My boss’s voice drones from the speakerphone:
“Luxury is symmetrical, Attachés! If you put your large floral arrangement in the center of the back bar and just one bottle or bottle cluster to each side, you will elevate your display to the luxury level. You have no idea how impressed people are when I show them that.”
I am naked in my desk chair, sipping a latte. I love telecommuting.
“I want to share something very important that I like to tell all my Attachés,” Josette continues. “I like to say: Luxury is in the details. Think of your keywords: Rare! Authentic! Hedonism! These words need to be reflected in every aspect of your events, down to the shape of the glassware, the cleanliness of the glassware, the bartenders you choose and their personalities and their look…”
I can’t hear Pascal on the call, but he’s probably driving. People in LA are always driving somewhere. I rummage through my desk in search of drugs.
“…the lighting, the charity or art that you are associating the brand with, the celebrities you invite, because the wrong celebrity can be worse than no celebrity at all. Just think of Ciroc and P. Diddy! That is so unluxury.”
I find my little blue one-hitter and inhale, holding my breath until my intellect retracts. Smoke swirls around the Grey Goose bottles, napkin trays, and ice buckets that fill my home office. I like this one-hitter because my dead mother-in-law used it during chemo.
Josette has moved on to her favorite topic: “The next time you go into Louis Vuitton, ask to see the inside of a bag. Notice the way they take it out for you, unzip it, spread it open in front of you. And if there’s any tiny inkling of a flaw, that bag is not leaving that store. Because luxury is flawless!”
Josette gets breathless when she talks about Louis Vuitton. It’s like hearing a childless nun talk about baby Jesus.
“I will tell you a fascinating story, Attachés. I was flying business class to Europe and I had my very simple briefcase that you’ve probably seen me carrying? An elegant older gentleman approached me in the boarding line and asked me if my bag was Louis Vuitton. And I said it was. And he told me his mother had the same bag, and that she loved it!”
“Wow,” I say.
“Amazing,” says Pascal.
“Yes,” says Josette. “I was absolutely floored. Because that bag isn’t branded except for one very discreet monogram on the bottom. He could tell it was Louis Vuitton just from the look of the leather.”
Pascal says the reason Josette is obsessed with Louis Vuitton is that she’s from Quebec, so she idolizes anything French. (Pascal is French.)
This is good weed. I astrally project for a while, and when I return to my body, Pascal is pitching Josette on a new event.
“I have a really exciting opportunity to partner with an art gallery,” he’s saying. “This is a very exclusive photography show. Lots of press. This photographer is one of the top top in the world. Diane Arboos?”
“That could be a potentially great opportunity.” Josette sounds cautious. “Any other brands featured?”
“Just Grey Goose! I think this event would be a great place to feature my edible cocktails!”
Edible cocktails are Pascal’s idée fixe. I’ve been repeatedly reprimanded for calling them Jell-O shots, which is what they are. Josette asks me if I’ve heard of Diane Arboos, deferring to me as usual on anything related to art or Jews.
“Yeah. Diane Arbus. She’s great. Known for her portraits of unusual subjects like twins, drag queens, and dwarves.” Having recently seen the Arbus retrospective at the Met, I’m packed with interesting factoids. “She killed herself in the Seventies! Took barbiturates and then slit her wrists.”
The speakerphone is silent.
Oops. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the means of suicide, but I am pretty stoned at this point, and I’ve always admired Arbus’s thoroughness: taking the pills, too, just in case.
“Pascal,” Josette says, “we need to be very careful about what sorts of things we associate the brand with.”
“Keep looking. All right, Attachés, I need to get off the call. Samantha is doing an event at the zoo today, and she needs help choosing the animals.”
We hang up, and I finish my latte while watching a slideshow of photos from my event at the Gramercy Arts Club. They are bad but Photoshoppable. Josette will complain about how schleppy the guests lookit was a concert of modernist classical musicand I’d better hide the fact that the bartenders refused to remove the whiskey from the bar. Trying to find attractive new music fans and crop out all the Dewar’s bottles ends up being a time sink, and when Legends calls saying a black Lincoln is outside, I’m still not dressed or packed.
