The Better Sister – Alafair Burke

I betrayed my sister while standing on the main stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a beaded Versace gown (borrowed) and five-inch stiletto heels (never worn again). At the time, I never could have scored an invitation—or been able to afford a ticket—to the Met Gala in my own right. I was the guest of my boss, Catherine Lancaster, the editor in chief of City Woman magazine. She wasn’t even my boss. She was my boss’s boss’s boss. And somehow she personally invited me. Well, not personally. She had her assistant swing by my cubicle to deliver the message, which turned out to be a good thing, because my immediate RSVP was laughter. Not even a normal-person laugh. More like a snort. Even back then, the so-called Party of the Year was paparazzi porn, a celebrity-soaked, fashion-focused spectacle. The idea of me—the bookish new member of the writing staff—hobnobbing with rock stars, Oscar winners, and supermodels was ridiculous. So I snortlaughed. The assistant hid neither her disapproval nor her eye roll, but I assured her that I was honored to accept. Then, after pulling up photos of last year’s event from the magazine archives, I went about begging my friend Kate, who worked at Cosmo, to smuggle out a suitable dress for me to borrow.

Fake it till you make it, as they say. She was downright gleeful when she handed me the garment bag. “It’s Versace. And it has pockets!” Catherine even offered to have her driver pick me up at my apartment prior to the event. If she had been a man, I would have been worried about what I’d gotten myself into. Instead, I felt like Cinderella going to the ball. Because she was a woman, I trusted her. She validated that instinct when she joined me in the back seat of the car outside her Upper East Side town house and told me she had invited me because she was impressed by a sidebar I had written about Take Back the Night events on college campuses. The main piece was about two child actresses—famous twins—starting their college careers at NYU. But when I heard that one of the sisters was active in organizing NYU’s annual event for survivors of sexual abuse, I pitched the idea to City Woman.

Catherine told me I had “a smart gut,” and that the best advice she could give me was to learn to trust it. Times were changing. “People think we’re watching Sex and the City for the clothes and the orgasm banter, but it’s feminism disguised as dramedy. Another wave is building. It’s just a matter of time before the floodgates break, and women like you will be the ones to write the stories.” Way better than Cinderella. All she got out of the night was a prince. I was going to have a career. When we arrived, not even Catherine merited the attention of the photographers snapping away on the front steps. But once we were inside, a voice called out, “Oh, Catherine, perfect timing.

Join us for the step-and-repeat.” As she jumped into her spot before the backdrop banner for official event photos, she thrust her purse at me, silently mouthing a “Thanks, can you find the bar?” before she left me on my own. The bag was a sequined clutch emblazoned with a Venus symbol, which City Woman used as the O in our magazine title. It was a clever accessory for the evening, but I allowed myself a beat of pride that my borrowed dress had pockets big enough for a lipstick, cash, and my company-issued cell phone. No bag necessary. I found the bar as instructed and then realized I had no idea what Catherine would want to drink. In light of her Sex and the City reference in the car, I ordered two cosmos, tucked her clutch between my waist and elbow, and managed to teeter my way back to the step-and-repeat. By the time she finally extricated herself from the photography session, I was done with my drink and ready to start on hers. When she rejoined me, she grabbed the drink, but not her purse. “Catherine .

” I held up the sequined clutch. She was hugging a fashion designer. “Do you need . ” Then the mayor. I ended up following her around with that stupid purse all night long, leaving only to get drinks, which I decided to vary wildly as the night went on. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything—and Catherine Lancaster would definitely speak up if she disapproved. These days, if I treated an assistant that way, I’d worry they’d take to Twitter or call in a blind item to Page Six. But in the early aughts, a young writer like me considered it a privilege to do the grunt work for those who had earned their spot at the top of the masthead. I was the designated silent purseholder. The first call to the phone stashed in the very expensive pocket of my designer dress came as dinner was being served.

My parents. I let it go to voice mail. Stupidly, I actually assumed they were calling because they were proud to have a daughter at such a lavish event. They had never heard of it, of course, but I tried to explain to them when I first got the invitation that it was highly unusual for someone at my level to be included. But when they called five minutes later, and then again an hour after that, I knew it wouldn’t be about me at all. I had two options: leave while Catherine was holding court at the City Woman table, or let it all flow into voice mail. It was possible something was wrong with Mom or Dad, but in my gut, I knew it was probably something with Nicky. It was always Nicky. I stayed put in my seat. When another call came in during dessert, I snuck a peek at the tiny screen of my Nokia.

