Zoe was standing at the valet trying to bum a cigarette off Vince. She’d just gotten off work and it was pouring, but Beverly Hills was even more beautiful in the rain. In the dark the yellow headlights glinted off Sunset Boulevard like a shining warped record. Vince was leaning with his back against the valet booth not paying much attention to Zoe, probably because he knew she really was just after the nicotine and wasn’t even flirting with him. But Zoe wasn’t shy about asking for favors, and she knew Vince liked that about her. He straightened his bowtie and pulled out a pack of Parliaments. Wet palm fronds whacked the pink stucco of the hotel.
“Zoe?” a voice said from behind her.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said, grateful she’d had time to change out of her pool attendant uniform. Augie Borman was walking out of the hotel, his leather shoes squishing into the soaked red valet mat. He looked rich.
“You’re staying here?” he asked, a little nervous.
“No, I was uh, just seeing a friend,” she answered. Vince looked up and raised his eyebrows.
“Would you like a cab, Miss?” Vince said, putting on his best Beverly Hills Hotel parking attendant smile, sort of enjoying this. Zoe didn’t mind. As long as she could make it back to the staff parking lot with her pride intact.
“Yes, we would,” Augie answered. And before Zoe could refuse a taxi was pulling up under the awning. Augie was relaxed now, a look on his face like he knew he didn’t have to ask.
“Oh, what the hell.”
Zoe’s mouth tasted like a metal sink. The sugar from last night’s liquor was still on her molars like moss. Fuck tequila. Fuck Calamity Jane’s and their three-dollar-shot-and-a-beer Fridays, and fuck Jane for opening a place too ugly to stay sober in. The bar’s only redeeming quality was a signed poster of Robert Duvall on the back wall. Zoe’s picture was there too, still on the big mirror collaged with about sixty other fake IDs. Jane called it “The Yearbook”—an archive of underage, oversold Encino High school kids. For years it was like a shrine Zoe couldn’t wait to get her picture on—only now, a decade later with her old fake up there next to kids she’d babysat, it seemed like a sick joke. She remembered handing hers over to Jane bashfully—gleefully—the day she turned twenty-one.She thought it was the baddest thing she’d ever do.
Next to her picture was Augie’s, of course, a picture they’d taken in front of the white plaster wall of her garage because they’d been too scared to go to the post office. They were seventeen at the time, and right after that picture was taken they’d had sex in her backyard, right there on the lawn in the middle of the day. She hadn’t seen Augie since the summer after her junior year in college, until he walked out of the hotel last night. Now she was in a bed with mascara on the pillows and a twenty-seven-year-old man next to her she hardly knew.
She rolled over and lifted Augie’s arm from her collarbone. The skin on his shoulder was creased from the sheets, the kind of stamp you only get from passing out real drunk—with that extra pound of booze pressing you into the mattress. A fancy mattress. And a nice room too, she thought as she looked around at the swollen furniture and the uncorked champagne. She wondered just how lucky a kid form Encino had to be to end up on this side of Mulholland. Investment banking, he’d said, to explain the suit.
Zoe wasn’t easy, just easily convinced. Last night the two of them had looked longingly at their pictures on the wall at Jane’s, like a sappy scene out of St. Elmo’s Fire. He’d been so good at being a teenager—had all the best parts of the cliché: this backwards-hat-wearing, big-brother’s-car-driving, semi-fuck up that was actually really nice to his mom. Only now looking at him and the streak of dried drool flaking off his chin, he was practically a stranger, and she was late for work. She searched the perimeter of the bed and found her bra by her feet. Her white Chuck Taylors were piled in the hall, spattered with bar slime and looking like old bones against the creamy pink carpet. She picked them up on her walk to the door and took a last look at Augie, flipped the Do Not Disturb sign swinging from the handle, and walked out the door.