The good thing about smoking weed in the nude is you don’t need to change afterward. A few Altoids, some sunglasses, and the only way you can tell I’m stoned is by my optimism and lack of short-term memory. I throw on a blouse and my wide-legged pants, refresh my business cards, and pack up bottles of the original, orange, and pear flavors of Grey Goosethe lemon tastes like armpitsandwiching them with ice packs in my little rolling suitcase.
I also take a chilled half-bottle of champagne, two branded cocktail shakers, a jigger, strainer, reamer, flask of Cointreau, squeeze bottle of Demerara sugar syrup, homemade orange bitters, some limes, a miniature bamboo cutting board, paring knife, printouts of my cocktail recipes, edible orchids, and a can of lychee nuts.
The town car honks.
Last night I made bouillabaisse and the garbage smells terrible, so I bring that downstairs, too, which turns out to be the first of two catastrophic errors of the day. As I pick my way down the stairs with the suitcase in one hand and the trash in the other, elbows micro-bent so as not to aggravate my tendonitis, the pointy toe of my left pump catches the hem of my wide-legged pants, and I tumble down an entire flight of stairs.
I go limp to minimize bruising. It’s a long way down, but I manage to stay totally relaxedthe weed helping with thatand my body rotates as I fall so that by the time I reach the downstairs landing, I am neck-first, in a position reminiscent of the yoga pose sarvangasana. The rolling suitcase lands atop the garbage bag, bursting it, and the stairwell is covered with lobsters.
The town car honks.
I am of two minds. I want to get up immediately, so my downstairs neighbors, the handsome Iranian doctor and his wife, do not see me in this unflattering position. On the other hand, I remember my old boxing trainer’s advice in the event that I ever got knocked down (which I never did, knockdowns being rare in the lighter weights of women’s boxing): Rest until the count gets to seven.
I count, staring at the ceiling. The pain is strong but bearable. I stagger to my feet on “six,” just before Azeen opens the door.
“Oh my God, Sarah! Did you fall down all those stairs?”
I try to laugh in a breezy, sophisticated way but end up sounding insane.
“Do you need ice? Let me help you with that.” She insists on picking up my trash. Azeen is so pretty, with her black eyes and statuesque height and her job working for Doctors Without Borders. I limp after her with my suitcase of booze, wishing I were tall and worked in the nonprofit sector. Then no one would look down on me.
The black Lincoln drops me off on the street corner outside the Peninsula Hotel. This must be an important account, because Doug is here, and he is Bacardi’s head of on-premise for the whole New York metro area. In the liquor business, “on premise” refers to a bar or restaurant (because the liquor is consumed on the premises), and “off premise” refers to a retail store.
Doug is young with a beefy face and manic disposition. We are joined by Isobel, the breezy, drug-addled Brit in charge of hotel sales for Empire. (Since it’s illegal in New York to both import and distribute alcohol, Bacardi must hire a middleman such as Empire to actually sell their liquor into the accounts.) Isobel looks great in her little skirt suit, with her blond bob and glassy eyes. She reminds me of Princess Di.
“Let’s do this,” Doug says. “Sarah, what are we pitching?”
I rummage through my wheeled suitcase, noting with dismay that the items have shifted during transit down my stairwell. The recipe cards I color printed on heavyweight bond paper are now soaked in Demerara sugar syrup, which is not very luxury.
Doug eyes me with concern. “We need a win here, Sarah.”
“Absolutely.” I wipe my sticky palm on the suitcase lining. “I have several cocktails in mind. They’re Asian-influenced.”
“Oooh, lovely,” coos Isobel. “Can you do something with St.-Germain?”
Doug scowls. St.-Germain Elder-flower Liqueur is not a Bacardi product. I put a hand on the sleeve of his sport coat. “Actually, that goes great with Bombay Sapphire. I could do a champagne cocktail.”
The politics in our little threesome are complex. Doug and I are allied against Isobel because Isobel sells most of our competitors, too, and we don’t want her to place any rival brands in the account.
Isobel and Doug are allied against me because I am in marketing and they are in sales, and salespeople think marketers are useless. Marketers think salespeople are dumb. This rivalry is intensified by the fact that sales and marketing are identical.
Isobel and I are allied against Doug because we are both women and because we are both sedated. If Doug is on anything, it’s cocaine and/or Red Bull, but I suspect he is actually sober. His eyes are clear as he charges through the revolving door, crying, “Let’s close this!”