This time it was from Nicky’s house. Yep, as suspected, it was my sister’s drama once again, perfectly timed with one of the most important opportunities I’d been given since moving to New York City to pursue a writing career. This time, I turned off the phone before stashing it in my pocket. Catherine glanced at me as she rose from the table, which I interpreted as an invitation to follow. When she broke off for the ladies’ room after what I deemed to be an uncharacteristic smoke break outside the tent, I finally powered up my phone to check my messages. Three from my mom: “Call me,” a hang-up, and “Damn it, she’s still not answering.” That left the most recent call—the one from Nicky. It was just like her to pick this night to implode. When I pressed 1 to listen, it wasn’t Nicky’s voice that I heard. It was her husband, Adam.

This wasn’t the first time Adam had reached out to me about my sister, but this one was different. I’d never heard this kind of emotion before in his voice—anger, mixed with exhaustion and fear. The message itself was short. “Call me when you can, okay? It’s important.” He left me the number of the cell phone he used for work. I repeated it over and over again in my head until I dialed it. When he picked up after two rings, he laid out the facts like a lawyer, not a husband. Nicky was at the Cleveland Clinic. As he spoke—while A-list actors and socialites mingled around me—I pictured my sister. Her long, honey-brown hair plastered against her shoulder blades.

Pool-soaked clothing clinging to her thin frame. And the baby—I still called him a baby, at least—spitting up chlorinated water from his tiny lungs. “I can’t keep going through this with her, Chloe. Not with a child in the picture. She could have really hurt him. If I hadn’t walked outside . ” I started to protest that Nicky would never hurt her son, but realized I had no way of knowing if that were true. Nicky would never intentionally harm anyone, but she had a way of damaging everyone who entered her orbit. She always had. “Just tell me, Adam.

Tell me why you’re really calling.” “I need your help.” How many times had I noticed that Adam had more in common with me than with his own wife? How many times had I held my tongue, not wanting to be accused of sabotaging the only (sort of) healthy relationship my sister had ever had? Now here we were, five hundred miles apart, connected only by a cell phone signal, and it was clear whose side I would take. Adam needed me. Our story—independent of Nicky—would develop later, but you could say that night marked the story’s beginning. It was the moment I chose Ethan over the rest of my family, which meant I was choosing Adam. I had no idea that four years later, I’d become the second Mrs. Adam Macintosh, or that ten years after that, I’d be the one to find his dead body. Part I Adam 1 Fourteen Years Later The back of Café Loup was dark and cool, so every time the restaurant door opened to the sun and humidity outside, I found myself craning my neck to look for Adam. He hadn’t promised to join us, but I knew that the entertainment reporter conducting the interview was “dying to meet the man behind the woman.

” Unfortunately, I had made the mistake of telling Adam about her expectations. If I had kept that piece of information to myself, I could have lied and told her that my husband had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t make it. But instead I had set myself up for uncertainty and therefore disappointment, and was now waiting anxiously to see if he would put in an appearance. I forced myself to focus my attention where it belonged. The interviewer was named Colby and was probably twenty-five years old, around the same age I was when I first landed a journalism job in New York City. The landscape had changed dramatically in the interim. When I started at City Woman, we boasted an average monthly circulation of nearly three hundred thousand copies, and a staff that occupied a full floor of a prestigious midtown highrise. Eve was one of the last women’s magazines standing, but we were struggling to crack a hundred thousand print readers a month. These days, most publishers were putting the “free” in “freelance.” Given the changes in the market, my guess is that young, eager Colby had twice the résumé I’d compiled at her age, yet was happy to have landed her full-time gig with a web-only e-zine aimed at millennial women.

We were finished with introductions, and I could tell when she looked down at her notes that we were moving on to her prepared questions. “By the time you were named editor in chief at Eve, the industry had all but written the magazine’s obituary. But you worked a complete turnaround—ramping up online readership, adding more politics and less fluff—and now Eve is one of the last remaining successful feminist-oriented magazines in the country. Now you’re on the eve—no pun intended—of receiving the vaunted Press for the People Award for your influential Them Too series. Does this moment feel like the culmination of your entire life’s work?” I knew my answer would make me sound sad and tired to Colby and her peers, but I told myself that at least it was authentic. “The culmination of my life’s work? I certainly hope not. That kind of talk makes me feel like I’m being put out to pasture.” She hit the pause button on her iPhone and began apologizing profusely. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. You’re like my idol.