Still barefoot, Zoe stepped into the elevator and hit “B.” Her stomach lurched as the car plummeted down and the carnival wallpaper looked like it was sliding off the walls. She decided there was probably nothing worse for a hangover than green and white pinstripes—except maybe the basement. The doors opened into a fluorescent cavern of employees all in white cotton, echoing down the checkered hallways like the bottom of a swimming pool. Zoe opened her locker and grabbed the sea-foam trimmed B.H.H. uniform lying in a petrified lump at the bottom, shook it out and gave it a hit of perfume. Molly walked by just in time to see Zoe’s face buried in the pits of her polo shirt.
“You hate to see that,” she laughed as she spun the dial on the locker next to Zoe’s.
“Shut up. My washing machine is fucked. It doesn’t actually clean anything it just like, re-allocates all the dirt evenly between my clothes.”
“Oh, so we’re actually pretending you’ve been home since last night?”
Zoe gave her a look.
“Did he write his number on the napkin or the receipt?”
“Bungalow or suite?”
“Suite,” Zoe smiled. “Eighteenth floor.”
“Lame. You haven’t pulled a Bungalow since that Swedish producer last year. Where’d you find him? Pool deck or Polo Lounge?”
“You were in The Valley? God Zoe, I didn’t know it was possible to get homesick for an Encino subdivision.”
“Not like we’ve come that far, Molls.”
“Speak for yourself, I checked in Lindsay Lohan yesterday—not even kidding, she had coke under her fingernails when she signed the guest register.” Molly pulled her eyelid down in front of a tiny mirror, then ran a black pencil over it a couple times. “Wait, you met this guy at Calamity Jane’s and he’s staying here?”
“It’s a long story.”
“You’re gonna need a better excuse than that if Bill catches you coming out of his room.”
“Fuck, did he say something?”
“No, but he knows about the NFL player from a couple weeks ago.”
“A hundred-dollar bill for an eighteen-dollar drink? If you insist on sleeping with guests at least tell them not to tip you. Even Bill’s not that stupid.”
“Fuck, I can’t lose this job.”
“Then I’d stay the fuck away from the eighteenth floor,” Molly slammed her locker. “And I think Bill’s gonna pull you from the pool for the wedding anyway. He’s got like, a third of guest services on it.”
“Jesus. I need a shower or this tequila’s gonna burn a hole in my clothes. Where’s Mel?”
“Just started on the bungalows, I think.”
Zoe ambushed Mel tapping on the door to Bungalow Seven.
“No, no, sweetheart, not again.”
“Please, Mel. Please, please, please.” Zoe grabbed both Mel’s hands and knelt on the concrete mock prayer, “It’s an emergency.” Zoe had known Mel since she first got the job right out of college, and the list of favors she’d done for Zoe was longer than the turn down checklist. When Zoe’s landlord had upped her rent last year Mel started picking up leftovers from the room service trays and putting them in a lunchbox in Zoe’s locker. She was like the patron saint of mangled steak and gravy-stained potato skins—Zoe had survived on her charity for two months until her promotion to the pool desk.
“Dios mío, Zoe, not this one! Wait an hour. When I’m done with the bungalows I’ll let you in to a suite on the third floor. Some people checked out this morning.”
“I don’t have an hour Mel, my ass is on the line.”
“Mine too Zoe, but it wouldn’t be if you stopped whoring yours around.”
Zoe dropped Mel’s hands and got up off the ground. Her knees were printed with concrete grit and skin on her legs looked translucent. She wondered if her face looked the same. She hadn’t even looked in a mirror today, but she could guess.
“You’re right.” Zoe said, wishing Mel would stop looking so sorry. “I made my bed.” She laughed at her own joke, and started to walk away, but Mel grabbed her arm.
“No, mí amor, I make the beds. I’ll give you fifteen minutes, but you have to do the bathroom.”
Zoe turned, kissed Mel right on the face and ran inside.
The woman staying in Bungalow Seven had left her hair stuck to the marble wall of the shower. She fed them down the drain before using the woman’s shampoo, the ingredients to which were all in French. Zoe thought about what someone this loaded must put in her hair, and imagined it was made of something like quinoa and kitten tears. She got out and put her dirty uniform back on, then got to work. She started with the tub, the mirrors, and the faucets, slathering the room with enough Comet to kill an animal. The chemical-blue crystals bubbled against the polished hardware, almost offensively—like the rooms here were so nice they made the cleaning products look bad. The “his and hers” sinks were next, but when she got to hers she paused. It was populated like a tiny city, glass bottles and opaque jars edging the bowl like the turrets of a skyline. The pink glow coming off the walls made them look like a castle at twilight.
