A New Life

The moment Cate entered the ballroom, all eyes spun toward her as if by a magnetic force. She was a magnetic force: It Girl charisma dripped from her every minuscule pore. She had the earnest, ingénue sweetness of a Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine) mixed with the vivacious sex appeal of a Monroe. Everyone always stared—they couldn’t help it. And she, forever accommodating, basked in the glow of being watched. She didn’t turn her head or shrink under a thousand gazes like some girls, oh no. Cate had never been shy. When you know you have it—that intangible quality that makes everyone love you—all shreds of self-consciousness fall to your feet like discarded items of clothing. 

She didn’t walk through the ballroom so much as glide, her shoulders back and smile wide, strides measured, every inch of her glowing. She was tall, leggy; pale but in a striking, snowy way—not pasty. Her hair was caramel, wrapped up in a loose bun. Her eyes were sky blue. And of course her dress was perfect, hugging her hips and bust, a slit up the side revealing just the right amount of leg. She had that rare gift of being able to pull off anything she wore: oversized plaid shirts, denim overalls, chunky-heeled Mary Janes, empire-waist pants. But she knew she looked best in an evening gown—something slinky and stylish. She’d slip one on and suddenly she’d become a Bond girl, a bombshell cloaked in mystique. 

As she made her way through the ballroom, people tried to talk to her. Compliments were most often their point of entry—compliments on her dress or her hair or some other specific thing they could grasp onto, not realizing that it was just her overall being that was impressing them—and she’d laugh, and smile, and say “thank you” like she hadn’t heard those very same compliments a thousand times before. Others tried a different tact: asking her name, introducing themselves, doing their best to wedge into her orbit somehow. It wasn’t just leery men wanting to sleep with her, but well-meaning people of both sexes who yearned to be near her shine, as if hoping that, by proximity, some of her magic would rub off on them. 

Eventually, after doing a lap around the room, she made her way to a glittery gold bar, where bartenders in crimson tuxedos served martinis and old fashioneds. Before she even had a chance to sit down, a man on the neighboring barstool offered to buy her a drink. She appraised him in one quick glance—he was attractive enough, albeit in a generic sort of way. She gave him a coy little smile and said, in a mellifluous British accent, “If you insist.” She asked for a cosmopolitan and kept her eyes on the bartender as he worked.

Not content to be so quickly forgotten, the generically-handsome man exclaimed, “You’re British!” He delivered this line in such a way as to make clear he thought her Britishness was a very, very good thing, the way that one might say, “You cured cancer!”

She glanced at him with another coy smile and replied, “What gave it away?”

He laughed a little too loud. Men were often impressed when she demonstrated even the tiniest amount of wit. “I love your accent.” As if that weren’t obvious. “Are you from London?”

She resisted the urge to chuckle. Americans always assumed anyone with an English accent was from London, as if all of England—and perhaps even the entire UK—was contained to the one city with which they were familiar. “Manchester, actually.”

“Oh really? What’s that like?”

The bartender handed Cate her cosmopolitan. She held it aloft, the glass bitingly cold in her hand. “Well, if I’d loved it, I suppose I wouldn’t have left,” she replied. She took a sip as he laughed—again too loud, too coarse, too much. It really wasn’t that funny, she wanted to say, but she bit her tongue. Smiled her closed-mouth, demure little smile instead. 

“I’m from Connecticut,” he told her, as though she’d asked. “But I left ages ago because there wasn’t enough going on. See, that’s why I like it here so much. New York always has something happening. It’s buzzy, y’know?” 

“Yes. Right.” She looked out over the room. It was a sea of well-heeled men in tuxes and women in dresses just as expensive and slinky as hers. Real estate developers, tech entrepreneurs, business tycoons, old-money heiresses. People who had no idea what it felt like to be poor, who never wandered above 96th Street. Content in their bubbles, all too happy to pretend poverty was some foreign thing limited to developing countries and Oscarbait movies about the Great Depression. Yet here they were, at a charity gala intended to raise money for the poor, like that word held any meaning to them. “What a laugh,” Cate said suddenly, in her perfect, posh, English-accented voice (from Manchester, not London). 

