tales of a girl in the city

mars 30, 2005


I was seventeen when I moved to New York, but I had already been saving pieces of this city in my pockets for years. A "B" on the George-Washington side of a dollar bill marks it as "minted in New York," and growing up, I kept as many of those bills as possible. I navigated my days in Wisconsin by that letter--if it showed up on the face of a crumpled dollar, I would have good luck.

Interesting, then, that I encountered such bad luck so soon after my first day in Manhattan. Having just arrived on Barnard's campus, sporting a fresh haircut that I was sure made me look more "sophisticated," I hadn't even been a New Yorker for a week when I met Gustavo.

Gustavo was a City Kid, a term for the rare breed of human being who is born and raised in Manhattan. His parents divorced in the epic, feuding style of the filthy rich. He went away to boarding school, but spent summers in his father's apartment in Sutton Place. Four years my senior, he'd been a teenager at The Tunnel and Limelight. He used 'Jersey' as an adjective and knew all about drugs with one-letter names.

When he asked me out, I was astonished.

On our first date, he drove myself and six of my friends to Soho in his dad's shiny SUV. We entered the restaurant and the owners called him by name.

I was impressed.

He ordered for all six of us in fluent Italian.

I was in love.

I had never met anyone like him. He was fast and charming and worldy and bored. In comparison, I was so...Wisconsin: mispronouncing Donna Karan (Donna Kay-RAN) and asking aloud, "What does it mean that she's 'Jappy'?". But the minute I met him, I felt about him the way I had felt about those special New York bills. He was intimately acquainted with a universe that I had always wanted to belong to, a literal island of sophistication and electricity and luck. I wanted to be part of everything that he had.

But, being larger than pocket-sized, and less replaceable than a dollar, how would I ever make him mine? On a campus of girls who had grown up on Long Island--girls with sleek dark hair who already knew the subway system and wouldn't be caught dead without a mani/pedi--how could I possibly hold his attention? This was a landscape flooded with the superficial, and I had neither the money nor the knowledge to stay afloat. So, after evaluating the situation carefully, I put on my laciest Moments underwear (Kohl's Department Store, $5.99) and used the one bargaining tool in my possession: my virginity.

He became my first College Boyfriend.

Our relationship took place largely on the third floor of Reid Hall. As a frequent male visitor to an all-women's dorm, he received a ton of attention from all of my new Barnard friends. It never occurred to us--especially not to me--to wonder what else he did with his time. His stories and his energy disarmed us so that we never thought to question when he actually attended the classes he was taking at NYU. And when the first laptop disappeared mysteriously from a room down the hall, I honestly told the detective that I had no idea who had done it. Certainly not Gustavo. With such wealthy parents, why on earth would he have cause to steal?

The crime was never solved.

Fall came and went, marked by his first "I love you" at Halloween, and our first big fight during final exams. I went home for Christmas, but came back early to make up and spend the week with him.

I arrived at his apartment, luggage and gifts in tow, and plopped myself on his bed. Busy at his desk, his back to me, I smiled thinking about my good fortune: my first real boyfriend, my first New York Christmas.

He swung around in his chair, a leather satchel in his lap.

"I have something very special for you."

I grinned and, once again, felt my luck. What would it be? The Natalie Merchant CD I'd been coveting? Victoria's Secret?

Reaching deep into the bag, he pulled out a thin blue box.

Tiffany & Co. The eggshell blue I'd only ever seen in advertisements featuring lovely girls with shiny ponytails.

I actually shook as he placed the treasure in my hands.

"My dad helped me to pick it out. The box is a little worn around the edges. I've been going back and forth for weeks now with it in my bag. I wasn't sure...I mean, I know it's a little extravagent."

I lifted the lid. Inside was a fabric envelope in that same perfect shade of blue. I didn't know jewelry came in cases like this. So simple. Everything precious, even the package. I could feel the bracelet lying in its felt case as I lifted the flap. As the diamonds slid into my hands in a sparkling heap, I could say nothing; I could only stare.

The bracelet was the first of many gifts.

That Valentine's Day there was a small gold ring. Sporadically there were clothes or unexpected, sweet presents. Roses. A Vermont teddy bear.

But there were also surprises of a different sort. Like the expensive phone call he'd made from an airplane phone to my house in Wisconsin, followed up, months later, by a call to my parents from a confused woman in Iowa: I'm just calling to see if I know you. A pretty pricey call was made to this number and charged to my credit card.

And I vaguely remember wondering about the address on the bill the bear was shipped with--a name I didn't recognize. Before I had time to even formulate the question, though, the papers were swept up by Gustavo, carried with the wrappings to the trash: Sorry, baby. I don't want you to see how much he cost.

It was the discovery of a drawer of stolen cell phones and an application to NYU undergrad--the school that he supposedly already attended--that finally woke me up to the truth. That and, I suppose, the fact that those months under Gustavo's tutelage had actually given me what I wanted; I was on my way to becoming a real New Yorker, and, as such, could no longer be taken by a con.

He was a sniveling mess when I broke up with him, but I never even felt a pang of guilt.

I took the subway alone back to Barnard's campus.

And, later that summer, I hardly even flinched when the jeweler looked me squarely in the eye and announced, "Miss, it's a fake."