The train lurched into motion just a she was lifting her foot to adjust her stockings. The sudden movement knocked her off her standing high heeled foot and she stumbled backwards into the man behind her. There was an awkward struggle as she righted herself and when she turned to apologize she saw that she'd dropped her portfolio onto the floor of the crowded subway car and it was flipped open across the foot of the man. He was middle aged, portly and dressed in a cheap suit, sweating through polyester in the heat of an indian summer, glistening rivulets running down is sideburns and into a salt and pepper beard. He bent to pick up the portfolio and looked unapologetically at the open page, which had two tear sheets bearing images of her in lingerie from a department store catalogue slipped in between glossy plastic protectors. He turned to her with raised eyebrows, looked her up and down and handed back the book. "You a model?" he asked in a Long Island accent. She nodded subtly and turned back around, toward the pole she was now clinging to. "You're real pretty. I could see that. I got a niece who does the modeling too. She does the little girl clothes for Sears." She turned her face towards him and acknowledged his address with a thin smile. "Hey. You should let me buy you dinner sometime. I got a friend just opened a new place. It's called Sardi's, it's in east mid town. You eat spaghetti?"
Her face reddened as the man went on, other passengers sneaking side glances at the two of them, wondering how she would respond. "No, thank you." she said softly.
"What are you, too good for me or somethin'? Or you just don't eat. That's probably most of it, right? Can't eat much spaghetti if you wanna look like that." His tone was mocking now, resentment oozing into it. She knew the sound of it too well.
"Oh, no I just have a boyfriend is all." She offered a sweet smile as the train stopped at 34th street and then squeezed quickly through the crowd onto the platform.
"Bitch was too skinny for me anyway. And stuck up on top 'a that." she heard him saying to the passenger next to him as she left.
She climbed out of the concrete depths of the subway onto the busy corner and took out the slip of paper in her pocket. In her own rushed handwriting was a list of addresses accompanied by a contact name or a brand and an appointment time. Espirit 245 W. 17th st. 7th floor, 11am. Express 116 E. 25th St. 5th floor, 12-1pm. Cathy Simon 405 W. 12th. main floor, 12:45pm (don't be late!). Erica Engleson 222 E. 32nd St. Penthouse, 4pm. She had come out of the NW corner instead of the SE so she waited with the throng to cross the intersection. When the lights changed everyone hustled across together and she looked at her feet to be sure she didn't trip over any uneven pavement or lose a heel in a grate. She swore she felt someone put a hand on her ass but when she turned to look everyone around was stone faced and indifferent, rushing to their own meetings or happy hours.
She was still getting used to New York even though it had been close to a year. It was a far cry from her life in Texas, where everything moved slow and steady and everyone drove their own oversized truck. Her dad owned a chain of luxury car dealerships and loved being the star of his own flashy commercials. They lived in a showy mansion in a heavily landscaped neighborhood in Dallas, where everyone had a two car garage but they kept their cars in the driveway just to show off. Her mother was a rhinestone encrusted housewife who's biggest achievement was being the 2nd runner up in the Miss Texas pageant in 1964. She didn't like what pregnancy did to her figure so Cynthia was an only child and she was dressed in sequins and a tiara almost from the womb. She took dance classes her whole life and competed in every major pageant in the state. She had a coach and a tutor and a hairstylist by the time she was eight. Her mother bought her breast implants for her 18th birthday and told her with tears in her eyes at her high school graduation, "Go to New York, honey. Show them how special you are. Do me proud." The idea that Cynthia would be anything other than beautiful for a living was never suggested.
When she finally turned onto the right block on East 32nd Street she took her first deep breath all day. It was her last appointment, she was just one more line and one more snapshot away from taking the train back down to the east village, kicking off her casting pumps and washing off the day. Her roommate, Katya should be home tonight, neither one of them was scheduled to hostess at the tiny restaurant around the corner. No super cool artsy couples complaining about their tiny tables being wobbly, no creepy manager breathing down their necks and asking them how they could possibly be single, no nothing. Maybe they they would take tequila shots form the special bottle Katya stole from the store room at work and go dancing. Maybe they would put on something they had gotten for free off a shoot, and slip into the sleek black arteries of a New York City night, visiting the bars where they knew the doormen and the bartenders so they could skip lines and drink for free and then spend their crumpled one dollar bills on 3am pizza. Just one more block. One more building, one more elevator, one more sign in sheet, one more disdainful look from an underpaid fashion assistant as she tries to zip a sample sized garment over her one half inch bigger than they should be hips and one more flash bulb. Then she would be free.
