When I arrived at the Hoffman-Lynch building for my interview, I handed the security guard my Texas ID and received in return a printed pass. Four years ago, my name had been Elián San Jamar. Now my ID read Ethan St. James, a name born of my own willful determination that, despite the conspiracy of my birthright, I should have a second chance in the world. Through these letters I upheld myself to the solemn promise of a new identity that defied the bleakness of my former existence. I thought briefly of my own ghost as I reached out to claim that pass and my rightful destiny. Like a victorious soldier on his passage home, I clutched it and watched the future soar as the battlefield shrunk far behind. This was the long-awaited homecoming.
“When you get to the 12th floor, you can wait in the lobby,” the guard instructed me. “Somebody will come get you.”
I pressed my thin frame against the turnstile, half-expecting that it would press back, then, easily—click!—the metal bar rotated and I was on the other side, one step closer. Black marble underfoot, I stood with a row of elevators on either side of me. Digital panels flashed scarlet numbers as beautiful people were transported to and from the 12th floor, the floor that housed Régine—the only floor of the Hoffman-Lynch building that mattered. I held my breath, trembling hands at my side, trying hopelessly to be discreet as I swiveled around. Peering back toward the lobby, I saw a few women engaged in boring chatter—ordinary-looking, like a bunch of office supplies on a desk. One of them badly needed to re-dye her roots, which looked like the revolving fringe inside a car wash. They had nothing to do with Régine.
An elevator pinged. The chrome gates parted. Raised to an immortal height on Corinthian stilettos, two long all-black pillars towered before me adorned with cell phones and structured handbags, and topped off by white faces like Narcissus flowers.
Now, these—these women had come from Régine.
“—spattered red paint all over her!” exclaimed one, her lips the color of Gorgon’s blood. “Afterward she moaned to the cameras, ‘It’s not even fur—it’s only pony-hair!’” They both laughed as they circled around me, trotting fast. Together, sliding their sunglasses over their eyes, they hit the turnstiles—bam!—and reconvened into a canter, clip-clopping toward the glass revolving door. In a daze, I stepped into the elevator and pushed the button, hardly believing that in a moment I would be rocketed skyward to the heavens from which these beauties had descended.
The only other noteworthy floor of the Hoffman-Lynch building housed Régine’s teenage sister, who sagely reassured high schoolers that they would fit in by pairing their Converse sneakers with 500-dollar dresses. Every other floor existed merely to make the building taller. There were several men’s fashion magazines—widely known ones, I guess—but their intended readership skewed toward hopelessly unfashionable “guy’s guys,” the adult approximation of the neighborhood boys I had grown up with, who had graduated from bouncing around their own basketballs to watching other people do it on TV, and needed to be taught every month how to tie a Windsor knot.
Having long ago mastered the fundamentals of men’s fashion, I was dressed that day in a wine-red suit—one of my favorites—and was trying to decide whether to undo the last jacket button when a woman joined me in the elevator. She was older, with gray hairs drawn into her businesslike bun and a mouth crowded by severe wrinkles. The 12th floor button already radiated, but she pressed it once more for several seconds, as if she believed she could force it to move faster. I never understood why anybody did that, as if without the influential push of their own finger the world would get lazy and forget to rotate.
My excitement rose with the elevator as I gazed at the woman’s impeccable outfit. She wore a black dress shirt and matching pencil skirt, with no frills or fun of any kind, yet unlike my clothes—which, despite being tailored to fit, still gave away their outmoded Salvation Army origins—hers gave that special impression of being very expensive, somehow sewn more precisely with a finer thread on a sharper needle, then selected right off the back of a runway model months in anticipation of the general trend. Her three-inch heels were black patent leather, shiny enough to have been unwrapped from their box that same morning.
“Your shoes,” I gestured, unable to help myself. “Divine.”
She didn’t reply. From the mashing of her thumbs on the keyboard of her cell phone, she could have been playing a game with a timer, but more likely she was preoccupied by something a hundred times more thrilling; an e-mail about ostrich-leather handbags or candidates for the cover of the September issue. I figured then she must not have heard me, so I repeated myself, more clearly, “I like your shoes!,” the words as bright and crisp as a soap bubble.
The elevator pinged at our destination. She turned her face toward the parting doors and said simply, not to me, but to the air before her, “Christian Dior.”
My little bubble spun around, stunned, and quietly burst as she disappeared through a set of glass double doors. On one side of me now loomed a floor-to-ceiling television—showing runway models walking on a loop—and on the other side, a huge red logo: RÉGINE.
