Personal Essays

Northern Belle

New York is supposedly the home of the willful and headstrong, the forthright and brassy—but when a cousin from Nashville rolls into town, everyone else seems meek.

Just because my cousin Caroline from Nashville was voted “Best Legs” our senior year of high school doesn’t mean she walks anywhere. Before she came to visit me in New York last fall, she left a message on my answering machine. “Sweetie, I’m bringing a separate suitcase for my heels. Rocket Dog five-inch wedge flip-flops, those cute gold mules from the Bellevue Mall, and a pair of black strappy ones I can barely stand up in.”

I rang her back to suggest something more comfortable—but she cut me off: “I’ve got it all figured out. When our feet get tired, we can hop on a horse-drawn carriage and stop for a latte at Central Perk.”


* * *

Our best friend Liz, a former Miss Confederacy who’s now an art restorer in Italy, had visited me in New York the year before with her Italian boyfriend, Flaviano. What amazed him most wasn’t any of the typical tourist attractions, but the squirrels. Apparently, there are no such creatures in Rome. All of the photos from their trip are either close-ups of squirrels—taken by Flaviano—or show him chasing after them. Flaviano spent three days hypnotized by “the perfect fluffiness of their tiny fluffy tails.”

“Y’all are outta your minds. Tell me again about that crazy lady on the subway who beat you with a broomstick while you were on your way to work.”Liz and Flaviano have since split, after three years together, and she’s started looking at those pictures the way a starving person might stare at a country ham. “Will I ever meet someone else?” she asked me and Caroline as the three of us slid onto barstools at the Gold Rush, in Nashville, home for a week of Christmas vacation. This question was mostly directed toward me, in the hope that I would say what she wanted to hear, possibly tossing in a box of bonbons.

“Of course,” I told her.

“Hell to the no!” said Caroline. She re-crossed her legs, and a man slumped at the end of the bar suddenly seemed very much awake. “Not unless you reacquaint yourself with a hairbrush and burn those sweatpants.” She waved her left hand and its wedding ring in the air. “Jesus Christ is the most important man in my life—pass me another beer—but if there’s one thing I know, it’s boys.”

“And?” Liz sniffed.

“Sparkling conversation, sparkling eye-shadow, matching bra and panty sets, and always invite him to church.”


* * *

Caroline married her husband, Keith, when she was 23, and Liz and I have money riding on our suspicion that she hasn’t so much as changed a light bulb since. She’s always been lucky in love; heartbreak has remained an abstract concept for Caroline, the subject of hospital dramas on television or advice given to her single friends, I suspect. When I left Nashville, she was skeptical about why anyone, let alone a single woman, would forsake the South to live in a city where, when you go grocery shopping, you have to carry the bags all the way home, by yourself.

“Why doesn’t anyone ever borrow the cart?” Caroline asked on the phone, the night before her visit.

“Because people steal them to collect cans. Besides, I live 12 blocks away.”

“Twelve blocks?” she hooted. “Y’all are outta your minds. Tell me again about that crazy lady on the subway who beat you with a broomstick while you were on your way to work.”

I heard her crawling under her monogrammed covers as I began the story: the pouring rain, the stalled train, a middle-aged woman who lurched into the car and mistook me for someone named Bern. Before I knew what was happening, my back was being pummelled as she screeched that I had done her brother wrong.

“Oh dear Lord,” said Caroline. “When I get there tomorrow, let’s put on a skirt and go dancing.”

Two days later, after a late night of margaritas on the rocks, Caroline and I nursed hangovers with smoked sturgeon and bagels before setting out for a walk through Greenwich Village. As I tried to explain that Washington Square Park is famous for being a haven to degenerate beatniks and drug dealers, traipsing through came the pony-tailed members of what must be NYU’s only sorority. The girls, wearing rainbow sherbet-colored pajamas, burst into a Delta Phi cheer. Caroline clapped her hands. “This is just like the quad at Georgia State!”

I watched, through the window, as a palm reader in a Broncos jersey muted Days of Our Lives and spread Caroline’s hand out on the table.On St. Mark’s Place, she surrendered to temptation. “I know that this is not something my pastor would approve of, but I am dying to get my fortune told.” She pointed to a row of a neon signs for street-level psychics. “How is it possible that all these gals can see into the future?”

“It’s not.” I stepped over an empty 40-ounce beer bottle. “Did I tell you what happened to my neighbor Brian?”

“The guy with the poodle?”

I nodded. “He had his tarot cards read outside of Penn Station and the woman told him that he’d be dead within 18 months.”

“Oh no!”

“Yeah,” I said. “His girlfriend was shaken up for about a week, until Brian tried to convince her that this was the universe’s way of letting them know there was no need to use condoms.”

But Caroline had already skipped inside. I watched, through the window, as a palm reader in a Broncos jersey muted Days of Our Lives and spread Caroline’s hand out on the table. For as far back as I could remember, even before kindergarten, Caroline had everything mapped out. In tiny, neat handwriting in her Hello Kitty diary, she wrote life goals, along with, in junior high, lists of her favorite Bible verses and all the boys she’d kissed.

As the psychic leaned down over my cousin’s palm, tracing its creases with her fingertip, I looked at Caroline: the blonde curls, those ridiculous shoes, and her lips, dabbed with pink gloss, saying, “Please. Tell me something I don’t know.”