Sheets to the Wind: This Is Not My Beautiful House

“My god,” I thought, recalling that Talking Heads’ song, “How did I get here?”
Juliana Su

"Every day is a fresh start to change your life," the 7-year-old girl's T-shirt read. I cast an eye toward the rearview mirror as she and her twin sister, flanked by their mother, former Real Housewife Cindy Barshop, signaled my date to back his red-and-white, doorless, roofless, three-wheel Polaris Slingshot (the only race car made for the road) out of the garage. The anesthesiologist was already in his own car, idling at the end of the driveway.

I turned around and waved to the group, like Sandy next to John Travolta at the end of "Grease" after she's decided to go bad and take up smoking and leather. We sped off, up the hill and into the blue-green evening. Jonathan revved the engine and we raced downhill, then right, then left, his diamond-encrusted watch catching here and there a waning ray of sun as he maneuvered the stick shift, then my knee. "Are you afraid?" Then the same hand switching on the radio, turning the volume all the way up on Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl." "I bet she never had a backstreet guy," Billy wagered, as the wind ripped through my hair like a torn sail, and my date let his head fall back against the sculpted memory-foam seat and cast his eyes up appreciatively at the canopy of trees, the leaves abundant because he approved of them, because he would have it so, because the world was a feast laid out before him, and I could have some too.

Jonathan hummed along to the music as a different tune played in my own mind. "My god," I thought, recalling that Talking Heads' song, "How did I get here?"

 

Driving home from the Gatsby party at Blackman Plumbing Supply the night before, I couldn't get Jonathan's face out of my mind. His way of flirting, talking to me as if I were nearly nude and standing amid a line of girls at a brothel, each of us hoping to get picked by one of Madam's regulars, as if I should be flattered by the special attention, had caused me to call him a "sleazeball." Like a hurt peacock, he put his feathers away -- the diamond watch disappeared into his pocket. I couldn't sleep that night, thinking of his wounded expression.

My mother told me this story: She was 7 years old, playing in the then-open fields of Athens, Greece, when a man appeared, asking if she wanted to see a birdy. When he exposed himself a few moments later, she stammered a quick apology, "My friends are calling me! I have to go!" she said, backing away slowly before turning to run, afraid more than anything that she'd hurt his feelings. "People just want to feel seen," she shrugged, recalling the story with almost pathological empathy. I am my mother's daughter, I realized in that moment. So I was relieved when Jonathan called the next morning, for I too wanted to apologize.

 

"You're a rare commodity," he said, as we walked through his house later that day, "smart and beautiful and reserved, classically elegant," he went on, as if I were a light fixture.

"Thank you," I said, lighting up as he tested the switch.

On the one hand, being called a commodity, a thing to acquire or trade, is degrading, no matter how many camels you say you could get for me. On the other, I'm an old-fashioned girl still on the marriage market, brought up by Greek parents who've alerted me to the danger of letting my stock go down. "It's okay to be single, but once you hit 40..." my father said through a seven-mile-stare, before trailing off a few years ago.

Black Tuesday hit in February of this year. The Greeks have an expression for a single woman of my age; you could win the Nobel Prize -- which, admittedly, I haven't -- but if you fail to find a husband, you'll still be a woman who was "left on the shelf."

Was I not a little happy then to be picked up, dusted off, and turned around? Mom, Dad, my stock is up! "Thank you," I replied, to the first of a hundred compliments that evening, before he broached the subject of our previous altercation and apologized, before I apologized too, before he told me how much he loved and respected his mother -- he bought her a car! -- before he added in his defense Freud's suggestion that all relationships are transactional, that everyone has a price. We were standing on the deck overlooking his pool, next to his hot tub, against a background of trees, and I wondered not if he was right, but how much we both cost.

"It's my friend's house," he clarified, as we stepped back inside, after I remarked on all of the pictures of sailboats, which reminded me of my dentist's office when I was 9 and being filled simultaneously with metal and laughing gas.

"You sail?"

"I'm just renting a suite in it. Here he is."

The anesthesiologist appeared in the living room. "Have you met?"

I nodded and offered my hand. We had met on the paella line at Polo Hamptons. He'd told me he was an anesthesiologist, and I'd told him what I knew about that -- "The inventor of anesthesiology went mad after experimenting with it on himself" -- and then again at a party on someone's yacht, and then again at the Parrish Midsummer after-party, where I'd also met Jonathan. "I'm having a massive pool party," he'd said on the paella line. I looked out the sliding glass doors as the two of them conferred. Here was the pool I might have partied in.