The generically-handsome man looked at her, eyebrows knit. “What?”

“Nothing,” she replied. Across the way, an elaborate band began to play a sweet, slow song, and the room was overtaken by dancing couples, softly swaying. Cate looked out on the crowd, almost wistful. Then she snapped her head back to what’s-his-face and said, “Would you like to dance?”

“Of course!” He offered his hand, barely able to hold back his glee.

“Actually, would you mind saving us a place over there?” She pointed vaguely toward the center of the room. “I’d like to finish my drink first. But I’ll be right over.” She batted her eyelashes and he was powerless to say no. He took off so fast that he practically left a cartoonish flap of dust in his wake. 

Of course Cate had no intention of joining him, just giving herself space to breathe. And breathe she did—mostly into her cosmopolitan glass. She sipped it, stared into it, and, when no was looking, even blew bubbles. She had to do something to entertain herself. The truth was that she hated these parties. They were boring at best, and obnoxious ways for the rich to feel good about themselves at worst. But she did enjoy the dresses. And the drinks. And those longing stares when she entered the room. Plus, there was something devilishly fun about watching men make fools of themselves in order to get her attention.

As if on cue, the barstool beside her filled up yet again. She glanced over, half-expecting to find the sad sack she’d stranded on the dance floor, but instead she was met with a new face. A very good face, too. Beautiful, actually. A man with full, provocative lips, a cleft chin, dark eyes shielded by long lashes, and a strong jaw. A man with jet-black, wavy hair, thick enough to get lost in. She couldn’t tell how tall he was, sitting down on the barstool, but she guessed over six feet. The kind of man who could be described as strapping: lean but muscled, broad-shouldered and steely-faced. He could easily be Superman or Batman in the next big-budgeted film adaptation. Hell, for all Cate knew, maybe he was. This, after all, was an event for Very Important People, attended by the rich and famous. He could conceivably be an overpaid leading man gearing up for his turn as Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. And maybe, in three months, she’d see him on the cover of some magazine—Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair, perhaps—and suddenly the pieces would click in her mind, and she’d think, Oh! That’s who he was! 

He put his hands flat on the bar and she sneaked a glance at the left one. No ring. Jackpot. 

“Hello,” she said to him, and now she used her best and brightest smile, not the coy one from before. This smile was with teeth—shiny, straight white teeth—and was so big, so flawless, it could melt the hearts of cynics. “I’m Cate.”

Why am I making the first move? Ordinarily when men sat down next to her, it took them mere seconds before they came onto her—regardless of whether or not they were wearing a ring. Could he be gay? It would make sense, him being so attractive and all, but still, she decided to forge ahead. It was worth a shot, at least.

He looked at her without a smile, his eyes searching her face for a long, painfully quiet moment. Then he said, “I’m Graham.” 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She stuck her hand out for a shake but, instead of taking it, he just let it hang between them like an unfinished thought.

“What’s that accent?” he asked.

She let her hand fall back to her lap and pretended to be unfazed. “Oh, it’s English. I’m from Manchester.”

“Manchester?” He laughed. “Right. Of course that’s where you’re from.” His voice was dripping with . . . sarcasm? Was that it? 

Of all the reactions she was anticipating, this was not one. “You’re surprised, I take it?”

“Very.”

“Why? Because you didn’t think beautiful girls came from Manchester?” Still smiling. Still trying to be as charming as possible, and only slightly flirtatious, so as to make clear her intentions without looking like a slut. 

“No,” he replied. “Not that.”

She took a sip of her cosmopolitan. Something told her she’d need it. 