The new bar is on the top floor, in a space that feels slightly funereal.
“We haven’t yet redecorated,” says Nigel, who is also British. “It will be just delightful when we’re done, a sort of Shanghai bordello feel.”
He whistles when I slip him my card, which is made of clear acrylic to match the Grey Goose bottle, and costs $5 per unit to print. In PR, the heft of your business card is like the length of your cock. Josette’s is so thick it won’t fit in my wallet.
“Brand Attaché,” he reads. “What does that mean?”
“I serve as the representative for the master distiller here in New York, hosting intimate events that help spread the word about our spirit.” I pull out the bottles and put them on the table so their labels face Nigel. “Today I’ve prepared some cocktails influenced by a trip through Brooklyn’s Chinatown.”
That’s actually true. I pounded the pavement in Sunset Park yesterday, purchasing a wide array of unusable items. Possibly I was sold urine labeled as chrysanthemum tea, although I don’t know how they got it in the juice box.
Nigel gestures to his bartender. “Ask Pablo for anything you need.”
I build two champagne cocktails at once, muddling lychees in one Boston shaker, and measuring out Bombay Sapphire and elderflower into the other. Everyone looks at me while I agitate the cocktails in tandem, my breasts bouncing and my cervical vertebrae jangling with pain. I prepare to top the drinks with a hit of bubbly, which is when I make my second catastrophic error of the day.
“A lot of people use cava or prosecco,” I say, twisting off the foil capsule, “but I love the finish of a fine Champagne. It elevates the cocktail, andoh, no.”
Half-bottles usually have tight corks, which is why I’m so unprepared for the explosion. I should have re-membered that I dropped this particular half-bottle down a flight of stairs. Once the wire cage is partially un-twisted, the cork flies across the bar with an impressive sound, hitting a vase of orchids. On the plus side, I have remembered to point the bottle away from people’s faces, as we learned in sommelier school.
Veuve Clicquot has been justly lauded for the vigor of its mousse. The bubbles just keep coming, releasing notes of hazelnut and toasted brioche as they spill over my crotch. Doug looks mortified; Nigel and Isobel, mildly amused. I probably remind them of Mr. Bean.
Pablo rushes to my aid with ample linen; I have won him over with my incompetence. I garnish with lime peels and gesture to the drinks with trembling hands.
“On your left we have the Asian Pear, and on the right is the Mandarin Blossom. Please enjoy.”
“Ah. Very nice,” says Nigel.
I enjoy the silence that follows this remark. Isobel has her eyes closed, either enjoying the finish or dozing off. When I taught yoga, my favorite part was the end of class, when all my students were lying on their backs and I could watch them relax. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but I actually took this job because I like making people feel good. I don’t care if they buy the vodka.
Lily is wearing the outfit I call Disco Inferno, a metallic bodysuit that zips down the middle. I met Lily through yoga. Her extraordinary beauty opens doors, and although her subsequent behavior sometimes closes them, we usually wind out on top. When I worked in finance, I learned to invest in volatility.
“You look fabulous,” I tell her.
“Thank you, darling. Shall we?”
We are to begin the evening’s subsidized drinking at PDT, the East Village bar accessed through a telephone booth inside the hot dog restaurant Crif Dogs. PDT stands for “Please Don’t Tell.” It’s one of the city’s rash of speakeasies staffed by men with gimmicky facial hair.
Lily goes first through the phone booth. I heel, prepared to intercede if she is rude to the staff, but we make it to the bar without incident. People to either side of us are in raptures over their beverages. The bartender, a pale man with a handlebar mustache, hands us cocktail menus the size of phone books. I wish I could order a gin martini, but I need to remember who pays the bills.
Lily calls the brand immediately. “Do you have Grey Goose?”
He sneers. “No.”
“It’s my favorite vodka,” she says, batting her lashes.
The sneer deepens. They hate vodka in these kinds of bars, citing its definition by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as a “colorless, odorless, tasteless spirit.”
“We’ve heard great things about your cocktails,” I tell him. “What is your favorite?”
He recommends, perhaps as revenge, a concoction of rosehips, rye, and egg whites that takes ten minutes to make and arrives looking vaguely menstrual.
“Is it supposed to taste this way?” Lily whispers.
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“I’m sending it back.”