They discussed the details of the night ahead, where we were headed once he received his houseguest, and a few other parties on the weekend's menu -- "Jill Zarin's having a brunch tomorrow." The doorbell rang. The former Real Housewife and vajazzling magnate Cindy Barshop appeared with her children -- she'd come in from the city for the Housewife luncheon -- and we got in the car.

 

"There's Norma Kamali's house." Jonathan pointed. "Billy Joel lives around here." "And there . . .," he said, gesturing to nearby estates, as the wind made dancing snakes of my hair.

 

The books in the Farrell Show House all faced inward, a new design trend that keeps the content from interfering with the appearance. The house had already been sold, we heard from another of the some 200 guests milling about, for $8.5 million. A pool, vast windows, and a modern kitchen, it abutted a nature preserve, though the master bathroom's window faced the street and the other houses.

"You like it?" he said in the kitchen, as if we were shopping for our own home. "I had a house out here but sold it a couple years ago. I'm waiting to get a girlfriend before I buy another. What if I bought a house and she didn't like it? Then I'd have to sell it."

I picked up a paint brochure for Kristen Farrell's Hamptons Color Collection, which includes the aspirational color Charitable Gray, as the greatest status symbol is not having, but giving.

We wove through the other party guests celebrating the launch of Luxe magazine's latest issue. Jonathan spotted his friends: Len, the owner of the yacht docked at the Sag Harbor wharf some weeks back. Another -- "he married a model and made her pregnant," by way of introduction. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow's producing partner was down at the mouth as the first reviews for their new Broadway show had come back poor.

The publisher of Luxe was a woman. "Iris is a published writer," said Jonathan. "Give her your card, go ahead," he insisted. I blushed under the heavy sell.

"I love how he's so supportive of you," the publisher said kindly, sensing my embarrassment. I smiled. "Where would I be without him?"

I met the builder Joe Farrell, who told me he'd slept in five different houses in the last seven days, all of them his.

I met Ian Shapolsky, owner of the Shapolsky gallery in which my cartoons, some years ago, were shown along with Kurt Vonnegut's and a hundred other writers' in "The Writer's Brush" exhibition. "I guess you're staying with Jonathan for the weekend," he assumed, and I saw myself through his eyes, like a one of those cutouts at a fair that you stick your head into for a photo. This one, a cutout of Jonathan's date. "Cheese!" I said, as a caterer-waiter offered a tray of snacks.

Ian was standing with the Bedroom Baroness, Cosmo's former sex writer -- they'd just come from the Perlmans' Shelter Island benefit, where I had intended to go before I accepted Jonathan's invitation instead. I had been relieved to get out of it, certain I'd see people there that I know.

I often prefer the company of strangers. Isn't it easier to be who you are when you're not saddled by who you've been? You step into a conversation and maybe step into a whole other life, the way King Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone. Maybe Charitable Gray is the color of my future kitchen. Or maybe I give the sword a tug and it stays there and that tells me something too.

As a still somewhat attractive woman (were I to develop my own fragrance, I would call it "somewhat attractive") I get to try on different lives the way men try on pants. My father’s seven mile stare -- someday there will be no pants left for you, my girl.

It goes like this: A man asks me on a date, and like a tourist I let him lead me through his country. "I could totally live here!" The upside of being seen as an object is how easily an object can be toted around. Here I am resting on this pedestal for a while. Will I go well with this gentleman’s lamp? On the back of his bike? At this restaurant? At this opening? Will I match the vibes at a beach party in Maui? Backstage at a concert? Will I look good coming out of his state-of-the-art kitchen in an apron?

Last week I met a man outside of yoga who read me his poetry before inviting me to coffee. I’ve dated every variety of man—though I rarely date anymore—and the only thing they seem to have in common with each other is the feeling that I alone am uniquely suited to them. I’m one of those "rare commodities" that goes with everything. "Isn’t she classically elegant?" Jonathan said to the anesthesiologist, suggesting I was that elusive thing he’d so long been searching for. At last a drape that really ties the room together.

My ex-boyfriend’s family was close friends with the Perlmans, and when I first started coming out here 20 years ago, we were always at their house. There was Toby Perlman, Itzhak’s wife, by the pool, advising me to write a book about my job teaching public school in the South Bronx. "The gym teacher was attacked again and isn’t coming back, so now I’ve got to teach gym too," I complained. "It’s wonderful material," she said. "You have to use it!"