After a brief moment of deliberation, she decided to stick with the nameless heartthrob. He may be a weird one, but he was gorgeous and had to be rich, as all those in attendance were, so she was willing to ignore his—how to put it?—lack of social grace. Her mind made up, she turned to him, flashed another dazzling smile, and decided to change the subject. “What brings you here tonight? Are you a do-gooder philanthropist on top of being outrageously handsome?” 

He flagged over a bartender and ordered a dry martini. Then he glanced at her sideways, eyes burning a hole through her skull. “You said your name was Cate?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.” He sat back in his seat, a funny look on his face. “Interesting.”

“Hardly. I’m far more interested in you.”

He glanced at her from under a wayward lock of hair. “Oh, I bet you are.”

What does that mean? She didn’t know how to respond, so she found herself saying nothing at all. For perhaps the first time in her life, she wanted to shrink up, to curl away from him into a huddled ball of insecurity. 

His drink arrived. He sipped it, occasionally glancing at her. “You’ve gone quiet.”

She looked at him, and in that moment, she realized how she should play this. “Well, to be frank with you, I don’t like to do the chasing. I prefer to be chased.” Coy smile. Sip of drink. A pause long enough to let her words sink through his skin. “And, since you don’t seem to be all that interested in chasing me, I’ll just cut my losses and walk away.” She leaned her head back, finishing off the last of her cosmopolitan in one quick sip, then set down the glass—it made a satisfying clink as it hit the bar—and rose to her feet. She started to saunter away, but (like clockwork) he reached out and grabbed her arm before she could. His grip was nice. Intense, but in a good way. His skin was baby-soft against hers, uncalloused, the kind of hand that only belongs to a rich man who has managed to avoid manual labor his whole life. Just my type. 

She looked from his hand up to his face, into those dark, brooding eyes framed by lashes pretty enough to rival her own. “Wait,” he said. He looked like he wanted to add something more, but instead chose to leave it at that. Just, simply, wait.

So she did. “You want to continue the conversation? Is that it?”

He nodded, as if he couldn’t get himself to say the words, to actually admit aloud he was interested in her. But of course he is, she thought, smiling now to herself rather than for him. They all are.

She sat back down in her barstool and requested another cosmo, all ready to settle in for the night, with her drink and her mark. She’d sit here and be so charming that it made her sick, and he’d laugh at her jokes and stare at her lips as she talked, and at the end of the night, they’d exchange numbers and he’d go to kiss her, and maybe she’d pull away or maybe she wouldn’t. He’d have to work for it, though. They all did.

But for now, the night was just beginning. And he wasn’t staring at her lips, or her breasts, or her peekaboo slip of leg—he was staring at her. As in, into her eyes, but it wasn’t an appreciative kind of stare, it was a searching-and-scanning kind of stare. It made her feel hunted, like a deer being watched through a scope. But she forced a smile and acted nonchalant. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself, Graham? What do you do?”

He didn’t answer. Just kept staring.

Then he said, “I know you.”

The bartender dropped off her second cosmo. She placed her hand on the glass, letting the coolness seep into her skin, to distract her from that look on his face. “You do?” Another smile, another sip. Straining to seem casual. “That’s so funny, you actually looked familiar to me!” He hadn’t, of course (except in that exceedingly-handsome, could-be-a-celebrity kind of way), but if they did know each other, she couldn’t tell him he was so unmemorable as to have completely evaporated from her mind. “You know, I meet a lot of people because I go to so many parties, and it’s just hard to keep track of them all. Please jog my memory. Where did we meet?”

“I don’t think you understand. I know you.” He jabbed his finger against the bar to punctuate the word. “Or, I should say, who you were before.”

Her blood ran cold. When she spoke, the words came out a whisper: “What are you talking about?” But she knew. Oh, she knew. After having buried it for so long, the truth was rising up, up, up, just like the acid in her stomach. She could feel it in the air, the charge before a storm. The end was nigh. She knew it as well as he, apparently, knew her. 

