When I arrived the party had already started.
It was my first time in New York and I had spent my day checking out college campuses. My head was filled with graduate programs, admission requirements and application deadlines. Precariously I made my way from one end of the city to the other – trying not to get lost in the labyrinth of tunnels and matrices that was otherwise known as New York City’s subway system.
That night, I arrived at her building flustered and disoriented in high heels (which I never wear) and my best strapless dress. A rush of cold air hit my body as I walked into the lobby giving me goose bumps – making my skin feel wet and clammy. I have to admit I was quite nervous. It had been a long time since I had seen her. She had always remained a mystery to me.
The concierge in his stiff black suit contrasting dramatically with the ornate lobby reluctantly let me in (probably wondering how I got invited in the first place) as I reeked with the smell of ‘eau de pauvre etudiant.’ When I reached the penthouse it was Shabana herself that answered the door.
“Sidra, you’re here,” exclaimed my aunt.
The sober hallways had done little to suggest the spacious interior and I was left breathless as I entered a house of glass. For there were no walls but windows extending from the floor to the ceiling. I felt like I was floating above the water gazing at a city that was ablaze with the light of a thousand burning ambitions.
I smiled at my aunt taking in her image like a cool drink. I never knew she was so beautiful. Her smooth skin glistened like silk beneath her black halter top, and a thick black choker adorned her long elegant neck. Yes, my father’s youngest sister had come a long way from the two bedroom apartment she occupied with eight siblings, on the wrong side of the tracks.
“We haven’t thrown a party in ages, so you’ve arrived at the perfect time,” said Shabana giving me a hug. I gave her a nervous smile wondering what everyone would think of me, hoping my pedestrian background would not emerge too quickly or too prominently.
The other guests were clustered around the room in herds casually grazing on the hors- d’oeuvre being passed around by waiters – creamy artichoke and spinach tartlets, salmon wasabi skewers and citrus infused crab cakes. My mouth began to water. I must have looked as hungry as I felt because the next thing she said was, “You must be starving. Help yourself to the appetizers. The poached pear brie and stuffed oysters are to die for. There are also platters of sushi scattered about the room,” she added signaling towards the help.
“Thanks,” I said sampling one of each.
I had to admit she had done well. She looked perfect everything looked perfect. Yet something nagged at the back of my mind, something I couldn’t explain – a stiffness in her smile, a crinkle in the side of her eyes, a carefully concealed worry line. I began to wonder…wasn’t this the life she always wanted?
“Come let me introduce you to everyone,” said Shabana taking my arm and guiding me around the room. Shabana chit-chatted endlessly, with people of different ethnicities, accents and languages, occasionally pausing to ask me questions about relatives, when a flamboyant looking man caught my eye. Out of all the guests he seemed the most in his element, as if he were born to attend these parties. He smiled at my aunt as he saw us approach.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Funny, you should ask,” she sad. “That’s one of my husband’s oldest friends.”
“Imran, have you met my niece Sidra?”
“No, I haven’t. It’s a pleasure,” he said. Although he was clearly Pakistani I could detect traces of a British accent indicating that he was not born in this country like I was. Imran politely inquired about my research before turning his attention back to Shabana. They chuckled at some private joke and he gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“He’s way more flirtatious when his wife not around,” she said.
“Why… Doesn’t he like her?” I inquired.
“Oh, he does like her, perhaps a little too much. You see Imran made the mistake of falling for someone a couple notches above him on the social ladder. Though, I think he’s starting to regret it. She never comes to these parties… Now Imran spends much of his time trying to live up to his in-laws.
“Oh, how awful,” I said.
“Don’t feel too bad sweetheart, fortunately he’s in hedge funds and he’s raking it in…,” explained Shabana in the mater-of-fact-way you speak to a younger, slightly retarded sister.
In many ways Shabana was the sister I never had – and the teenaged daughter my parents never bargained for. She wore too much make-up, she smoked too much pot and she never did well in school… though she always had time for me and thus left an imprint on my life that was difficult to erase. I understood better than anyone why she craved excitement. The town she came from was as grey as steel and as devoid of glamour as the factories it was based around. My parents hoped she would give college a chance. She left the day after graduation, she never came back.