Zoe had never thought of herself as very girly. In fact, she sort of claimed it as part of her appeal. She was the chick who smoked weed and always knew who was pitching for the dodgers that night. To her, sexy was a strategically ripped t-shirt and a lot of eyeliner. The beveled glass museum in front of her was so foreign it looked like a music video. But she wanted it. Wanted it in the way she’d wanted to be Britney Spears when “Toxic” hit VH1. Or the way a fourteen-year-old girl wants to live in a Pottery Barn Teen catalogue. She’d never wanted anything so bad in her life. Just below the mirror’s gold leaf frame she saw a skinny rectangle of perfume, the grown up kind that wasn’t clear but a dark dusty color, and picked it up. For a second she pretended it was hers, and that she was the adult she really should have been now—the kind that didn’t wash her underwear in the bathtub because she had a washing machine that worked and a job that didn’t involve handling other people’s laundry. She put a little on her wrist and the oil felt cool as it dried, cool and clean. Only wearing it, she couldn’t help but feel dirty.
She wondered what time Augie’s flight left. If it was a red-eye she might get a free minute to knock on his door before he left for the airport. Then immediately she wanted to slap herself. Stay the fuck away from the eighteenth floor. Since when was keeping her job less important than a kid who at the moment was probably drinking a Bloody Mary in first class 40,000 feet above her head? She was just slipping though—into that same state of needing him, the comfortable worn-in kind, the old relationship that still fit her so well. But she wasn’t going to do it. She wasn’t going to end up in his room again and manage not to mention she worked there. She wasn’t going to walk up to her apartment that night to find him sitting on the concrete step, tortured enough by prospect of leaving her to miss his flight. She wasn’t going to smell like Chanel when he kissed her.
She was replacing the bathrobes when something caught her eye. It was the towels. They’d been used, clearly—you could tell because the grain of the fabric looked disheveled and kind of starched, like running your hand over velvet the wrong way. But they were folded. And not just folded like any normal person would, like the maid would. First the bath towel, folded in thirds, then the hand towel just a little off center to the left, and the washcloth on top of both folded in a triangle with the B.H.H. monogram facing out. It was textbook. She looked back at the sinks, the “his” side découpaged with a million shards of facial hair, but the towels were impeccable.
Who were these guys trying to impress? As if they thought housekeeping might appreciate the gesture. Maybe it was a Beverly Hills guilty privilege thing—though she didn’t have any other evidence to believe that existed. Not only are we rich and pay two-thousand dollars a night for this bungalow, but we’re also neat and have nice manners, too. It was this illusion of perfection even when it didn’t matter, like they were soliciting approval, her approval, that made Zoe laugh.
She thought of herself at twenty-two, that summer after junior year, standing in her driveway the third week in June. It was a hundred and two degrees in Encino and she could feel the exhaust coming off Augie’s hatchback as it crept up the curb.
“Where’s the BMW?” he asked, sweating and paler than she remembered, but she didn’t care. He meant her dad’s 1974 convertible that he’d owned since before her parents were married. He never drove it, but it had always been parked in the driveway like the fanciest damn lawn ornament in the whole development. He probably could have sold it and fixed up his whole mortgage. Or his marriage.
“Well my dad moved out,” she’d said. “It’s just about the only thing he took with him.” She was going for tough but it just came out sounding cheap.
“Shit, Zoe. I’m sorry.”