That’s not what I meant at all.” I hit the record button again and told her that she should never apologize for a question, and then gave her a sound-bite she could use. “I feel guilty taking credit for any of it,” I said. “The real heroes are the women who told their own stories first. The Me Too movement made women begin to feel safe speaking out. We all knew such conduct was repugnant—and rampant—but we were always taught to tough it out. Don’t rock the boat. Smile and make it to the next day. But then women found power in the collective, and powerful men learned that there could be consequences to their actions, even if delayed, even without police and courtrooms. That was the starting point for everything, so, really, my work was just following the lead of all those other women, and the journalists who helped tell their stories.

” The work she was asking me about was a series of features covering an initiative I launched at Eve. On the heels of the Me Too movement, I wrote an opinion piece exploring my concern that the movement’s seismic cultural shift would be confined to high-profile, celebrity-driven workplaces. After the initial takedowns of predators who had committed heinous acts for years, the movement’s influence had seeped into a discussion of lesser offenses by other famous men. But would it affect the workplaces of women employed by bosses we had never heard of? What about the women who worked in factories and on sales floors? What about waitresses and bartenders who were beholden to managers for the busiest shifts, and to customers for tips? To help spotlight their stories, I paired “everyday” women suffering sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace with a better-known Me Too groundbreaker. I personally wrote the articles tracing the commonalities in their stories and the impact of the resulting friendships. In a twist on the now-famous hashtag, I had dubbed the effort Them Too. What I began as an experiment blossomed in ways I never predicted. An A-list actress who was among the first to come forward about an abusive director brought her “them-too sister” as her date to the Academy Awards. The host of one of the network morning shows was now godmother to her match’s newborn daughter. And, most important to me, seven Fortune 500 corporations had fired high-level executives and implemented corporate-wide policy changes as a result of the series, all because women had used their celebrity—and I had used my magazine—as a way to bring attention to the narratives of women who believed they had no voice.

Although I tried to focus on the women who had participated in the series, Colby of course wanted to hear all the crap I had put up with over the course of my own career. We were on the topic of the second man who had offered me a job in exchange for sex when the restaurant door opened again. By then, I was deep into the story and had assumed that Colby and I would be alone for the rest of our meeting. Adam was well past the bar, almost to our table, by the time I spotted him in my periphery. “Oh my goodness, what a surprise,” I said, rising to greet him with a hug. “I can’t remember the last time we were together before five o’clock on a weekday.” I noticed Colby sizing him up, surprised at his youthful appearance, as many people were when first meeting him. Adam was six years older than I am, making him forty-seven, but I joked that he’d stopped aging about a decade ago. He was seemingly genetically incapable of either hair loss or weight gain. Phillip, our waiter, appeared instantly.

“Oh, there he is. The handsome husband I was hoping to see.” Our apartment was three blocks from Café Loup. We’d been regulars for years. As Adam ordered a slightly dirty martini, Colby asked me if I was used to Adam being welcomed so enthusiastically. “So annoying,” I said with mock resentment. “I kid you not: there’s not a person on this planet who would say a bad word about him.” “Tell that to Tommy Farber,” Adam said, reaching for my wineglass. He took a sip of my cabernet, wrinkled his nose, and handed the glass back to me. “Kid beat my ass every Friday afternoon for two years.

I think I still have creases on my forehead from the locker door.” “How’d the two of you meet?” Colby asked. I hated that question, but had the usual highly edited response ready to roll. “We knew each other back in Cleveland where we grew up, but reconnected when he moved to New York for work.” I was relieved when Colby seemed satisfied with the answer and went on to ask Adam what it was like to be a successful man married to an even more successful woman. I found myself envying—and resenting—the complete absence of discomfort or apology in her question. She wasn’t in the habit (yet, at least) of protecting a man’s ego. As Adam spoke, I enjoyed playing a role I rarely got to occupy. I beamed as he told Colby how proud he had been of my every achievement: starting out as an assistant and then making it as a writer for City Woman, editor in chief at that little downtown-focused rag, my first essay in the New Yorker, my photo shoot three years before for Cosmo’s “40 Under 40” feature. I grew up with parents who didn’t even notice when I earned a blue ribbon in .

anything. It was so like Adam to have a running list of my achievements at his fingertips. How many times had I been told how lucky I was to have a husband who was so unabashedly proud of his wife? As if there was something unnatural about it. We held hands as we made the short walk back to our apartment on Twelfth Street. “Thank you so much for doing that, Adam. If Colby has a boyfriend, I have a feeling he’s going to be a little confused about why she seems so disappointed in him tonight. You were absolutely charming.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and winked. At home, I automatically found myself rewarding him for supporting me, pouring a shot of sambuca from the bar cart in the living room. He downed the drink in one gulp and grabbed my hands as I was wrapping them around his waist.