I was 10 years old the first time my mother dragged me along to her nail appointment at a local salon called Angelina’s—the one regular indulgence of her otherwise un-glamorous existence. There, beneath an unfading waft of acetone, against the dramatic soundtrack of the afternoon soap opera, I stumbled upon Régine. Around our house, the only magazines were the tabloids my mother piled up by the bathroom toilet, with features titled, “Your favorite stars look just like you without makeup!” Headlines always involved the latest cheating scandals and speculation over surgical procedures, while inside one was sure to find several pages dedicated to which rich and famous women had worn which unflattering dress to some party or award show: on the whole, every kind of stomach-turning, and printed on bad paper.
But Régine reminded me of the illustrated fairy tales I used to check out from the school library. Like all fairy tales, with their stock characters and predictable endings, the magazine had its fair share of faults, not least of which were the celebrity profiles it proudly touted on the front cover. What did it matter to me if the star of some forgettable summer blockbuster had birthed yet another child with her second husband, or that it took her just four months to work off the pregnancy fat? It didn’t matter to me, either, that anybody had attended this or that party, or that they had worn Gucci for the first half, then—surprise!—changed into Dior. And my one enduring question was never answered: What was an anti-wrinkle serum, and why were so many pages dedicated to them?
Once I got past these minor irritations, however, I flipped through one breathtaking picture after another, fingers trembling, my heart throbbing with longing. Régine’s power wasn’t merely in the beauty of its models, with their long, endless legs and little noses that hit the light just right; it was in the whole world they lived in. They could be fanning themselves beneath an arch in a Moorish palace, or frolicking on the beach of some private Caribbean island, yet they were always part of a picture that was perfect and complete—color-coordinated by somebody, with nothing ugly or wrong to mess it up.
Later, as an art history major at Yale, this was what I would love about all my favorite paintings, whether by Renoir or Van Gogh or Pollock. In the space of a canvas, they could create a whole world that was beautiful, and made sense. The best fashion spreads were just like that, only better because they were photo- graphs, taken from actual life; and even though I knew they were staged and airbrushed, they still seemed real, as if I could set out looking for the perfect world they showed and find it. I had inexplicably imagined the Régine office as one of these worlds—women majestically lounging about in magnificent long gowns, lacing up each other’s embroidered corsets, their swanlike necks dripping with the world’s finest jewels.
When at last someone entered the foyer through the glass double doors, she wasn’t wearing a ball gown, but rather an ash-gray sheath and matching sling-back stilettos, and holding a copy of the current Vogue issue while she bit into a green apple.
“Ms. Walker!” I exclaimed.
She looked up at me for one second (that was one second longer than Ms. Christian Dior, from the elevator) and uttered, simply, “No,” before calling the elevator and returning to her magazine.
“I’m sorry.” I recoiled like a gustless paper party horn. “I’m just waiting for Ms. Walker.”
Evidently she had been looking forward to her apple all morning; a series of crunching noises was her response. When she disappeared a second later into the elevator, the fruit was no more than a fragile stem. She tucked it like a bookmark into her magazine, and the doors closed.
A second woman appeared after five minutes (black secretary blouse, black pencil skirt, black kitten heels—not Ms. Walker), and a third another five minutes after her (gray silk jumpsuit, black stilettos—also not Ms. Walker). As I waited, I mentally sifted through all the answers I had practiced the night before, like index cards before a midterm: my accomplishments and my strengths and my career goals, all of which I would share in a humble yet confident tone while also reminding them I went to Yale, Yale, Yale at every opportunity. The only other interviews I’d had were for library posts in high school and college, and both times I’d just entered with a big smile and the fresh-faced ease of a person who has just returned from a summer holiday. But this wasn’t just any interview—it was the most important interview of my life. When Ms. Sabrina Walker asked me about my strengths I was prepared to bubble up, like champagne from a just-uncorked bottle, about my imagination and my great eye for beauty—then, before I came across as too frothy, I would bow my head with a sober crinkle of my brows and add that I also knew how to “get things done,” that I was smart, and resourceful, and had received high marks from all of my professors at Yale.
In my mind, Ms. Walker would nod her head agreeably at this, and smile. Even after observing several of her colleagues in dark monochrome, I inexplicably maintained my belief that, like an angel, she would shine very bright—the hallowed gatekeeper who would admit me to my fashionable destiny. When, after a series of my well-pitched responses, she asked me why I wanted to work at Régine, I would reply, “Because my life’s purpose is to make the world more beautiful,” and she would open her arms to me, with a pearl-like tear in her eye, and say, “Come, child: you belong here,” and the cream-colored lobby would glow like blond hair in a shampoo commercial, and a wreath of laurel would descend from the air onto my head, while around the world everybody laid down their guns and cancelled the bombings and all the hungry children got an organic fruit basket with my name on the calligraphed gift tag.