“You should have called,” she said. The last time they’d spoken was a few weeks after Christmas. In the intervals between midterms and spring break and the guys at Cal State Irvine she’d let sleep over but never buy her breakfast, she and Augie always came home to each other. Her mom would make him sandwiches and her little brother would beg him to play Nintendo. After, they’d go down to the convenient store on Ventura and pick up Micheladas in tall cans, and Augie might rev his engine at a red light for the occasional drag race he knew she hated. Then they’d end up driving Malibu canyon to the old dam, like they were Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty making out in the first scene of Splendor in The Grass, before everything went south. They’d listen to old mix CDs and talk in absolutes, like, it was always you, kid, or some things never change. Maybe they were just enchanted that they had something to be nostalgic about, like they were the exception to the rule about high school sweethearts, or there was still something romantic about being old-fashioned. But when he’d stopped returning her calls it didn’t take her long to start picturing the girl on the east coast with the manicure and the vocabulary she didn’t have. She already knew, now she just wanted him to know she did. “The least you could have done was let me down easy.”
“I don’t know what to say.” He wouldn’t apologize.
“Really? Nothing? No elaborate excuse?”
If there was one, she wanted to hear it. If there was any way this could end up with the two of them back in the front seat of his car and her forgiving him when she knew she shouldn’t, she wanted it to. But he didn’t want to be forgiven. He didn’t want her back.
“At least my dad had the courtesy to make something up.”
The thing was, she hadn’t even been that broken up about her dad. Her parents had been happily married, like relentlessly, her whole adolescent life. If they hated each other she hadn’t noticed. They’d been faithful for the most part, except for maybe the odd dating site she’d catch on her dad’s internet browser every once in a while—and god after thirty-five years and two kids out of high school who could blame them. They’d just sort of fallen less in love and more into friendship. He still came over for spaghetti on Mondays, and it honestly seemed like more work to complain about it than to forgive them.
Instead Zoe kicked the blinding pavement of her driveway and gave a convincing performance, soliciting Augie’s sympathy for as long as she could stand. Because it sounded better to be pissed off. Because even if it was good enough for her parents, good enough for their daughter, good enough to maintain a semi-functional family—it’d never be good enough for her. She had to tell Augie that. Because the girl he wanted would never let that happen to her.
Back in the bungalow she touched the towels, then pulled them down and chucked them into the hamper. Dismantling the farce in front of her until it was just more dirty laundry. She almost wanted to scour them for stains, find proof of flawed human existence. Just leave your fucking towel on the floor! She wanted to yell. Just give me that! But how could she expect that kind of honesty when she wasn’t capable of it either. She just spent her life conflating herself with the person she’d rehearsed for so long. Pretending to be someone similar to herself, but marginally better, or at least marginally more interesting. She didn’t know why she did it. Why she felt like the truth wasn’t good enough even if it was just shy of the lie, or why some people just make us feel like we have something to prove.
“Zoe!” Mel called from the bedroom. “It’s quarter to nine!”
“Shit,” Zoe muttered. She took one last dramatic sigh and called to Mel in her best Gloria Swanson, “Yes Mr. Demille! I’m ready for my close-up!” Then she pushed open the door of the bathroom with the laundry cart and let it roll right into Mel’s hands as she slid out from behind it.
“Gracias, beautiful, I owe you one!” Zoe called out behind her as she walked down the path towards the pool.
Growing up, Zoe thought Beverly Hills was the most beautiful place on earth. It was like an island in Los Angeles, full of sprinklers and iced tea rattling inside thick pint glasses with lemon wedges. The marine layer of fog never inched over Rodeo Drive, the line where the humidity ended was so stark it looked like a Jetstream against the blue sky, held off by the force of fifteen thousand air conditioners. She felt like she’d spent so much of her life just crawling over the desert mountains behind it, slinking down Mulholland highway like one of the coyotes always getting caught in somebody’s backyard at four A.M., flea ridden and drinking from the pool. Public hours didn’t exist in this town. It was a town of gym memberships and standing reservations at Spago for that corner table under the old Tiffany lamp, you know the one I like, Maurizio. So she’d gotten a job at the hotel. Started at ground zero. After all, the city was built around it, indebted to it. She’d once seen a girl at the Polo Lounge with the banana leaf wallpaper printed on her fingernails. Sure, Zoe wasn’t a guest, but working the pool desk she could still walk across the wet cement and smell the chlorine on a hot day, still watch the Sunday newspaper sheaths float down from the opaque glass of a patio table and pretend Faye Dunaway was camped out behind them, looking slightly bored in a plastic chair and a satin morning coat.
