Bianca White, dressed in cream, was the first to arrive. All morning, she’d been looking forward to her lunch date with Ainsley Burton. In addition to being Bianca’s estranged best friend, Ainsley was the daughter of Bianca’s father’s vanquished presidential opponent, Marjorie Burton. And it was Bianca’s fervent hope that, over chopped salads and filet mignon at White International Hotel—Washington, D.C., she and Ainsley might restore a sense of equilibrium between their two families that had been lamentably lost over the past two years.
Ainsley arrived minutes later. “Hey,” she said. Bianca rose from her chair, tilting her head in a manner that she hoped conveyed a winning combination of warmth, loyalty, and alacrity, mediated by the tiniest hint of regret for the obstacles that had been unwittingly placed in their mutual path.
“Ainsley!” Bianca replied. “It has been too long. You look wonderful, as always!”
If only it were true. In fact, Bianca found herself instantly filled with opprobrium regarding the fact that her old friend appeared to be aging naturally. Why Ainsley had not had the laugh lines around her mouth injected with hyaluronic acid filler, Bianca couldn’t begin to understand. While it was true that, by definition, appearances were superficial, it also couldn’t be denied that first impressions made an impression. Bianca considered personal presentation to be an essential component of both her business and her life strategies. She leaned toward Ainsley’s left cheek, puckered her lips, briefly retreated, then reapproached Ainsley on the right side with a similar gambit.
“Oh, please—but thanks,” Ainsley said, sitting down, then pulling in her chair with a screech. (Alarmed that Ainsley might be scratching the fine Italian terra-cotta tile that Bianca had personally selected for the second-floor steak house, Bianca couldn’t help but flinch.) “Anyway,” Ainsley continued, “here we are.” As she placed her napkin in her lap, she flashed Bianca a tight and not entirely warm smile that Bianca picked up on immediately. She wondered to herself whether Ainsley was still angry about the fact that, during the election season, Bianca’s father was perhaps somewhat less respectful toward Ainsley’s mother than he might have been. And, of course, there had been some unfortunate, long-term consequences. But while in hindsight, Bianca wished her father had found a different means of expressing his conviction that new leadership was needed at the country’s helm—in fact, thanks to Daddy, unemployment was at an all-time low—energy was a necessary component of all impactful campaigns, whether in fashion, real estate, or politics (Bianca’s three areas of expertise). And no one could deny that when Ronald White invoked Marjorie’s name, followed by a synonym for “the big house,” it invigorated his followers. Really, he had no personal animosity toward the woman. Surely, Ainsley knew this—and also that Bianca loved her father with the same sense of admiration, respect, and protective pity that Ainsley felt for her mother, who had lost the election twenty-four months before.
“Ainsley,” Bianca replied, “let me first say how tremendously happy I am that you agreed to meet me for lunch. I have been intending to connect with you all year. But my schedule got away from me. Tell me first: How are your precious little ones?”
Insofar as they were universally understood to be cute, children were, of course, a safe topic.
“They’re great. How are yours?” Ainsley answered sourly.
“As delicious and impossible as ever!” said Bianca. Yet it was in that moment that she realized her friendship with Ainsley Burton had truly suffered a bifurcation. Despite the two women’s extensive commonalities, from their famously virile fathers who’d been led astray in middle age by visually sub-optimum younger women to their upstanding Jewish husbands whose fathers were unfairly incarcerated for minor legal oversights, the two women’s shared aversion to spending long days with their children had always been their strongest link. Not that either one of them would ever have willingly divulged such preferences in public. But not very long ago, they’d admitted such things freely to each other.
They’d shared other intimacies as well. Bianca still fondly recalled the two of them breaking the Sabbath together at her classic six on Park, martinis jiggling in their hands and babies bouncing on their knees, while, giggling and intoxicated, they’d compared their husbands’ sexual predilections.
The sad truth was that, whether on account of time constraints or inclination, Bianca didn’t currently possess any close female friends. There wasn’t time. Perhaps there wasn’t inclination, either. Though she felt warmly toward her personal trainer (Maude) and hairdresser (Ling).