“You used to be Ilana, as I recall. Before you started going by Cate.” 

The images were flashing in her head. Ilana had long black hair, like Cher. She liked attending symphonies. She was from Utah, a sheltered ex-Mormon girl just beginning to come out of her shell. She wore red to galas like this one. Long red evening gowns that played against her skin—which was pale but in a striking, creamy way, not pasty—and her eyes, which were sky blue. And everyone stared at Ilana when she entered a room. Including—

“Jack. That’s what his name was. Your boyfriend, right? Or was he your husband? Whatever happened to him, anyway?”

“You’re mistaken,” Cate said. But her voice was shaking, her eyes wide. Hunted-deer eyes. Last-look-before-death eyes. 

“I don’t think I am.”

“Leave me alone,” she hissed. She stood up and started pushing her way through the ballroom, toward the exit. She was already, in her head, planning her escape. I’ll fly to Miami, hit the clubs, meet a rich Floridian. I’ll call myself Yvette and I’ll have scarlet-red hair and I’ll wear jean cutoffs and crop tops instead of evening gowns, because it’s Miami and it’s hot, but I’ll be so sweet and so innocent that he’ll love me and trust me, and see me as more than a slut. That was the plan. And it would be different—and perhaps less satisfying—than charity galas in New York and crimson-tuxedoed bartenders slinging cosmos, but it would be safe. Far away from the ghost of Ilana and all who knew her.

As she was nearing the exit, a hand reached out and grabbed her suddenly. She tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong. “Let me go, you fucking asshole!” she shouted.

“What? I didn’t do anything!”

She looked up and realized it was not Graham, with his perfect hair and terrifying eyes, but the generically-handsome guy who’d bought her first cosmo of the evening. 

“Oh,” she said, heat rising to her cheeks. “Sorry. I didn’t realize it was you.”

“Christ, what’s wrong with you? I’ve been waiting here for ages!”

“I’m so sorry, but uh, I got distracted and . . .” Her eyes flicked toward the exit, calculating how many seconds it would take to get out of there. She was close, but there was still a throng of people in her way. “I’m really sorry,” she said again, looking back to what’s-his-face. “I have to go.”

“Why? The night’s just getting started.” He smiled, clearly having decided to forget her rudeness in favor of trying, yet again, to get in her pants. Because she was beautiful enough to put up with an infinite amount of nonsense, and anyway, he’d already bought her a drink so he was invested. “We can still have some fun. C’mon, you’ve gotta stay.”

“I’m sorry, but—”

“—she’s already taken.” It was Graham, swooping in out of nowhere and throwing his arm around her waist. He smiled at the man as he hugged Cate close to him, fingers digging into her side. And then he leaned in for what, from an outside perspective, appeared to be a kiss on the cheek. In truth, he was whispering into her ear: “You’re not going anywhere.” Despite the threat, when he pulled his face away from hers and looked back to the man, he was all smiles. One half of the world’s most beautiful couple.

What’s-his-face frowned, mumbled a dejected “enjoy the rest of your night,” then slunk away into the crowd. Leaving behind a trapped Cate, still staring longingly at the exit and now calculating the best way to get out of Graham’s grasp. She could kick him in the balls, she could shout “help,” she could gouge out his eyes, she could—

“Ilana.” He was staring, but she refused to meet his gaze. “Ilana, I don’t want to fuck with you. I just want to talk.”

She was staring at the floor, at the high heels that surrounded her and the hem of dresses less beautiful than hers. “Why are you doing this to me?” she asked the ground. And it was a good thing she wasn’t looking at him, because if she was, he would’ve seen the tears in her eyes. She refused to give him that satisfaction. 

“I’m not doing anything to you. I don’t plan on telling these people who you used to be.” He paused. “That is, if you agree to talk to me.”

Now she looked at him. Rage rippled across her face, but in her eyes was resignation. She’d already accepted the death of Cate, just as she’d accepted, one by one, the deaths of Cate’s predecessors. But now she had a chance—maybe—of extending Cate’s lifespan. If he played fair. Something told her, however, that he wouldn’t.

As if reading her mind, he added, “You have nothing left to lose. If you walk out that door, everyone will know. You’ll be finished with this crowd by the end of the night. But if you stay here and talk to me, I’ll keep your secret.”

“And why would you do that?” She was still, inexplicably, speaking in her faux British accent. 

Thankfully, he didn’t comment on it. “Because I’m more interested in knowing why you do this than I am with telling all these rich assholes what a liar you are.”

She nearly laughed, but his hand was still on her waist, where it decidedly did not belong, and he was still threatening to ruin her life—or, at least, this iteration of it. And so she knew, contrary to his smile and his suddenly friendly tone of voice, he was not her friend. She thought back to what’s-his-face, who was cute enough and doubtlessly rich—probably an investment banker, maybe a Wall Street hotshot who wore a lot of suits and yelled into phones and was friends exclusively with other generically-handsome men who wore a lot of suits and yelled into phones. And oh sure, what’s-his-face was boring, and objectively less attractive than Mr. Movie Star, Mr. Fake Boyfriend, the man who was still, somehow, clutching her waist and staring at her with an earth-shattering gaze—but at least what’s-his-face would’ve been safe. And Cate thought about how differently the night might have gone if she’d only accepted what’s-his-face as her mark, if she’d only allowed him to continue occupying the seat beside her at the bar, and buy all her drinks, and tell her lame stories about his old life in Kansas or Kentucky, or wherever it was he said he was from. But Cate had always hated safety. She rejected it with the same quickness she rejected those who made less than seven figures. Cate liked beautiful men with the chiseled jawlines of Greek gods. She liked men who weren’t just investment-banker wealthy but six-superhero-movies-and-counting rich. 

“Well?” Graham asked. About his offer. He was still waiting on an answer.

“I want to leave,” she decided. Because she didn’t owe him, or anyone else, an explanation. And because the whole sordid tale was too long and too strange to explain. She didn’t confide in therapists or clergy, she had no trusted best friends with whom she could spill her secrets. She cared too much about what people thought of her to ever let the mask slip, to let anyone—anyone—see all the ugliness underneath her shine. 

He let go of her waist finally, his hand replaced by a rush of cold air. But he was still staring. “If you leave,” he said, “I’m not going to let you go quietly. I’ll shout your old name and everything I know about you. I’ll make sure everyone hears how you bled poor ol’ Jack dry. What a fucking vampire you are. You won’t be able to make it out of here fast enough. By the time you reach that door, they’ll all know. So you can leave, but don’t expect to have a single shred of dignity on your way out.”

She glanced to the door, wondering if he was right. How fast his voice would carry if he really did shout her secrets to the room—everything she’d worked to conceal, for so many years, exposed in an instant. All that she’d run away from. It was like Ilana was rising from the dead right in front of her eyes, a zombie all too eager to grab Cate by her dress and pull her six feet under the dirt, where no one and nothing was beautiful. And of course she knew it wasn’t so dire if she lost Cate—she’d simply start again somewhere else, as someone new, the way she had countless times before. But what was different was that this would be the first time she’d be confronted by a roomful of people who knew the truth. The first time she’d stand there and feel eyes on her, not filled with admiration or lust or wonderment, but eyes full of judgment and scorn. Eyes like Graham’s, burning through her skin. She’d have to let them see her—not Cate, or even Ilana, but her. Sure, it would only be for a moment, or however long it took her to make her escape. But it would feel like an eternity. All these people, these rich fucking high-society people, seeing her and knowing she was not one of them. That despite her polish, her prettiness, the way her dress hugged her hips and her smile lit up the room, she was only an outsider. An escapee from the land of the poor, from the unwashed masses, who had somehow gotten dolled up and slid into their clothes and pretended to be one of them. But she was not. She never could be, no matter how many men she conned. 

