Inside the Rotten Apple
by Marina J. Neary
History Buffs at Play
“What’s wrong, Josh?” she asked when we were alone. “Spill it. You look like you just buried someone or something.”
“Yeah, you could say that. I buried my modeling career.”
“Oh, yeah... I lost the contract. They booted me. Got some blond Swedish guy while I was in the hospital.”
What the hell? May as well tell Rinnie the truth. She was going to hear about it sooner or later. There was her golden opportunity to gloat. It probably made her day to see me dethroned like that.
“Go ahead,” I said, inflating my chest and pushing it forward, preparing to receive the first punch. “This is where you tell me that I deserved it.”
And sure enough, the punch came — in the form of a hug. I almost fainted when Rinnie locked her fuzzy arms around my neck. I felt the pressure of her overworked triceps and heard her warm mayonnaise burp in my ear.
“Sorry to hear that. Those bastards...”
I unlocked her arms and freed myself. “Well, I chose to associate with those bastards, so I brought this upon myself. Look, I know exactly what you think of me. I don’t expect you to see me as anything more than a shallow, spoiled, flakey hedonist who never had a real job or a real relationship in his life. I don’t expect you to sympathize with me. You’ve never been attacked.”
Rinnie led me a little farther away from the table where Josie was sitting and lowered her voice. “I never told you how I ended up in the States, did I?”
No, she never had. The truth is, I never asked.
Rinnie opened her hand, and in the center of the palm I saw a reddish elevation like an old scar. I’ve heard about Jesus freaks mutilating themselves like that. They would poke holes in their hands in feet and call it “stigmata.” Rinnie certainly was crazy enough to pull something like that.
“You know that my mom’s maiden name was Rosenberg, right?”
“I know a million people with that last name.”
“Well, it wasn’t that common where I grew up. You can imagine that being a Rosenberg in the former USSR was a little different from being a Kaufmann in the States. That’s the reason why my mom didn’t get into the school of her choice. Girls whose last names ended in -man or -berg simply didn’t get accepted into the Moscow Conservatory, no matter how high their grades were or how well they played at their entrance exam.
“So she went to the one in Minsk instead. It was less prestigious but a little more welcome to girls with frizzy hair, bulging eyes and beaky noses. When my mom married my dad, she was psyched about taking his Polish last name. She was hoping that it would solve a portion of her problems, make life a little easier, if not for her than at least for me.
“But I inherited my Jewish grandpa’s look. Those stubborn dominant genes! A day didn’t go by without me hearing a comment about my genes. Of course, the teachers pretended not to hear. I guess that sort of behavior fell under the ‘kids just being kids’ category.”
She spoke in a completely casual tone, with her hands in the pockets of her trench-coat, diluting her narrative with an occasional shrug.
“One day, when I was twelve years old,” she continued, “a bunch of boys from the ninth grade pulled me into the boiler room. Apparently, they were learning about concentration camps in their history class and... became inspired to do a little reenactment. I looked to part, so I got ‘cast’ immediately.
“My stomach made for a perfect punching bag, and my hand made for a perfect ashtray. It happened in broad daylight, on school property. They said if I dared to complain to anyone, they would tell the whole world that I was the one who invited them into the boiler room. So I kept my mouth shut — but not because I was afraid of becoming known as a whore. I didn’t give a damn about my reputation anyway.
“However, I knew that if my father found out, he would castrate those kids with his own hands and go to jail for the rest of his life. He didn’t deserve to lose his freedom for their crime. I had to protect him. He was a national laureate, for God’s sake. He looked divine on stage when he sang. The country needed men like him. I couldn’t bother him with my little run-ins with local Gestapo wannabes. Do you understand?”
“I understand everything,” I whispered, nodding, “except for one thing. Why are you smiling?”
“I am smiling, because one of the ‘history enthusiasts’ got killed by a drunk driver, and another one lost both legs in Chechnya. Not sure what happened with the rest of them, but I’m sure that God dealt with them in his own way. I didn’t have to lift a finger. Our handsome blond Andrei is in a wheelchair. And the girl that he used to kick and burn is across the ocean, in the company of thin-skinned fools who’ve never experienced true hatred, or fear, or despair.”
“Are you trying to tell me that American Jews forgot how to suffer?”
“Yes, they have — and thank God for that! I bet your dad’s partners have a very nebulous concept of what true anti-Semitism is like. Their idea of getting in touch with their heritage is going to a holocaust memorial once a decade.