Leaning forward in her seat, she gazed into her old friend’s eyes and said, “Ainsley, before we proceed, I just want to articulate that I have missed you tremendously.” No sooner had Bianca uttered the words, however, than she became concerned that Ainsley would interpret the sentiment as a concession of some kind. If Bianca’s father had taught Bianca anything in life, it was that winners did not apologize.
“Thank you for saying that,” replied Ainsley, displaying the flicker of an actual smile, which gave Bianca hope. “But I just have to say that, given everything that’s happened, it’s not easy for me to sit here.”
Anger and irritation swelled inside Bianca: Ainsley was acting so ungraciously! Suddenly, Bianca felt like getting up and leaving. She resisted the urge, but only just. “I am tremendously sorry you feel that way,” she said, grinning fraudulently at her former friend, “but before we further grapple with the subject at hand, will you excuse me for a moment?” Laying her hand on the arm of Ainsley’s woefully androgynous button-down, Bianca stood up and said, “I desperately need to utilize the ladies’ room.”
“Of course,” said Ainsley.
As she decided to walk to the bathroom, Bianca wondered why she had arranged the lunch. But then she reminded herself that it was to promulgate the compelling storyline that she was a woman for whom friendship was more important than politics. In fact, she’d intended to use this very line when she called Page Six that afternoon to plant a story about their meeting. Though she was also confident that someone in the restaurant would snap a picture of the two of them and upload it to Instagram, ideally accompanied by hashtags that referenced Bianca’s beauty, power, and grace (as opposed to her lack of qualifications, failure to have accomplished anything of note, and extensive surgical procedures). Bianca was photographed everywhere she went. For this reason, she carefully negotiated her fringe-bow, pointed-toe, high-heel pumps (designed by Bianca herself and currently on sale at Century 21 for $49.99) out from under the table, rose to her feet, and began a leisurely stroll to the restrooms.
Another invaluable lesson that Ronald White had imparted to his only daughter at an early age was that even if one’s eponymous fashion line was being “discontinued,” and even if Daddy’s chief of staff had recently urged one to keep a lower profile due to bad polling numbers, there was never a bad time or place to promote oneself and one’s brand.
Yet, as Bianca ambled, she was beset by a brief moment of self-doubt: Were her DD breast implants too large for her frame and, as such, did they convey the wrong impression? That is, did she look more like one of her father’s special ex-porn star friends en route to a dollar store in Tampa than a genuine Park Avenue princess on her way to a trunk show at Van Cleef & Arpels? But no, that was impossible!
Just then, Bianca became aware that multiple diners were busy capturing her image on their phones. Bianca’s confidence restored, she smiled to herself. Her security detail followed, albeit at a respectful distance.
After Bianca left the table, Ainsley took a deep breath and imagined—in the words of her new meditation coach, Harris—“pulling energy in from the earth.” Since the election, she had been working with him on the concepts of centering and grounding, both of which Ainsley considered to be semi-bogus. Also, with his shiny pate and beady eyes, Harris looked vaguely like a serial killer. Nonetheless, she was willing to try anything that held out the promise of improving her terrible mood.
Ainsley had spent her entire adult life honing her image as a regular, reasonable, well-regulated kind of person, the kind who used words like “Mom,” “gosh,” and “gee,” and who could make small talk about neutral subjects like the weather while waiting in line for a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks. At times, she’d even come to believe she was that person. Yet if the events of the previous two years had taught Ainsley anything about herself, it was that at heart she was an expletive-hurling geyser of anguish and bile who possessed an overwhelming urge to trip and sucker-punch every asshole who walked by her on the street.
Suddenly, Ainsley couldn’t even remember how long she was supposed to hold in her breath before she exhaled through her nose. Four seconds? Six? Eight? (Did it even matter?) In any case, yoga breathing wasn’t helping. Sitting there, waiting for her former best friend to piss fine perfume out of her delicately tapered urethra, Ainsley thought she might spontaneously combust into flames of frustration and rage.