“Were you happy with the interview?” He entwined his fingers in mine before placing my hands at the base of his neck and looking into my eyes. Then he was kissing that spot beneath my right ear, his goto move when he had other plans for us. “I swear, that interviewer looked at you like you were Gandhi.” Adam and I hadn’t been intimate in weeks. We’d both been so busy. All I wanted was to crawl into bed with a novel. “Did you really just say Gandhi to try to get me hot?” He stopped. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Note to self: the least sexy phrase in the English language is “What’s wrong?” Back when I was still writing articles aimed at the sexed-up-wife crowd, I actually said that the key to saving your marriage was to fool around at least two times a week. “It’s a lot easier to put up with each other’s shit when you’re putting your parts together.

” The advice wasn’t exactly progressive, but at core, there was some truth in it. I closed my eyes and tried to match his earlier mood. “Nothing’s wrong. Sorry, I was just joking.” When he started to kiss me again, I whispered “Please, don’t stop.” Did you know that in survey after survey conducted by women’s magazines, those three words were the ones that men most wanted to hear in bed? Please. Don’t. Stop. I felt my breath quicken as his mouth paused at my clavicle and began moving toward the belly that I could have described as “a six-pack” just a few years earlier. I stepped out of my slingbacks, and, just like that, I was eager to finish what he had started.

As they say, fake it until you make it. When we were finished—both of us—I tucked myself into the crook of Adam’s arm, the way we always used to sleep for the entire night before we bought the king bed. “That was amazing. Again, thank you so much for doing that stupid interview.” “Why would you call it stupid?” “You know. Just cheesy. I’m not used to being the center of attention that way.” He looked at me for a full five seconds, studying my face. “But it’s what you’ve always dreamed of, isn’t it? And now you have it.” The words themselves were unobjectionable, even congratulatory.

But for some reason, they stung. I tried to tell myself I was being paranoid, feeling guilty about dragging him into that interview, where it was all me-me-me. When he rotated 180 degrees and turned his back to me, my fears were momentarily confirmed. Then he reached for my top arm and draped it around him, pulling me into a spoon position. He kissed my hands and let out a satisfied sigh. Our cat, Panda, suddenly appeared from nowhere—the only way he knows how to make an appearance. “Greedy Guy?” Adam’s eyes were closed, but he had felt the nineteen-pound fur ball pounce on the mattress. When we first got married, we let six-year-old Ethan name our new kitten. He opted for Greedy Panda for reasons we still didn’t understand, and ten years later, the name had taken on various iterations. “Hmm-hmm.

” I smiled as Panda snuggled into the small of my back. I felt happy and relaxed. When I heard the front door of the apartment open, I wasn’t sure if I’d fallen asleep or if I’d only been resting my eyes. I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t even ten. Ethan had made curfew with a full hour to spare. “I should make sure he ate,” I said. “He’s sixteen years old. He’s probably had three dinners by now. You deserve to sleep.

You have a big day tomorrow.” We both knew I’d be tossing and turning all night. I always felt confident with the written word, but I would need to stand up before hundreds of people at the awards ceremony to deliver my speech. I’d been preparing for the last week. “I still can’t believe all of this is happening,” I whispered. He pulled me closer, placing his top hand on my bare hip. It felt good. “Hey, about that, I didn’t have a chance to tell you earlier. Something came up with work, and I may be late tomorrow night.” I was glad he couldn’t see my face.

The news, delivered so casually, felt like a slap. I kept my voice level, not wanting to give him the expected reaction. “Well, what is it? Maybe I can talk to Bill.” The head partner at Adam’s firm was Eve’s lawyer and also a close friend. “No, it’s a client. It’s Gentry.” I knew he was under pressure at the firm to bring in business, and that his biggest client, the Gentry Group, was an important part of the picture. “So . how late do you think you’ll be?” “Maybe not at all, but they’re flying in from London, and I’m supposed to meet them at some conference room near JFK. I’m pretty much at their whim.

” “But you’ll definitely be there?” “I just don’t know, babe. I’ll try, though. You know how proud I am of you, right?” He kissed my hand, reached for the nightstand, and turned off the light. I listened to his slow, relaxed breaths as I rehearsed my speech in the dark.

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