WHEN the subway finally screeched into the Franklin Street station, Brooke was nearly sick with anxiety. She checked her watch for the tenth time in as many minutes and tried to remind herself that it wasn’t the end of the world; her best friend, Nola, would forgive her, had to forgive her, even if she was inexcusably late. She made her way through the rush-hour throngs of commuters toward the door, instinctively holding her breath in the midst of so many bodies, and allowed herself to be pushed toward the stairwell. On autopilot now, Brooke and her fellow riders each pulled their cell phones from their purses and jacket pockets, filed silently into a straight line and, zombielike, marched like choreographed soldiers up the right side of the cement stairs while staring blankly at the tiny screens in their palms.
“Shit!” she heard an overweight woman up ahead call out, and in a moment she knew why. The rain hit her forcefully and without warning the instant she emerged from the stairwell. What had been a chilly but decent enough March evening only twenty minutes earlier had deteriorated into a freezing, thundering misery, where the winds whipped the rain down and made it utterly impossible to stay dry.
“Dammit!” she added to the cacophony of expletives people were shouting all around her as they struggled to pull umbrellas from their briefcases or arrange newspapers over their heads. Since she’d run home to change after work, Brooke had nothing but a tiny (and admittedly cute) silver clutch to shield herself from the onslaught. Good-bye, hair, she thought as she began to sprint the three blocks to the restaurant. I’ll miss you, eye makeup. Nice knowing you, gorgeous new suede boots that ate up half my weekly salary.
Brooke was drenched by the time she reached Sotto, the tiny, unpretentious neighborhood joint where she and Nola met two or three times a month. The pasta wasn’t the best in the city—probably not even the best on the block—and the space wasn’t anything all that special, but Sotto had other charms, more important ones: reasonably priced wine by the full carafe, a killer tiramisu, and a downright hot Italian maître d’ who, simply because they’d been coming for so long, always saved Brooke and Nola the most private table in the back.
“Hey, Luca.” Brooke greeted the owner as she shrugged off her wool peacoat, trying not to shake water everywhere. “Is she here yet?”
Luca immediately put his hand over the phone receiver and pointed with a pencil over his shoulder. “The usual. What’s the occasion for the sexy dress, cara mia? You want to dry off first?”
She smoothed her fitted, short-sleeved black jersey dress with both palms and prayed that Luca was right, that the dress was sexy and she looked okay. She’d come to think of that dress as her Gig Uniform; paired with either heels, sandals, or boots, depending on the weather, she wore it to nearly every one of Julian’s performances.
“I’m so late already. Is she all whiny and mad?” Brooke asked, scrunching handfuls of her hair in a desperate attempt to save it from the imminent frizz attack.
“She’s a half carafe in and hasn’t put the mobile down yet. You better get back there.”
They exchanged a triple cheek-kiss—Brooke had protested the full three kisses in the beginning but Luca insisted—before Brooke took a deep breath and walked back to their table. Nola was tucked neatly into the banquette, her suit jacket flung across the back bench and her navy cashmere shell showing off tightly toned arms and contrasting nicely with her gorgeous olive skin. Her shoulder-length layered cut was stylish and sexy, her blond highlights glowed under the restaurant’s soft lights, and her makeup looked dewy and fresh. No one would ever know from looking at her that Nola had just clocked in twelve hours on a trading desk screaming into a headset.
Brooke and Nola didn’t meet until second semester senior year at Cornell, although Brooke—like the rest of the student body—recognized Nola and was equal parts terrified of and fascinated by her. Compared to her hoodie-and-Ugg-wearing fellow students, the model-thin Nola favored high-heeled boots and blazers and never, ever tied her hair in a ponytail. She’d grown up in elite prep schools in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Dubai, places her investment banker father worked, and had enjoyed the requisite freedom that goes along with being the only child of extremely busy parents.
How she ended up at Cornell instead of Cambridge or Georgetown or the Sorbonne was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see she wasn’t particularly impressed by it all. When the rest of them were busy rushing sororities, meeting for lunch at the Ivy Room, and getting drunk at various Collegetown bars, Nola kept to herself. There were glimpses into her life—the well-known affair with the archaeology professor, the frequent appearances of sexy, mysterious men on campus who vanished soon thereafter—but for the most part, Nola attended her classes, aced everything she took, and hightailed it back to Manhattan the moment Friday afternoon rolled around. When the two girls found themselves assigned to workshop each other’s short stories in a creative writing elective their senior year, Brooke was so intimidated she could barely speak. Nola, as usual, didn’t appear particularly pleased or upset, but when she returned Brooke’s first submission a week later—a fictional piece on a character struggling to adapt to her Peace Corps assignment in Congo—it was filled with thoughtful, insightful commentary and suggestions. Then, on the last page, after scrawling out her lengthy and serious feedback, Nola had written, “P.S. Consider sex scene in Congo?” and Brooke had laughed so hard she had to excuse herself from class to calm down.
After class Nola invited Brooke to a little coffee place in the basement of one of the academic buildings, a place none of Brooke’s friends ever hung out, and within a couple weeks Brooke was going to New York with Nola on weekends. Even after all these years, Nola was too fabulous for words, but it helped Brooke knowing that her friend sobbed during news segments featuring soldiers coming home from war, was secretly obsessed with one day having a perfect white picket fence in the suburbs despite being openly derisive about it, and had a pathological fear of small, yappy dogs (Walter, Brooke’s dog, not included).
“Perfect, perfect. No, I think sitting at the bar is just fine,” Nola said into the phone, rolling her eyes at Brooke. “No, no need to make a reservation for dinner, let’s just play it by ear. Okay, sounds good. See you then.” She clicked her phone shut and immediately grabbed the red wine, refreshing her own glass before remembering Brooke and filling hers too.