My exboyfriend, now a lawyer, once called me "marriage material" and didn’t understand why after two years of dating I should bristle at the remark. But I never called him material. I never once thought about him as good stuff. He was upset years later when I wrote about him in my first book, when it was my turn not to understand: I thought he’d see himself like one of Byron’s muses, walking in beauty, for I’d written so well of him. Instead, he was upset because I’d made him mine. Because he’d found himself on my shelf. You know the poem I’m talking about? Who did Byron write it about again?

 

On Friday I ran into Toni Ross and her boyfriend Ron Kaplan whom I hadn’t seen since Jonathan parked his race car in front of Yama Q after we left the Farrell House. We’d pulled in and Jonathan spent about five minutes pulling forward and back ward, forward and backward, while all the people inside the restaurant stared.

We were on our way to dinner at Bobbi Van’s next door, and I wondered if I’d see a friend who invited me once to join him on his Friday night routine. In August, he and another, a famous actor in famous actor disguise (baseball cap), sit on the bench out front of Bobbi Van’s and watch the summer show-offs parade in an out, catching what they can of their conversations, and guessing from the looks of them, their stories. "It’s great for people watching," my friend told me rubbing his hands together.

The people, Jonathan and I, parked. And as Jonathan maneuvered the car back and forth, I saw myself from the outside, my view aided considerably by my view of Toni, looking out the window at us, appalled. Jonathan’s car, a grasshopper, his date, Medusa.

I patted my hair down and waved, but she seemed not to recognize me within the tableau. When at least we docked at the curb, Ron came out to get a closer look at the car and was surprised to see that it was me disembarking. "My new car!" I announced before introducing them. The two stood side by side for a while and looked at the car, discussing it.

"Who will you be tonight?" read an email ad I got once from Victoria Secret. I wore a long dress with a lorgnette attached to a string of pearls. I was classically elegant and reserved, a rare commodity, unaware of her own value, smoothing her dress as she stood outside Yama Q. Ron and Toni were down-to-earth inside. Jonathan was the guy on a winning streak that began at birth.

Over dinner Jonathan told me his favorite book was The Fountainhead. A core tenet of its author Ayn Rand, a staunch capitalist whom my parents admire, is that value is determined by the marketplace. Context matters. "Van Gogh is a genius," my father has said, his genius proven when the market vindicated his efforts posthumously. And if he’d painted the same paintings, but no one came along eventually with the right sale’s pitch? Would Van Gogh be a fool?

Hopping from date to date, party to party, trying on different lives every weekend--fool, genius, fool genius. What’s the different between priceless and worthless, if neither can be traded?

Ron laughed when he saw me on Friday, recounting what the guy had said about his car: "One of my favorite toys."

"What if it rains?" Ron had asked, noting the absence of a roof.

"I have rain coats in the trunk."

"Did you get the story?" Toni asked, as she strode up next to the cheese plate at the Guild Hall Summer Gala.

"He’s not a bad guy," I said. "He offered to keep me. He lives in Miami and he offered to set me up."

"No strings attached, except for his penis," Ron quipped.

They laughed.

I dished more. "Over dinner, Giuliani texted him about a nearby party."

I told them I’d not realized I was on a date until he kissed me at the end of it —- why kiss the drapes? I wanted to explain why I’d accepted his invitation when to them he was obviously so wrong for me—"I dislike everyone equally so I see no reason to reject one person over another," I said, which is only half true. The other half is that I like everyone equally, which amounts to the same thing.

"You have to write about it," Ron said.

"If I do, can I mention your name?"

"Call me ‘plus one,’ that’s how everyone knows me," Ron joked, referring to his girlfriend’s fame.

"What must they think of me?" I said laughing, performing my thoughts from when I’d run into them that night. But it was obvious they said why I was in that car. I’m a writer; that’s the tableau. Toni shrugged, "It’s good material."

I was torn over whether or not to write about Jonathan though. "He knows you’re a writer," my friend Frederic said, as if the exchange were understood. But thinking about it, I couldn’t sleep all week. His face stuck in my mind, not a face anymore but a hole in a cardboard picture, featuring a body with a wrist circled by a diamond watch, a race car, a Farrell House, friends in the background, a Real Housewife, an anesthesiologist, and a cartoon yacht in the distance. Now Jonathan sticking his head in at the last minute, saying "Cheese!" just before I describe him. I couldn’t sleep, worried that I would hurt his feelings, wondering if we both could afford the date.