Happy & You Know It Page 2

Claire bit her lip. “That’s really nice of you, Thea, but that’s the kind of stuff I was doing five years ago. I don’t know if I want—”

“How much money do you have left in your bank account?” Thea asked.

“Um,” Claire said. She swung herself out of bed too quickly and, a little dizzy, reached for her computer to pull up her account balance. When she saw what her self-destructive spiral had done to her savings, her mouth went dry. Her rent was already overdue because she’d run out of stamps and hadn’t been able to muster the energy to go out and buy more. And once she sent in that check, her bank account would be down to double digits. She cleared her throat. “What’s the address?”

“I’ll text you the details,” Thea said.

“Thanks,” Claire mumbled.

“I’m looking out for you, cuz,” Thea said, a note of tenderness creeping into her voice. “Can’t have you going back to Sacred Life Christian Fellowship. We’re the ones that got out.”

“Yeah, we are.”

“And, Claire? Before you go, please take a shower,” Thea said. “I can smell you over the phone.”


* * *


It was a doorman building, of course, with a limestone facade on the Upper East Side, bordering Central Park. The doorman, a shrunken man in a forest green uniform, peered at Claire as she caught her breath and wiped the sweat off her forehead. She’d forgotten, over the month she’d spent floating around her apartment like a tipsy ghost, just how unpredictable the New York subway system could be, and had ended up having to run part of the way there, the shifting weight of the guitar on her back giving her the gait of an ungainly penguin.

“Penthouse B,” she said, and he picked up the phone on his desk to call up. As he announced her to the person on the other end of the line, she checked the time again. Two minutes late. That was early for her, but Rich People Time worked differently from Charmingly Flighty Creative People Time.

He directed her toward an incredibly well-appointed elevator, all mirrored panels and marble accents. As she zoomed to the twentieth floor, she steeled herself. She knew how this would go. When she’d first moved to New York, she’d gotten a part-time job teaching baby music classes for one of those bouncy children’s entertainment companies, thinking it could be a fun way to make some cash while she pursued what she really wanted to do. Instead, she’d encountered a bunch of bored, rich moms in yoga clothes and diamonds, talking over her and her fellow teachers, alternately ignoring their babies and documenting their every move with their phones. Somehow these women were paying just enough attention to complain about various parts of the class to the front desk in excruciating detail afterward. Once, Claire had called a child by the wrong name, and the mother had looked at her like she’d just revealed a “Bin Laden 4Ever” tramp stamp. It was all a perfect recipe for feeling small. For feeling . . . not real.

The long hallway had only two doors, one marked “A” and one marked “B.” She pasted on a shit-eating grin and knocked on the latter. Ten seconds later, the door flew open, revealing one of the most beautiful women Claire had ever seen. Claire’s first thought was that the woman framed in the doorway would have been right at home in an eighteenth-century painting of European aristocracy. She was the image of a sheltered, prerevolution French princess, complete with alabaster skin, pink cheeks, and swan neck. She wore a cream-colored blouse with a ruffled collar. (Claire usually called tops “shirts,” but there was no way around it—this was a blouse.) But the most perfect thing about this nearly perfect woman was her hair. It was silken and unnaturally shiny, as if she’d stolen it straight from the mane of a well-groomed show horse.

“Claire?” the woman asked.

“Yup. Hi,” Claire said, waving. “I’m sorry I’m a couple minutes late. The trains . . .”

The corners of the woman’s plump lips turned down. “We don’t put up with tardiness here. You should just go home,” she said.

Shit. Claire’s breath caught in her throat as the realization knocked into her—she was going to have to go home, and not just to her apartment. She’d have to move back to Ohio. A twenty-eight-year-old failure living in her high school bedroom, if her parents hadn’t turned it into a home office or something. The people from her church would shake their heads in sympathy, but inside they’d feel that she’d gotten exactly what she deserved for her sins.

Then the woman broke into a laugh—a sunny, bell-like peal that transformed the very air around them. “I’m kidding!” she said, and then registered Claire’s expression. “Oh, no, your face! That was mean. I’m so sorry.”

“Wait. What?” Claire asked, confused. “I thought—”

“I didn’t mean to— I forgot you probably actually have to deal with people like that all the time. It is totally fine. We didn’t even realize.” To Claire’s great surprise, she stepped forward and hugged her, her breasts bumping against Claire’s collarbone. She smelled faintly of lavender. Claire relaxed, the tiniest bit, into this unexpected intimacy, her first hug in over a month. “We’re so excited to meet you. I’m Whitney. Come in, come in!”

In the foyer, Claire kicked off her boots and placed them next to a neat line of heels. Whitney kept up a steady stream of questions—How was her commute? Was she thirsty? Was this temperature okay for her?—as she took Claire’s hand in hers and led her to where the apartment opened up into a living room. Everything was white. Well, white with silver and chrome accents, glacierlike, clean. Along one wall, floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the trees in Central Park, skeletal and damp from melting snow. The ceiling was higher than normal, as if the apartment extended up a story and a half, not content to occupy just one floor of a building like everyone else’s did.

A couple of women sat on a white leather couch, wineglasses in their hands, while two others stood by a low table, trying to coax a couple of babies to stand up and grab the fruit on it. In the center of the room, a final woman sat on a checkered mat as more babies crawled and lolled around her like ants at a picnic. There they were: Claire’s big audience.

“Have you tried putting his favorite toy out of reach?” one of the women by the table was saying to the other. “That might motivate him.”

“No, I’ve just been dangling a big bag of heroin above his head. Can’t understand why it doesn’t work,” said the other, rolling her eyes. “Yes, of course I’ve tried the toy. He just wails until I hand it back to him.”

“Well, that’s the problem. You can’t hand it back—”

“Claire’s here!” Whitney said, breaking the other women out of their conversations. They all turned to Claire, looking her over and chorusing hellos. The force of their collective smiles nearly knocked Claire backward. She’d forgotten what it felt like to have a whole roomful of people excited to see her, anticipating that they all were going to have a delightful time together. She grew flushed with pleasure even as her brain fired off a running commentary about how demeaning this whole situation was.

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