She found number 222 and walked in. It was an old building, probably built in the 1920's with art deco style tiles on the floor and decorative molding everywhere. She called the elevator, stepped into it's turquoise tile interior and pressed PH. It moved slowly, eight floors passing in front of the round porthole window in front of her. She looked up at herself in the mirrored ceiling and noticed how much her lower back was aching. When the doors opened her heart sank a little. The hallway was lined with girls. Probably 15 or 20 young women, bored and sweating, sitting on the floor along the hall with their long slender limbs splayed out in front of them. Some girls were sitting in pairs or small groups and chatting, others were just staring at themselves in their compact mirrors, adjusting hair or applying lipstick. Cynthia picked her way over skinny legs towards the reception desk to check in. The assistant behind the desk looked like she had walked off a catwalk five years ago and hadn't slept or stopped eating since. Her eyes were ringed with intense black liner, a chain of shiny black plastic triangles hung from her ears, and her hair was chopped into an edgy asymmetrical cut and dyed jet black, contrasting with her extremely pale skin. Her mouth was set in a permanent line of disatisfaction and her black and white striped, shoulder-padded, tailored blazer accentuated her hunched posture, making her look like a fashionable vulture in her desk chair. She was flipping through a portfolio and looking very unimpressed while it's owner stood by, hands folded and meek.
"Okay, I guess you're fine but I'll tell you right now he wants 25" waists for this and he's going to hate that you have roots." The assistant snapped the book shut and the girl opened the door to the next room where even more girls were waiting and a camera was flashing behind a back drop. "Do you need something?"
"Just to sign in." Cynthia stood up straight and made eye contact. The only way to deal with resentful, underpaid gatekeepers such as this was not to show any weakness.
"What time was your appointment?" It was a challenge. She was accusing her of crashing the casting.
"Your name is?"
"Well Cynthia, I'm really sorry but it's actually 4:07 right now, so…looks like you're out of luck. If you want to leave your picture I can be sure to put it in the pile." She stretched her mouth into a thin lipped smile and revealed a smudge of plum color lipstick on her tooth.
Cynthia held eye contact for a moment without saying anything and then glanced down the hall at the line where a few nearby girls had turned their saucer eyes to the desk to watch, expecting a confrontation. She knew if her agency found out she had missed this casting she would get dropped. She had already used her first two strikes getting lost and over sleeping like an idiot. She took a breath and decided to change tactics.
"I'm really sorry, it's just that I'm new in New York still and I walked to West 32nd instead of East, and if I miss this one my agent will kill me. Is it alright if I just stay and wait?"
"The cut off is at 4pm. So…no." The hall had gone eerily silent.
Tears started to well up in her eyes and she could feel herself turning red with shame. She looked down to hide it and pulled a composite out of the back pocket of her book, setting it gently on the desk. The assistant picked it up and flipped it over, reading the measurements.
"Sweetheart, why don't you just keep this for the next one. You're not a size 2. I can tell by looking at you that all of these measurements are lies and Richard totally hates that. It's one of his pet peeves. I tell your agency that all the time."
She held the card out by the corner and it hung in the air while everyone in the room looked at it for an eternal five seconds.
Then Cynthia put her shoulders back, took the card with a nod and strode past the desk, through the door and into the room beyond. The assistant scrambled off her chair and followed her in screeching warnings but Cynthia just kept walking to the front of the line of nervous waifs, straight up to the photographer himself as he snapped photos of a girl in a swimsuit. "Very sexy." he was saying. "But show me something stronger….OK thanks, that will be all." As the girl scrambled for her dress and he turned toward the next one in line Cynthia dropped her things at her feet and pulled her dress over her head. She was wearing a swimsuit underneath as requested and she stepped in front of the white back drop.
"It's my turn." she said, looking him square in the eyes.
He looked back at her with surprise as his assistant chattered in his ear about her disrespect and tardiness and inappropriate measurements until he put up a hand to quiet her. For a moment it looked like he was going to tell Cynthia to leave, that she was unworthy of the film in his camera and to stop wasting his time. But when he opened his mouth he smiled instead and said, "Okay then. Let's see."
And that's how Cynthia booked Sports Illustrated.