Bill was waiting for her at the pool desk.
“Zoe,” he said. “You’re late. And that’s not the only reason you’re on my shit list today.”
Zoe gulped. Sorry Mel.
“If I catch you draining somebody’s Mai Tai glass again before it gets back to the bar, I’ll fire you faster than you can say Alcoholics Anonymous.”
She exhaled and apologized, thrilled.
“And get a clean pair of tennis shoes. I have you working a wedding today and those look like they just went to Warped Tour.”
Bill turned to go and Zoe backed away slowly, circling the pool like a fly around a carnivorous plant.
“You’re on thin ice, dude,” Vince said, walking up behind her.
“I’ve been good today.”
“So you didn’t come back with that guy last night?”
“He’s probably checked out by now,” Zoe said longingly.
“What! Bill’s not gonna find out.”
“Bill’s not the point. The douchebag with the cash sticking out of his fly is the point.”
Zoe didn’t say anything, but she could tell there was something more concerned in Vince’s voice than just I told you so.
“You think you're fooling him because he doesn't know you work here?” Vince asked. “Because you're not. Seriously Zoe, you let these guys order you up like room service. And if you don't see that the only one you're fooling is yourself."
“What’s your problem, Vince? You don't know anything about him. And I could have told him I worked here, you don’t know I didn’t.”
“Well then any guy who screws you and pays you to clean his toilet is a rat.”
“Fuck you, I’m not a maid. And he’s not a rat.”
“No,” Vince said, seeing that he’d hurt her feelings. “He's like that thing, what do you call it? Like when all the rats get their tails tangled together and they become this giant, single organism, mutant rat? That thing. All these guys you bang? They’re that."
Zoe tried to swallow her smile.
“It's called a Rat King.”
“Thank you, Zoe, a Rat King.”
The ballroom looked like the happiest funeral Zoe had ever seen. White roses were knitted together on every piece of furniture, rounding out any hard edge so that the whole place looked like a down comforter, pillowed with petals. Even the chandelier was made out of white glass roses, suspended from the ceiling like a floating grave mound and lit up with a couple thousand watts to be the color of toothpaste.
But for some reason she couldn't pretend to be that bitter. Sure, it was gaudy, and all the fluffy white upholstery looked like one of those padded rooms in an insane asylum, but underneath all the iridescent linens was still the old hotel she loved, the gleaming brass sconces, the deco floor. Who wouldn't want to get married in the same hotel as Elizabeth Taylor? Zoe had never let herself picture it without someone to picture it with, but last night with Augie had felt like fate. Like the last decade without him had been in slow motion, still living in seventeen, and the last twenty-four hours had just accelerated her into the adult she'd been veering away from like a negative charge. She felt ready now. They could show their kids graduation pictures, and when people asked about their twenties they'd call them the “lost years,” before they found each other again. They could be eighty and he'd still have a memory of her on the lawn in Encino, young and sweating in the California heat, her arms tan and grass stains on her jeans.
Zoe watched the wedding cake as a waiter rolled it back behind one of the dense white ruched curtains. Fondant rose blooms obscured its shape like white plaster.
“What’s with the grin, Zoe? You drunk?” Molly caught her as she walked by.
“Oh god, are you kidding? This whole thing is pathetic,” she lied. “If I ever decide to get married, will you put a Percocet in my drink? I’d like to be fooled into thinking it was actually making me happy.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Zoe.” Molly paused. “You’d need more than oxy to have any fun.”
It was about a half hour before the reception and Zoe had spent most of the morning just polishing silverware. Each place setting had more utensils than she had in her whole cutlery drawer. Now she was pinning extra petals to the centerpiece on table five when she noticed a place card that looked familiar. Nicholas Melvoin. What was Nick Melvoin from her eleventh grade trig class doing at a wedding at the Beverly Hills Hotel?
She suddenly felt like her legs were being shredded with a cheese grater.