She just couldn’t get past the notion that, thanks to slander, innuendo, and Chinese bots spreading lies about her mother being Frankenstein’s bride, the White family had cheated her mother and, by extension, Ainsley herself out of a third term of the US presidency. (Ainsley’s father, Bob Burton, had held the office for eight years a decade earlier.) What’s more, Marjorie Burton was now in jail, and Ronald White was in the White House, which he’d recently renamed the Ronald White House. Even though Ainsley and Bianca had been close for seven years prior to the election campaign, it was hard for Ainsley not to hold her old friend responsible for the betrayal. The fact that Bianca could now sit across from Ainsley, ask about her children, and act as if nothing was wrong was jaw-dropping, really. Also, Bianca didn’t use contractions, such as “I’ve,” “isn’t,” “can’t,” and “don’t,” which drove Ainsley up the fucking wall.
Ainsley wasn’t even sure why she’d accepted Bianca’s invitation to lunch—and at Bianca’s family’s conflict-of-interest-steeped hotel, which had been financed by gangsters from Uzbekistan. Or was it Kazakhstan? Ainsley had never quite gotten her “stans” clear—and she was pretty sure that Ronald White hadn’t either. He didn’t care. He’d take money from anyone. I could have at least insisted on another venue, Ainsley thought to herself.
Then again, Ainsley knew that Bianca was her only hope for securing her mother’s release. Three months earlier, a federal judge had sentenced Marjorie to ten years for accepting hefty donations to the family’s charitable foundation from the Indian Ocean island archipelago of Seychelles (population: 94,000) in return for a favorable trade agreement. At the time, Marjorie had been secretary of commerce in the Black Administration. Never mind that no one even knew how to pronounce Seychelles. (Did it sound more like “seashells” or “satchels”?) Now she was killing time in a federal prison in western Connecticut.
In the view of Ainsley and her family, as well as most members of the mainstream media, the case against Marjorie Burton should never have been brought. Although the Burton Foundation had accepted large sums of money from various oversea sources of dubious provenance, concrete evidence of a quid pro quo had never been found. But the White Justice Department had prosecuted the case anyway. And the Wolf News Network had devoted at least four hours a day to promoting it. At the end of a three-week trial, the jury had found Marjorie not guilty of thirteen of the fifteen counts but guilty of the other two, and a federal judge newly appointed by President White had imposed the maximum sentence of ten years in jail. Even with good behavior and parole, Marjorie was looking at serving at least seven years behind bars, unless Ainsley could persuade Bianca to persuade her father to issue a pardon.
Ainsley knew she had to make the effort, even though secretly she felt somewhat liberated by her mother’s incarceration and regarded it as a relief that her mother was no longer in her life on a day-to-day basis, sucking up all the air in every room and leaving Ainsley gasping for stray oxygen molecules. Plus, as long as her mother was in jail, she didn’t have to listen to Marjorie’s oft-repeated Midwestern bromides about “hard work” and “good neighbors,” which she managed to combine with shame-free platitudes about “those people” who spent their spare time “watching Wolf News while under the influence of opiates” when not “spending their Friday paychecks on plastic crap at Walmart.” It wasn’t that Ainsley necessarily disagreed with this assessment. But at least she made an effort to disguise her snobbery and elitism.
Finally, with Marjorie confined in another state, Ainsley was spared the daily agony of reliving the night of the election, when Ronald White had defied the polls to eke out a narrow victory in the Electoral College. Ainsley knew she would never forget the aura of shock and disbelief that hung over their sixteenth-floor “family suite” at the Marriott that evening, where Ainsley and her parents, seated side by side on a brown velour sectional, had watched the returns come in, while various advisers stood nearby whispering into their phones. As one by one the states on the board began to turn crimson, like wounds filling with fresh blood, Ainsley had racked her brain for something uplifting to say. But just as in the nightmares she’d had as a young child, when a flesh-eating monster would appear at the top of the attic stairs licking his lips, she’d been so stricken by terror that she couldn’t even scream.
Ainsley exhaled, then glanced around her. What she saw was hardly novel—namely, tables of strangers whispering among themselves and shooting “discreet” glances in her direction. As if she wouldn’t notice their iPhones angled toward her. Since Ainsley had been a household name pretty much her entire life, she was usually unfazed by the attention. When she was born, her father had been the governor of Kentucky, and her baby photo, taken two minutes after her arrival on earth, had been plastered across the cover of the state’s biggest newspaper. Being Ainsley Burton, as she’d remarked to her husband early in their relationship, when she was trying to explain the tragicomedy of her life, was a little like being part of the permanent collection at a natural history museum featuring dioramas filled with depictions of loinclothed early man.
And yet, she’d never fully ceased to find the invasion of her personal space an affront. It was one thing to be at a town hall meeting with her mother and have people gawking at her, another to be at an intimate lunch. Or was Ainsley kidding herself? Was there really any difference? And was the lack of privacy simply the price one paid for power?
The truth was that, with the possible exception of the two years she’d spent in the UK working on her doctorate—the London-based tabloids mostly left her alone—Ainsley wasn’t sure what it would even feel like to be anonymous, or if she’d find it comfortable or enjoyable. Maybe if everyone forgot about her, she’d feel as if she didn’t exist. The somewhat paradoxical part of having been famous for as long as she had was that she’d never developed a particularly strong sense of self. If history remembered her at all, Ainsley suspected, it would likely be as Their Daughter. That was really the only identity she’d ever had. Marriage, motherhood, various advanced degrees, several official appointments—none of these things had changed the equation. Shortly before she’d wed her husband, Mike, five years earlier, Ainsley had briefly considered changing her last name to his (Levy), just as her mother had begrudgingly gone from being a Dunlap to a Burton in the late 1980s, the first time her father ran for governor and her mother was being attacked in all the state papers for being too much her own woman. But in the end, Ainsley had decided not to bother, not just because of the feminist implications but because she doubted her new surname would have stuck. No one was going to be fooled by her becoming Ainsley Levy—least of all Ainsley.
She was perfectly aware that many people believed she’d spent her adult life profiting off her family’s name and connections. To Ainsley’s mind, this wasn’t a fair perception. Likewise, if it was power she now sought—yes, Ainsley was thinking of running for office at some point in the near future—it was the power to make a difference. (Mostly if not entirely.) Ainsley simply couldn’t understand why people were so mean about it when she raised the idea of occupying a political office of her own. Some families were in the cement business, others in dry cleaning (or real estate). Hers was in politics—just like the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Gores, and the Cuomos. America was a dynastic country. Why should the Burtons be different?
Compared with Bianca, Ainsley thought to herself, she was a selfless philanthropist. Just last year, she’d published a book for young people on the contributions to science by disabled women of color. Bianca, on the other hand, never even pretended to have a noncapitalist motive for anything she did. And yet, in the run-up to the presidential election, Bianca, whose crowning achievement to date had been to lend her name to a bunch of shoddy handbags sewn in Indonesian sweatshops that paid their workers sixty bucks a month, had somehow been hailed as an “entrepreneur” and an advocate for female empowerment, while Ainsley’s attempts to raise money to fight cholera had been dismissed as the corrupt flailings of a spoiled daughter in possession of a sinecure.
Just then, Ainsley’s phone pinged. After fishing it out of her bag, she held the screen to the light. Incoming was a new text from her nanny, Rihanna, about what her kids had eaten for lunch. Maybe it was neurotic of her, but Ainsley liked to keep tabs. “Great—thanks,” she wrote back, a thumbs-up emoji tacked onto the end. Except, when she looked at it again, she realized she’d texted the middle-finger emoji.
“OH MY GOD I AM SORRY THAT WAS AN ACCIDENT!” she furiously typed. “Meant to send normal thumbs-up.”
Rihanna answered, “N.P.” But did she mean it? What if Rihanna were mortally offended? Ever since election night, Ainsley had begun to suspect that none of the people who worked for her family, including her parents’ political advisers, ever told them the truth. For that matter, no one in her immediate family ever communicated his or her true feelings—except, of course, when it was her mother telling her father, when Ainsley was eighteen, that he was a lying, cheating piece of shit. Fortunately, it had been a few years since Marjorie had issued one of those tirades. Her father’s heart condition had made philandering a more challenging undertaking. And now Ainsley’s mother had no way of knowing what her husband was up to, since she was in prison, and Bob Burton had fallen into a depression and, as far as Ainsley knew, spent his days golfing on Jupiter Island with his celebrity friends.
Ainsley opened Twitter to check her notifications.
Earlier that morning, she’d tweeted out, “Transphobia has no place in the classroom or anywhere else,” with a link to an article about a trans girl-to-boy in Iowa who’d been bullied by his middle school classmates into attempting suicide. If nothing Ainsley tweeted ever seemed all that original or clever, then shocking and titillating her audience had never been her goal. Rather, she prided herself on regurgitating received wisdom and liberal pieties in new and pithy ways, especially on the subject of identity politics. To do so made her feel moral and relevant. Plus, in the back of Ainsley’s mind, she hoped the posturing might distract others from the uncomfortable fact that she and her husband lived like royalty yet had no obvious source of income. In any event, Ainsley was gratified to see that her transphobia tweet had garnered five thousand retweets and fifteen thousand likes.
Next she checked to see if President White had tweeted anything egregious, outrageous, or just plain unhinged since the last time she looked. He had. Ten minutes earlier, referencing a rally of Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists that had gathered on the Mall in Washington, he’d written, “Honest, hard-working Americans have the right to congregate for Causes they believe in! #1stAmendment.”
Ainsley was disgusted and outraged at the president’s refusal to condemn these terrible individuals. At the same time, she realized it afforded her a good opportunity for a scathing social media post. After hitting the retweet button, she typed into the “add a comment” section: “Mr. President, With all due respect, racism is not a ‘cause.’ It’s a cancer.”
Ainsley felt a surge of adrenaline, or maybe it was dopamine, coursing through her. She sensed this one would get a big response.
Just then, Bianca’s giraffe-like form reappeared in Ainsley’s visual field. Ainsley felt her whole body tensing up—the dopamine had apparently run its course—and she had to remind herself to breathe normally. As she did so, she thought back to the night she and Bianca had met. Ainsley often wondered if Bianca’s befriending her, some five years before her father announced his candidacy, had been a calculated move on Bianca’s part to neutralize her opponent even before Ainsley realized she was one.
She could still picture Bianca walking toward her, all spun-gold Rapunzel hair, dark flashing eyes, and projectile bosom. They were both at an all-women networking event/cocktail party at newscaster Leslie Winter’s chintz, gilt, and chinoiserie palace on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park. The candlesticks had sterling silver ghouls at their bases. The waiters were wearing waistcoats and gloves, like lawn jockeys come to life. All around Ainsley, women seemed to be puckering their lips, extending their chicken necks, and leaning toward one another, while Leslie’s fleet of furry white-and-ginger Havanese lapdogs were scampering across the floor and, in one case, licking the toes of someone’s open-toed Louboutins. Leslie herself was gliding around like an ice skater doing figure eights, making sure everyone had something to drink and someone to talk to. She was already quite old, and if you looked closely you could see the stitch marks from her latest facelift through her thinning and coiffed dome of silver-blond hair. But she was still regal in her way. A lifetime of being on-air had taught her how to carry herself.
“Am I interrupting?” Bianca began in a throaty, staccato baritone.
Gazing into Bianca’s perfectly unblemished, oval-shaped face, Ainsley was reminded of nothing so much as an elongated molded-plastic toilet seat in bone. Bianca appeared to be wearing some kind of deep-V wrap dress that would have looked like Harvey Weinstein’s bathrobe on anyone but her and stilettos rendering her so tall that, in conjunction with her narrow hips and wide shoulders, she bore the faintest resemblance to a drag queen. Or maybe it was just that Bianca looked less like a woman than the Platonic ideal of one as pictured by a seventh-grade boy. “Not at all,” Ainsley said, smiling.
“It seems as if every person in the New York metropolitan area, including my own husband, believes we are literally the same person and need to become best friends immediately,” Bianca enthused. “So I thought we ought to at least meet.” She stuck out her hand and, although there was no need for Bianca to introduce herself, given that she was a regular both on her father’s reality TV show and in fashion and lifestyle magazines, said, “Bianca White.”
“Fair enough,” Ainsley replied with a quick laugh. “And nice to meet you.” She extended her own hand to meet Bianca’s and said, “Ainsley Burton.” Besides, if Ainsley had a brand, it was being unpretentious. Indeed, it was a point of pride that, as exceptional a life as she’d led, she was just like everyone else. Or at least she preferred to give that impression. It was the reason she purposefully wore the most nondescript clothes she could find.
“Oh, my God,” said Bianca, eyes widening as she peered into Ainsley’s face. “How on earth did you get such gi-nor-mous blue eyes? You are so impossibly lucky.”
They both knew it was a pantomime—and also who the Beautiful One was—but sure, let’s play pretend, Ainsley thought. Even so and despite her better instincts, Ainsley found herself flattered. “I don’t know about that,” she told Bianca with a light laugh. “But thanks.”
“You are hilarious, too,” Bianca went on. “Let us get inebriated and tell each other our deepest, darkest secrets. Thursday evening. My house. Say yes. I will send my driver.” She smiled mischievously at Ainsley. Before Ainsley could answer or protest, Bianca switched gears. “But first, I must cop a feel!” For a split second, Ainsley thought Bianca was going to reach out and touch her breasts. Instead, she leaned down, blond mane falling over her shoulders, and scooped one of Leslie’s fluffy white dogs up and off the floor.
Cradling the dog in her arms, Bianca began to run her immaculate whisper-pink nails down the back of its head, whereupon the entranced animal bore its hideous jagged teeth and emitted a strange guttural sound that reminded Ainsley of her husband right before he came.
“Look at that, he’s totally in love with you,” Ainsley volunteered.
Even the dogs were taken in that night, she later concluded.
Bianca restretched her sleeveless sheath dress around her shapely backside and sat down at the restaurant table. She smelled of lavender and newly minted hundred-dollar bills. “So, you must tell me what you have been up to!” she said, blinking and smiling broadly at Ainsley, as if their brief but tense pre-ladies’ room exchange had never occurred. “I want to hear everything.”
The whole world knew exactly what Bianca White had been up to lately—namely, helping her father upend democratic norms, destroy civil society, and bring the country to the brink of civil war. “Me? Just the usual craziness,” Ainsley replied. But it was a lie. The truth was that both she and Mike had been counting on Marjorie becoming president and were now struggling to fill their days. In fact, Ainsley had imagined herself sitting in the very West Wing office that Bianca was rumored to occupy, working on some kind of antipoverty initiative whose name included the word “global” and that would allow her to travel to faraway conferences and sit on stages with Bono sipping Evian. Meanwhile, Mike had been planning to open a new investment fund with the help of some of Marjorie and Bob’s biggest donors. Evidently, they were willing to overlook the fact that, in Mike’s last go-around in the hedge fund world, he’d lost nearly all his clients’ money by making bullish bets on the Venezuelan economy. It had been an unfortunate turn of events that Ainsley took pains to avoid bringing up with her husband, for whom the whole affair was clearly still a sore point.
It was a sore point for Ainsley that Mike didn’t currently have a job. Was it too much to expect that he go out into the world and forge his own connections, separate from the Burton family? There had been a recent and brief foray into small-batch ice cream, but that hadn’t worked out, either. Nor did Ainsley have any idea what her husband currently did all day long behind the shut door of his home office. At this point, all she could hope was that it didn’t involve Pornhub.
But maybe she was being too harsh. Even though she was getting close to forty, Ainsley wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing with her life either. Following her mother’s indictment, the Burton Foundation, once Ainsley’s main gig, had been shut down. “I’m actually producing a PSA about gender-nonbinary children living on reservations,” Ainsley told Bianca, “and how decisions regarding their bodily autonomy should be left to their tribal elders, not imposed by the patriarchal Western medical establishment.”
“Forgive me—I am not following,” said Bianca. “Reservations for hotels or restaurants?”
“No, Native American reservations,” said Ainsley.
“Oh, of course.” Bianca nodded respectfully.
Ainsley was relieved Bianca didn’t ask for any more details, since for now at least the film existed only in Ainsley’s imagination. “And I just joined the board of”—she name-checked a Fortune 500 company whose CEO was a close friend of her father’s—“and I’ve got about two thousand documents to go through for their board meeting next week in Houston.” In fact, there were actually only a couple of pages to go through, and four meetings per year. For that they paid Ainsley a six-figure salary. Which made her feel the teeniest, tiniest bit uncomfortable.
And for all the interviews Ainsley had given about how much she loved being a mom, the truth was that she couldn’t wait until her kids grew up so that she could have intelligent conversations with them that were about something other than princesses and toy trains. Of course, she would have jumped in front of an actual train to save either one of them. But after four minutes of sitting on the floor making chuca-chuca noises, she sometimes felt like dying of boredom. She really only enjoyed spending time with them in the company of “Grandma,” whose visible joy at their existence proved semi-contagious and provided a kind of trick mirror to her own weariness. But Grandma wasn’t currently around.
“I imagine you’ve got your hands full as well,” Ainsley said to Bianca, then wished she hadn’t.
“That is indeed true,” Bianca faux-sighed. “I am actually leaving for Berlin on Monday to meet with the chancellor regarding a women’s business initiative I am launching with the IMF.”
Well, aren’t you fucking important now, Ainsley thought but refrained from saying out loud. Instead, she quipped, “Oh, cool,” while nodding her head. “I’m sure that’ll be interesting.”
“To be sure,” said Bianca. “Anyway—shall we look at the menu? I am beyond starving.”
“As you may remember, I’m always happy to eat,” Ainsley mumbled in reply, then hated herself for having said so. She might as well have been wearing a sign pinned to her back reading, “Desperate Loser Who Drowns Her Sorrows in Food.” Why was she always putting herself down? Maybe it was because she’d spent a lifetime listening to others criticizing her. To Ainsley’s enduring consternation, when you googled her full name, the first thing that came up was the obscene cost of her Manhattan apartment. She understood why others might think it was tasteless that her and Mike’s condo spanned an entire city block while there was a homeless crisis going on, but it wasn’t as if Ainsley didn’t appreciate how lucky she was. (She did.) And her family had been growing. They needed more bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets. Was she really expected to be slumming it? While no one wanted to say it out loud, there were always going to be poor people and better-off people, unless you got rid of capitalism completely, and no one was in favor of that. Or at least no one Ainsley had ever met. Well, maybe except for Bernie Fucking Sanders.
Besides, no one ever knocked Bianca for living in the lap of luxury. Somehow, it was okay for her to live in a $10 million penthouse because her father owned the building but not okay for Ainsley’s parents to help their only child purchase a family-size apartment as a wedding gift. Or maybe it was just that no one could imagine that anyone who had hair and skin as nice as Bianca’s could possibly be evil. Ainsley was once again seized by rage. “Back to what I was saying before,” she said quietly. “It isn’t easy for me to sit here.”
“No—I understand,” said Bianca, nodding her head dutifully. “It makes sense—that you would feel aggrieved on some level. But alas, someone must win and someone must lose. That is the nature of competition! I wish it were otherwise.” She smiled congenially.
“I don’t feel hurt because my mother lost the election,” Ainsley said carefully.
“Well, what is it then?” asked Bianca, eyebrows up near her hairline, lips pursed. As if she didn’t get it. But that was impossible. She was an intelligent woman, Ainsley thought. There was no way she didn’t understand.
“It’s that your dad got the FBI to investigate my mother after he won,” Ainsley hissed, “which ultimately led to her conviction and imprisonment on a bullshit charge by a right-wing judge from the Federalist Society. That’s not okay. This is supposed to be a democracy, not a Central American dictatorship. Here in America we don’t put our political opponents in jail. Or at least we didn’t used to. Plus, you claim to care about women and women’s issues, yet every step of the way you’ve gone along with your father’s platform, which advocates separating undocumented mothers from children and packing the courts with right-wing ideologues who want to curb women’s reproductive rights. Never mind that you actively campaigned to prevent our country from having its first female president.”
There was silence at the table. It occurred to Ainsley that, quite possibly, other diners were listening in. Although as a general rule she was keen to keep her private conversations from public view, at that moment she didn’t care. Let anyone quote her who wanted to do so, she thought.
“I understand why you might perceive the situation that way,” Bianca said slowly. “But my father has the utmost respect for women. There have always been many high-ranking females at the White Corporation. And now there are many at the Ronald White House as well. I chose not to support your mother for president not simply out of loyalty to my family but because I truly believed and continue to believe that my father’s policies and experience are better suited to fostering a robust, pro-business environment that will ultimately empower female entrepreneurs. Do I agree with everything he says and does? Of course not. But I believe he is a person who wants the best for America. Also, my father did not imprison your mother. He may have alluded to his desire to do so during rallies and debates, but it was as much a rhetorical device as anything else. Ultimately, it was a jury of citizens who found her guilty. And Judge Lawton, who presided over the trial, is an eminent jurist. My father would have respected any verdict that was delivered.”
Every bone in Ainsley’s body longed to reach across the table, wrap her doughy hands around Bianca’s swan neck, and squeeze until the last breath was sucked out of her. To prevent herself from doing so, and because women like Ainsley had been raised to be nice, polite, respectful, and good-natured, and to not make a scene, she sat on her hands, smiled hostilely back at Bianca, and said, “Right.” Also, she still needed Bianca on her side. “Well, to be perfectly honest, the main reason I accepted your invitation to lunch today was to ask you—a woman whom I once counted among my closest friends in life—to ask your father to overturn that supposedly impartial verdict and pardon my mother, not just for the good of my family but for the good of democracy.”
Bianca’s face froze. She looked as if she’d been asked to scrub a urinal. Curling her nose in distaste, she announced, “I will make inquiries. But I cannot promise anything. I have only limited say over my father.”
“Thank you,” said Ainsley, who had no reason to believe that her entreaties would lead anywhere. But at least later she could say she’d tried. “It would be appreciated. And if you don’t mind, I’ll follow up in a week or two. I assume you’re still using your BJFamily.com email address?”
“Yes,” Bianca answered tersely.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite,” said Ainsley, unhooking her handbag from the back of her chair and standing up.
“I thought you said you were always happy to eat,” said Bianca.
“That was before,” Ainsley replied, walking away.
She checked her Twitter account en route to the door. Six thousand likes and counting. (Not bad.)
Ainsley Burton had always been the difficult type, thought Bianca, shaking her head as she dug into her greens. She would do what she could to talk Daddy into pardoning Ainsley’s mother, if only to keep the peace, but her hopes were not high. Daddy believed in the law, except of course when he didn’t. Her father could be capricious that way. In truth, it was not always easy working for him. Then again, it would all be over soon.
After he was impeached, Bianca was planning to quit both Judaism and Jason, both of which bored her to tears, and move her family and staff to Paris. She had always dreamed of trying her hand at writing a novel. And with its rich literary tradition, Montparnasse seemed like the perfect place to do it.
With any luck, Jason would go to jail, making joint custody impossible.
Bianca imagined sitting cross-legged at an outdoor marble bistro table with a wrought-iron base, sipping a double espresso while scribbling in a notebook filled with onionskin paper. She would already have published two non-fiction titles, but her third—a love story set amid the violent convulsions of the Crimean War—would hopefully be the one for which she was remembered. She felt she had things to say about the world and, if immodesty was allowed, an extensive vocabulary with which to say them. n