“But that’s not why I pulled you aside. I have a business proposition, in case you’re interested in getting a real job. One of our editorial assistants is leaving, and we’ll need to replace him. The salary is laughable, but you get decent dental coverage and unlimited access to the coffee machine. So, if your teeth get as stained as mine, you can go and get them cleaned on your lunch hour, then go back to the office and have another quadruple espresso. What do you say?”
Giddy As a Schoolboy
One night, about two weeks into my editorial job, as I was leaving the office, my cell phone went off. I saw the familiar number with the Manhattan area code blinking. “Joshua? Thank God, you picked up!” Trevor sounded more frazzled than usual. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“Let me guess — New Kids on the Block reunited?”
“No, the police caught the attacker. You know — the guy who knocked you out?”
Frankly, I didn’t care at this point, but I let Trevor huff into the phone anyway.
“As it turns out it wasn’t a Neo-Nazi. He was a full-time hit-man. Apparently, he has a nice long list of steady clients and victims that he was cooperative enough to share with the police. Erik Bjorn, the Swedish guy, hired him to knock you out so he could take your place. Can you imagine?”
“Good for him. Good for both of them.”
“Oh, Joshua... Believe me when I tell you that I am positively mortified by the whole thing, including the way I treated you. That just keeps me up at night. I can’t believe what a jerk I’ve been. If we hadn’t lost the contract with Brooks Brothers, I would’ve asked you to come back, but the customer is just outraged. We lost the account. Let’s just say, it won’t shock me if other customers start dropping us.”
“You never know, Trev. A good scandal can be good for publicity. You’ll be known as the agent who hires homicidal maniacs. The Enquirer will be all over the story.”
“Oh, Joshua... How I miss your sense of humor. I hope there’s no bad blood between us. We’re still cool, right? You weren’t serious about sueing us, I hope. You wouldn’t do that to us, would you?”
“No, Trev, I have a more amicable solution. It will take care of our scores but won’t cost you nearly as much as a lawsuit.”
“I’m all ears. I’ll do anything for you. Just ask.”
“Here it goes. I need you to treat a very deserving young lady to a full-image makeover. But I have to warn you: you have your job cut out for you.”
I could hear Trevor’s little rabbit heart skip a beat.
“Uh-oh... Is she a burn victim?”
“No, you jerk,” I continued in a steady, businesslike voice. “She’s a working mother, a sharp multilingual journalist, and one of the finest human beings I’m blessed to have met. She’s going to Paris with her husband, and she’ll need new clothes, shoes, jewelry, accessories. You’ll have to reinvent her from the tips of her broken fingernails to the split ends of her hair.”
Trevor let out a strange sound that was half-sigh and half-curse that clearly was not intended for my ears. Apparently, charitable deeds were not in his budget.
“So, we’re clear on our terms of settlement?”
“Of course, Joshua...” Trevor mumbled in a dying voice. “Anything for you...”
“Fabulous! Expect a visit early next week. Get ready to play fairy gay godfather to a Russian Cinderella. And afterwards, don’t forget to take us out for drinks. You know — to celebrate our reconciliation?”
I cannot describe the euphoria I felt hanging up with Trevor that night. Damn, it felt sweet to call the shots! To quote Ebenezer Scrooge, I was “giddy as a schoolboy.”
When Rinnie found out about my gift to her, she said she would accept it only if she could share it with her dear friend Josie. And of course, Josie insisted on bringing her mama along. In the end, the agency had three third-world women to work from scratch. I just love that immigrant solidarity! They never decline free food or free clothes.
I got a little jealous watching them squeal over shoes and necklaces. I wish I could still get that excited about things. That squealing went on for six hours, and Trevor ended up with a nice twenty-thousand hole in his budget. Ouch! Serves him right.
Later that night, as Rinnie and I were strolling towards the wine bar with Trevor’s $150 gift certificate, she suddenly stopped and turned towards me.
“You realize,” she began, “this transformation isn’t permanent? The golden carriage will turn into a pumpkin. It’s inevitable. I’ll go back to frizzy ponytails and Payless Mary-Janes. Your people just spent four hours ironing out my hair and plastering my blackheads. There’s no way I can do it every day to myself.”
“It’s perfectly fine,” I responded, taking her manicured hands. “That’s the whole point of it. You get a bunch of impractical clothes, wear them once and take them to a consignment shop.”
I did not want to ruin Rinnie’s miniature holiday, so I didn’t say anything, but my transformation was not permanent either. I had every intention of going back to being a conceited jerk. As soon as the swelling on my nose went down completely, as soon as I signed a contract with another agency, I would return to my role as a glamorous worm inside the Rotten Apple.
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary