“Maybe she does.”
“Nah. I think it’s just a natural reaction with her, like a frog sticking out its tongue to get a fly even if it’s not hungry.”
“I better not leave the two of you alone together.”
“Help me,” I said to Mimi in a high voice like the character in the movie The Fly – the original version, not the Jeff Goldblum version that my parents think I haven’t seen because it’s too gross.
Ari came toward us from the back of the store. Lydia had chased us out of there after Mimi had rolled her eyes at the puffy-sleeved green-and-pink striped shirt that Antoine had pulled out for Lydia’s inspection. Ari was walking quickly and whispered in my ear: “I need more money.”
“What? I gave you $500.”
“The jacket and pants she’s picked for me cost more than that.”
“How much do you need?”
“I think it may be around $1,000 by the time she’s through.”
I sighed. I had the money but it seemed such a waste.
“I’m sorry,” Ari said.
“Don’t be. It makes zero difference,” I said, handing him a wad of bills. He slipped them into his pocket, only dropping two hundreds on the way. Mimi scooped them out and gave them back to him.
“She’s insane,” Ari said. “She’s getting me stuff that no one on the planet actually wears.”
“Can we see?”
“She doesn’t want you to.”
“Well,” said Mimi, “Tough. I’m coming back with you. We’re your friends and we should be allowed at least to see. I promise not to roll my eyes again.”
In the back of the store, there was a special spot for special customers. It had three comfortable chairs facing a slightly raised platform where the victim – um, customer – could stand and admire himself or herself in the three angled mirrors. Ari stepped onto the platform. I could swear that the mirrors did the fun house trick of lengthening the reflection so that you’d look just a little taller and skinnier. Clever, tricky store.
Antoine came forward carrying an arm full of ties that ranged in color from pea soup green to mold green. Apparently sickening shades of green were in this year. He began holding them up to the shirt on the top of the pile and tossed each aside with great certainty although each looked equally ugly to me. At last he came to one that looked like a muddy tire had run over an iguana. “Perfect!” he exclaimed. “And, I think you should take this one, too,” he said, holding up one that looked like moss growing on a tire, “just in case the après party calls for something more festive.”
Antoine looked at Lydia. Lydia looked at her watch. “Yes,” said Antoine. “I believe our Mr. Ari is outfitted. Yes?” Lydia nodded. “Let me get these boxed.” He waved and magically another attendant arrived who dared not look Antoine in the eye. The attendant gathered up the shirts, ties, pants, jackets, socks, underpants, undershirts, and shoes.
“Quite a load,” I said as Mr. Antoine went away to total the amount and probably to order cruise tickets to celebrate the sale. “What do you think, Lydia?”
“I think he’ll be well-dressed,” she said, implying that that’s the most Ari would ever be.
Antoine returned with two pages of bills on a small tray made out of some nearly-extinct wood. “And how will Mr. Ari pay? Credit card, may I assume?”
“No, I prefer cash,” said Ari, pulling a crumpled wad of bills out of his pocket. Slowly he began counting out the amount. Bill after bill, Antoine carefully tested each to make sure that it wasn’t two stuck together, then righted each so that it was face up and facing forward, then smoothed and stacked it. The hundreds, then the twenties, then the tens, then the five, then the ones. At last he was done. But, no, he began digging in his pocket for change.
“That’s quite all right, Mr. Ari.”
“No, I owe you thirty-two cents.” So we all stood as Ari counted out five nickels and then the pennies. “I need one more,” he said.
I dug in my pocket and gave him a nickel. “You owe me five cents,” I said.
The three of us picked up his bundles and staggered out the door, Antoine following behind like a father sending his son to college, so proud was he. Lydia was empty-handed except for a small bag with a sweater that Antoine had given her for steering the rich Mr. Ari into the palace of fashion that was La Plaz.
The stagnant, smoggy, sooty air of the city never felt so good.
We went to lunch at Lydia’s favorite restaurant, a place that had food combinations no one had ever tried before, usually for good reason. It was just a block past the Salzburg Grille where we had had lunch the last time we were in the city. As we approached, all three of us looked to see Philip and Caroline.
Their spot was empty. Even the rags where Spunky had slept were gone.