"Yes, I'm nervous, Helen." Amy pushed away the bowl of curry noodles and a waitress swooped it away. Waiting office workers eyed the table where the two young fashionistas perched. "I have to face Max Paris in an hour -- for my job review." Amy fluffed up her curly, dark, shoulder-length hair with manicured fingers.
"He should give you a raise," blonde Helen soothed, whose apricot dress flattered her soft curves, "for all the hours you've been putting in."
"Oh, why did I take such a long lunch?" Amy studied her mini-checkerboard nail extensions, which nobody else had at Fashion Tomorrow (not yet, anyway). "We should get our bill."
"Just a second." Helen set her purse on the table and drew out a lipstick.
"What an elegant clutch." Amy caressed the silky leather. "Looks like an antique."
"I don't know. I bought it off a peddler in Greenwich Village. It only cost 25 bucks."
"What a deal," said Amy enviously. "He must have stolen this." Helen waved to the waitress, who turned her back, taking orders from another table. "What's this?" Amy pinched a bulge in the purse. "Aspirin? My head is aching, Helen. Lunch in Midtown's louder than the subway." Disregarding her "No, I'm sorry," Amy burrowed into the outside pocket and plucked out a vial of rosy glass, set in delicate filigree. She held it up to the window. "Looks like a perfume flask from 1890."
"I never saw it before."
Pulling off the cap, Amy inhaled. "Smells like a blend of roses and oranges." Impulsively she dotted some on her wrist. "Mmmm ... Would you like some too?"
"No thanks. I never wear perfume, you know. It only makes me sneeze."
"Too bad." Amy's fingers closed over the bottle.
"You can have it," said Helen suddenly.
"Are you sure?" she asked, surprised.
"OK -- and thanks." Quickly Amy slipped it into a pocket of her slim, black and white Camorra tweed suit. This bottle alone might be worth hundreds, auctioned over eBay. "Where's our useless waitress anyhow? I have to get back to work."
"Oh you go ahead." Helen smiled like an angel. "I'll wait for the check and pay for us both."
"What's got into you?" Amy asked warily. "You're always so careful with your money, taking the bus instead of taxis."
"I don't know," said Helen dreamily.
"OK; I won't complain." Grabbing up her camel hair coat, Amy swept away like an actress returning to the stage, leaving her ex roommate -- a lowly drone in Layout at Fashion Tomorrow magazine, where she was Advertising's rising star -- to pay the bill at Bangkok Noodle Nook.
How strange: Amy's battle-weary secretary, Fran Clunk, a middle-aged groaner from the Bronx, who still wore round-toed, patent leather shoes, followed her instructions eagerly for once, hand-carrying an expense reimbursement form up to Accounting.
2:29 PM. Amy swallowed hard. Almost time to meet with Max Paris. He sat bowed over the marble-topped desk in his sunny corner office, leafing through photos of svelte models posing in an abandoned factory. Her heart beat harder as she teetered toward him in her scarlet Benigno de LaTortua stilettos. Grey-maned and craggy-featured, Max looked like a senior diplomat, his anthracite Vivendo suit set off by a paisley pocket square.
Surely he'd heard that -- for all the long hours she put in, courting new accounts -- she never quite managed her "squirrel work," piling up overdue expense vouchers and garbling her travel and entertainment records. Well maybe she padded them, just a little. Amy squared her shoulders. This is New York.
"Good afternoon," she said crisply and sat down, composing herself in a padded leather chair.
Max ignored her for a minute, leafing through Asian models in shaggy variations of Real Fake Fur. Suddenly his chiseled nostrils twitched, and he looked up, fixing her with his keen, blue gaze: "What's that perfume you're wearing, my dear?"
"It's called 'Persuasion,' she adlibbed. "I found it at a pop-up store, downtown."
"You really do have superior taste." He pushed the photographs aside. "And though I'm not a man to act by instinct, I'll make an exception today. Ms. Clapper, I am giving you a raise."
Amy soon figured out that nothing had changed in her self-presentation, talents and abilities, her whole performance -- except for her perfume. Somehow she'd hit the super jackpot, beyond the dreams of career slaves toiling in Manhattan's canyons: people who inhaled her fragrance did exactly what she wanted.
Oh she'd never share this secret with her best friend, or even her husband, Jeff. It would be her private, secret weapon. Poor, foolish Helen, who'd given it away.
Now she'd wheedled a ten grand raise from her boss -- and an office change, to a cosy niche all her own on the 23rd floor, with a thick purple rug and a wall-to-ceiling door she could shut while chatting on the phone. She even had a view of the East River, the Statue of Liberty glinting in the distance. None of her enemies, or her friends, would ever forgive her.
She couldn't wait to try "Persuasion" on Jeff. A senior attorney at a Wall Street firm, he'd never understood that to succeed in New York, you have to splash out, flaunting yourself like the ads for Broadway shows on the roofs of yellow cabs. You have to be the person everyone remembers -- not like too-quiet Helen, who in 10 years still would be doing layouts in her viewless cubicle. If Jeffrey ever wanted to make partner, he'd have to learn to throw money around ... and she could help.
Getting home to their cramped apartment in a tower on the Upper East Side ($4000 a month for 2 rooms like parking spaces, and a kitchen to fit inside the tub), Amy changed into the negligée she'd ordered from Vaingloria's Secret: shimmery and turquoise, a shocking and delicious surprise. Tonight she'd persuade Jeff to take the pricy cruise which he'd resisted as a waste of hard-earned money in uncertain times.
Using her fingertip, she dotted a few atoms of the perfume under her chin ... Had to make it last. Then she brushed her shoulder-length black curls, admiring herself in the full-length mirror. Oh, she looked fetching this evening ... but didn't she need a new haircut, or a touch of plastic surgery around her nose?
Keys jangled in the door's double locks. Jeff called out, "Honey, are you home?" He sounded hoarse and drained.
"Here I am." She ran lightly to the door.
"What's this?" he asked with disbelief. "A photo-shoot for Fashion Tomorrow? You look like a runaway from a harem. Where did you find this naughty nighty?" Dropping his briefcase on the mauve sofa, he peeled off his overcoat.
"I got this mail order, as a special deal," she retorted.
"Well, it's kinda cute." He embraced her. "I could get used to it."
"So what do you think of my new perfume?" she murmured, clinging.
"Sorry, honey, I'm all stopped up. I'm coming down with a cold, I guess." He blew his nose like a trumpet.
"Oh that's terrible."
"It's no big deal." Plopping down on the sofa, he shifted his briefcase to the floor and patted the pillow beside him.
Whirling away, she whined: "When I was so looking forward to persuading you to go on that Christmas cruise ..." Where was her magic perfume bottle? On the window sill.
"Am I missing something here?" he asked like a weary lawyer taking a deposition. "What does your perfume have to do with our vacation?"
"Everything," she breathed, pouting. Should she try a few more drops?
"I don't know, honey." Lurching to his feet, he caught her next to the window, laying warm hands on her spaghetti-strapped shoulders. "Sometimes you still seem so insecure. We've been together seven years, so let's get one thing straight."
Lips trembling, she gazed up at him.
"I love you just the way you are. I'll never understand your fashion world, but you don't need any special tricks with me -- believe me, please." Taking hold of her gown he gently drew it up right over her head, and she held up her arms.
She laughed as he swept her off her feet; but as he swung her around, her big toe grazed the bottle -- and out it flitted, right out the window, like a canary escaping; and from the corner of her eye with a soft little sigh like a sob she watched it go.