She looked up at Graham. Dully, it occurred to her that she had been right—he was tall. Over six feet. Strapping indeed. What she hadn’t predicted was how terrifying he could be. How his beautiful eyes could turn sinister in an instant; how his soft hands could dig into her waist. “We can’t talk here,” she said, her voice just an inch above a whisper. “They’ll hear us.”

“I know where to go.” He grabbed her by the wrist and led her through the room, past older women with Botoxed foreheads and balding men spilling out of their tuxes, a blur of Givenchy and Armani. Eventually, the crowd gave way to a set of doors, closed but unlocked. Graham pushed them open and, still holding Cate’s wrist, led her onto a deserted balcony.  

It was cold out, but the view more than made up for it. She could see the park, the reds and golds of early autumn, and, all above and around them, the lurching rectangles of high-rise buildings. It was a cliché to say how the city lights “glittered,” but she supposed such a phrase was cliché for a reason. There really was a sparkle to the city at night, the fairy-dust shimmer of every light amplified against a black, moonless sky. She’d seen the skyline a million times before, of course, from a variety of gorgeous hotels and glamorous apartments, from balconies and rooftops and while lying in bed—but it really never got old, no matter how many times she watched the park’s trees change color or the lights of skyscrapers wink at her. 

She didn’t have much time to appreciate it, though. Graham pulled her to a sitting area, comprised of two white couches with a glass table in between. He let go of her wrist and collapsed onto one couch rather gracelessly, nodding at her to indicate she was supposed to sit on the other. And Cate, forever accommodating, did as told, but she was slower, taking time to get herself comfortable. Stalling for as long as possible. Even once she was seated, she fidgeted around: crossing and uncrossing her legs, toying with her hair, adjusting her hands in her lap. 

Graham let this go on for a minute or so, just staring. Finally, he said, “I think you should start now.”

“Start where? And about what?” She was good at playing dumb, having had years of practice. And it was an easy routine to sell, looking the way she did. Incompetence was expected of her—and almost always excused as adorable. Like stupidity was just one more endearing quirk when it belonged to someone with the face of an angel.

“I want to know who you really are. If Ilana was the sham or if Cate is. And,” he added, “I want to know why you’re pretending. How long it’s gone on, how it started, who else you’ve scammed.”

“I didn’t ‘scam’ anyone,” she asserted. “I had . . . relationships with men. And, yes, they bought me things, and gave me money. But they chose to do that.”

“Right, but if you lied about your identity, then I have to question just how real those ‘relationships’ actually were.” He smirked. “And you can drop the British accent. I remember how you used to talk. You said you were from Utah.”

“So I did,” she replied. She was back to her real accent now—standard American, nothing flashy. Not even a Southern drawl or Noo Yawk twang. It felt strange, transitioning back to American after months of speaking exclusively in Manchester English, never slipping out of it even when she was alone, just so it would become second nature. And it had, so much so that her real accent now sounded foreign to her own ears. “It’s a bit chilly out here,” she said. Again, stalling for time. 

Graham stood up. He came around the glass-topped table, hovering above her, his face hardened. He moved his hand back and she half-expected to be hit. Instead, he slipped off his tuxedo jacket and handed it to her. “Here,” he said. “No more excuses.”

Grudgingly, she slipped the jacket over her shoulders. It felt warm, soft as his skin. She imagined what it would’ve been like if things had gone differently, if they’d ended up out here not as a creep from her past and a liar caught redheaded, but as a beautiful British girl and a handsome maybe-movie-star. He’d have given her his jacket because he wanted to, and she’d have taken it with a flirty smile. And then they’d have looked out onto the city together, and admired the glittery lights side by side. 

“Start at the beginning,” he urged her as he sat back down. “I want to know everything.” 