In time she would be better than o.k. I would be sitting in front of the T.V. flipping through magazines (when I should’ve been doing my homework) and I’d come across a model that bared a striking resemblance to my aunt – wedged in between a beautiful blonde and a beautiful red head. Even though I was ten at the time I knew it was her. She had the same wild eyes - like an animal that had been caged too long. Those eyes would become her trademark and eventually launch her career when she became the face of a hot new cosmetics company.
Excited by my discovery I called my mother.
“Mom…mooomm.” She could never hear me when she was in the kitchen.
“Mom, look,” I said. “It’s auntie.”
My mom came out of the kitchen looking tired after putting in so many hours of overtime. She looked at the picture squinting a bit.
“Are you sure?” she said in disbelief.
“Oh my God it is her…” she said and now I could hear the disapproval in her voice and then it hit me, my aunt was in an ad for Hanes underwear – exposing skin was a big no, no in my traditional family.
I had not thought about that day in ages, not until I saw the woman on the balcony wearing the tight cocktail dress and oozing the glamour and confidence of an underwear model. She was surrounded by a group of people. Moving towards them I caught snippets of conversation. They were talking about a movie that I couldn’t quite place, though I recognized the names of some well known producers and directors and that’s when Shabana leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“She’s had some pretty crappy parts in some really big movies, but it’s enough to get her into all the Hollywood parties,” and then said a little louder, “her last movie was with Robert Deniro.” The woman looked up from her conversation giving me a dazzling smile, looking every bit the diva.
“Wow, you’ve met Robert Deniro?” I said. “I love his stuff. He’s a legend.”
“Bobby, he’s great…” The woman replied nonchalantly, “love working with him. Come down to the set sweetie, I’ll show you around sometime.”
“Wow, you’ve met Robert Deniro?” I said. “I love his stuff. He’s a legend.” “Bobby, he’s great…” The woman replied nonchalantly, “love working with him. Come down to the set sweetie, I’ll show you around sometime.”
I smiled and looked at my aunt. Shabana did not seem impressed. There was something about the way two women interacted that made me wonder it they were really friends. As a child I had memorized all of Shabana’s looks and gestures. I still recognized a few. Shabana gave her that frozen plasticy smile she saved for irritating relatives. The woman also addressed my aunt coolly but Shabana seemed unfazed. The anxiousness of her youth had solidified into something that resembled confidence and resignation.
I suspect now that the many writers, academics and playwrights invited that day were largely for my benefit though they seemed to pale in comparison to the Hollywood types. Shabana, though she never cared for education herself always did what she could to encourage mine taking me around making sure that I was introduced to those affiliated with Columbia or Princeton or NYU.
“Sidra, honey,” she would say Shabana. “Since you’re checking out grad schools, you should definitely meet Anne.” She’s a professor at Columbia. You’ve got to tell her about your interests.”
Shabana would be right. Anne would be exactly the type of person I needed to talk to and I was about to go thank Shabana for introducing us when I bumped into a very elegant looking woman.
“Oops I didn’t see you,” I said.
“That’s alright,” she said coolly while she dusted off her designer outfit that prominently displayed labels from head to toe. I had noticed her and her husband mingling they seemed to be best friends with just about everyone here. They were both obviously glamed up for the party especially the woman – heavily make-uped and heavily jeweled. I gave the woman one of my sweetest smiles but she walked off unimpressed.
“That’s Seema,” said Shabana giving me a sympathetic look.
“She seems pretty stuck-up,” I commented.
“She and her husband Sohail are huge yuppies. They spend a lot to keep up appearance but unfortunately they don’t have the means to back it up.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean their luxury condo is rented, their high-end cars are leased. If they actually lived on what they could afford, I don’t think they would be much better off than you.”
“You definitely have an interesting group of friends – a little intimidating but nice all the same,” I said.
Shabana took her time to respond. When she did her voice had more bitterness in it than I had anticipated.
“They’re really more my husband’s friends than people I associate with. Don’t let them intimidate you… by the way where is my other half? Oh, there he is in the corner talking to all the entrepreneurs and venture capitalist trying to pitch his next great idea.”
I looked over to see a handsome man, a little understated in a discussion with a group of people. Although they hadn’t interacted much during the party, when she looked at him I could tell, she loved him… once.
“He throws these parties because it’s a good way to make money. He’s the consummate social climber,” then she added, “…and I’m his trusty sidekick, so don’t feel bad if you don’t always fit in sweetheart - in many ways neither do I.”