The bride and groom’s table was next to the stage, and she hadn’t been near it since this morning when the AV guys were there setting up the mics. But she knew what she would find even before the letters on the place cards came into focus.
Mr. and Mrs. August Borman.
Zoe acclimated to her nearly lethal heart-rate surprisingly fast. Granted, it was sort of a catatonic state, but one that still allowed her to smile and breath and even top off champagne with a steady hand. There were about six people there she recognized from high school. Four of them were at Augie’s table, and the other two were sort of wedged between the dessert buffet and an amplifier so it wasn’t too hard to find a station out of sight. She was at the door to the ballroom, slowly gravitating towards the hallway and the green and white pinstripes she now found herself craving.
Augie’s bride was wearing a dress that looked like it cost more than her college tuition. She looked good. A body Zoe attributed to the kind of overpriced exercise classes whose devotional practices were rivaled only by Scientology’s. And she had a wide, big-gummed smile that made her look more like a Ralph Lauren advertisement than a real person. No doubt this girl was a right wing, tennis-skirt-wearing, reality TV watching Barbie. She had to be.
But then the bride stood up. The sounds of clanking dishware subsided as she raised her glass towards Augie.
“To my new husband,” she said, “who manages to find my flaws charming, or at least tolerable.”
More Awws than genuine laughter escaped from the guests. Zoe rolled her eyes. What flaws? Her modesty wasn’t even creative. The woman continued.
“I don’t know if all of you know the story of how August and I met.” She gave a weak laugh. “But um, we were at this uh, charity thing.” She gulped, and Zoe stared a little bit in disbelief. The bride was…nervous. “And I’m wearing these six inch heels that I swear must have been designed by Mussolini, they were so painful. So I won’t dance with him. But the guy won’t take no for an answer, so I have to ditch the shoes. Of course when I take them off I don’t notice but I’m bleeding everywhere, and after fifteen minutes there’s like gore all over the dance floor.” Zoe looked at the guests’ faces, they were really with her now. “And I guess he was into it because he took me on a second date, and here I am! …Talking about my bloody toes …at my wedding.” She grimaced, realizing she had achieved genuine humiliation, which only made her relatives and friends laugh harder.
“But, for your benefit as much as mine, you won’t find me in heels tonight!” She laughed and threw back her champagne. And as she did she hiked up her dress and landed her foot on the tablecloth right next to her veal. She was wearing a pair of Converse All Stars—starch white to match the dress. Sneakers at her wedding. Zoe stared. The rest of the evening she squeaked across the dance floor in them, and the photographers couldn’t get enough of it. They knelt on the waxy wood-grain of the ballroom to get a close up, and she sweetly obliged them by lifting her skirt and giving two Charleston twists with her ankle. It was so damn cute.
Zoe watched her like she would have watched a sinking ship from a lifeboat. A beautiful ship. A ship she’d have bought a ticket for if she could afford it. It should have been tragic, but Zoe was finding logic hard to stand on. Like that life raft was deflating and folding beneath her, because all she could feel was jealousy. The deep and terrible kind that feels a little bit good. This woman wasn’t perfect, she was just like every other girl. Every one who ditched their high heels at a party or left their hairs stuck to the shower wall or folded her dirty towels in vain. She was like Zoe. Only better, more earnest in her imperfections.
She didn’t want to look away, but something next to the bride caught her eye. It was Augie, raising his glass. Right at Zoe. For a minute it seemed like the perfect thing to do—give a solemn nod, acknowledge her, pay respect to something that may have only been real when it was in the front seat of a sedan or on her parent’s tweed couch, but had still existed none the less. Only he wasn’t smiling, wasn’t doing anything but raising his glass. In fact, he wasn’t even looking at her, but looking past her, where a waiter stood with a round tray of champagne flutes, their long cylinders clinking and echoing like the pipes of an organ. He walked over to Augie and replaced his glass.
A tear fell onto Zoe’s cheek, and as she raised her hand to wipe it away, she caught a whiff of something sweet. The inside of her wrist was still ripe with someone else’s perfume, and it made her sick.