We have a fierce, whispered argument, and I convince her not to return it by agreeing to drink hers whenever the bartender isn’t looking. This brings back memories of traveling in Morocco with a vegetarian who wouldn’t eat the animals slaughtered on our behalf, requiring me to consume vast quantities of bloody goat tajine. To banish the taste memory, I order a Crifdog, which is sent in through the dumbwaiter. Lily gets a glass of rose champagne from a small grower-producer, which is totally against the rules, but at this point I don’t care.
I go to the bathroom, where I drink a few handfuls of delicious tap water to counteract all the alcohol in my bloodstream. Once I dated a man who referred to water from the bathroom as “bathroom water” and refused to drink it, despite my insistence that it was the same juice that came out the kitchen tap. With colorless, odorless, tasteless liquids, packaging is everything.
The PDT bathroom has a “House Rules” sign posted, cautioning against things like “name-dropping” and saying that “gentlemen shall not approach ladies without an introduction.” It’s almost as insufferable as Pegu Club’s page-long eulogy of the British Raj.
I tell Lily about the sign when I get back to the bar.
She wrinkles her perfect nose. “That’s so pretentious. Let’s go to Nublu.”
I feel a sense of impending doom. Evenings at Nublu never end before dawn, and tomorrow I have to meet with those wedding planners and that guy who imports rose nectar from Bulgaria. The bartender drops the check, and Lily asks, “Why don’t you serve Grey Goose anyway?”
I should have asked this half an hour ago. In so many ways, Lily is better at my job than I am. She’s taller, prettier, and free from my crippling shame about being a corporate stooge.
He calls over the other bartender, a blond man with enormous sideburns. “Hey, Lance, these two work for Goose! What was it you were telling me the other day?”
Lance eyes us with contempt. “You guys put glycerin in your vodka.”
“That’s not true,” Lily says. She looks at me, worried. “Is it?”
“Of course not.”
Lance shrugs. “That’s what I heard from the Ketel One rep.”
“Excuse me.” Lily slides off her stool to go freshen her make-up.
“What makes you think that, Lance?” I ask. “Because I’ve been to the distillery in Cognac and spoken with François, the maître de chai, and I’ve never heard anything about this.” I don’t mention that when I asked probing questions about distillation he pretended not to understand my French.
“You can tell when you taste it,” he says. “Plus, if you leave it out all night, there will be a residue left in your glass in the morning. Try it.”
I overtip lavishly, as I always do when I think someone looks down on me, and, as always, it makes me feel worse not better. I duck back through the phone booth to wait for Lily outside. She takes a long time in the bathroom, and when she comes out she is giggling maniacally. Halfway down the block, she undoes her zipper and pulls the “House Rules” out of her jumpsuit.
The next morning, I study the glass that had the vodka in it. All the liquid has evaporated. In Cognac, where brandies are aged in air-permeable wooden casks, twenty percent of all liquid stock is lost to evaporation each year. They call that part “the angel’s share.”
Is it my imagination, or is there a ghostly white mark left in the glass’s bottom? I can sort of see it from one angle but not from another. I touch my tongue to it, but it has no taste.
It could just be my crappy dishwasher. When Josette came over on her last visit, she pointed out spots on my glassware. I get another glass to serve as an experimental control and hold both of them up to the window, turning them on all sides. I wish I could ask my husband’s opinion, but he’s risen with the dawn and gone off to practice jazz.
Self-pity pierces me. Every day my husband gets better and better at his chosen art, while every day I get more dissolute and cirrhotic. My second novel sits unfinished, while I write PowerPoint presentations about fine French wheat.
I will quit this job after thirteen months, when I can no longer stand the golden handcuffs. I will retain one branded cocktail shaker as a keepsake, but it will be a while before I fill it with anything but pencils. One day my friend Julie will bring a bottle of Russian Standard back from Moscow, and we will drink together from frozen shot glasses, and I will realize that I can stomach vodka again.
The sunlight makes prisms where the sides of the glasses meet the bottoms. Whatever I saw before is gone. Now I can’t even remember which glass was dirty and which one was clean. It is impossible to know if anything has left a mark.
Sarah Deming covers fights for Stiff Jab and coaches young boxers in Brooklyn. She is also the author of the children's novel Iris, Messenger.