And so she began to talk. Softly at first, her voice trembling as if she could burst into tears at any moment. But eventually she got louder, and more confident, her lies and witchy behavior seeming less demented the longer she spoke. Maybe it was because Graham said nothing, never gave away any outward signs of judgment. He just sat and listened. Even his eyes had gone soft, no longer with that glare he’d used inside the party. In fact, out here, everything felt different: he was quiet and unassuming, she was honest and talkative. And it seemed like she could say anything because the wind would carry all her words away, would wipe the slate clean by lifting her secrets into the air and scattering them out over the trees, and the rooftops, and the gutters. All of the poison she carried, finally spat out and taken off by the breeze. 

 

It began, Cate explained, in 2009. Pop stars showed as much skin as possible, with bared bellies and legs and cleavage, leaving as little to the imagination as the FCC would allow. And yet they wore purity rings and bragged about their intact hymens. Virginity was the ultimate status symbol. If pop culture was dictated by a male gaze, then it followed that these chaste-but-sexualized teenyboppers reflected what men desired. And so Cate, then nineteen, realized who she had to be: sexy enough to leave drooling mouths in her wake, yet naïve. Innocent, sheltered. Like Britney Spears in the “Oops, I Did It Again” music video: schoolgirl cuteness tempered by unrestrained sex appeal. So she became Ilana, who had Monroe sexiness and Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine) sweetness. Ilana showed off her body and welcomed male attention, but she also mispronounced words, and giggled a lot, and was quick to explain that she hailed from a family of conservative Mormons who never let her near boys all through high school. 

“I’m a virgin,” Ilana had confessed to Jack as she batted her eyes and bit her lower lip. They were in his apartment, on the couch, where they’d been making out and getting dangerously close to sex—probably three minutes away from it, give or take. But those words stopped him in his tracks. Oh, sure, he’d suspected it after hearing about her upbringing, but she was so damn sexy that he’d doubted himself. And yet, here she was: young and darling and innocent, beautiful but not yet compromised. A schoolgirl in slut’s clothes. 

After that, he was putty in her hands. 

Of course, in reality, she’d lost her virginity at thirteen, in the back bedroom of her friend Marla’s house. It was during a particularly raucous party. Cate and DJ—yes, his name was actually DJ, like the boring eldest daughter of Full House—had sneaked off together, mutually buzzed and ready to get down to business. He was sixteen, with long, stringy, unwashed hair. Everyone thought he was cool, and she thought his coolness might be sexually transferrable, that one night with him would make everybody think she was the hottest bitch on the block. And it worked, for a little while. But then the magic wore off and everyone went back to seeing her as just frizzy-haired, braces-clad Kelsey, who had yet to become beautiful. 

Kelsey. That had been her name, all those years ago. And she was not from a conservative family of Mormons in Utah, nor a fascinating family of Brits in Manchester. She was from Oregon, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town, to be precise. Her father drank a lot of beer and watched a lot of sports; her mother compulsively knit and wondered where her life had gone wrong. They were an uninteresting, low-income family, and Kelsey was just another uninteresting, low-income girl.

Until she became beautiful, that is. Jaw-droppingly beautiful. It wasn’t an overnight thing, the way it is in movies. No, it was a slow process that started around the time she turned fifteen, when she got her braces removed and learned how to make her hair smooth and silky, and was suddenly paid a visit by the Boob Fairy. As she got better at doing her makeup, and started hooking up with a local mall employee in exchange for free clothes from Guess, she went from very pretty to holy fuck, what a looker. And it just kept going, and going, until, by the time she turned eighteen, everybody wanted to touch her. She realized she could get anything she wanted with her looks. Of course she flirted with the idea of modeling, as all beautiful girls do at some point or other, but standing around while people snapped photos of her sounded hopelessly boring. The best part of the job, as far as she was concerned, was having strangers admire her photos—but she wouldn’t even get to be around for that part, wouldn’t be able to see them seeing her, so what was the point? No, she had her sights set on a different target: dating rich men. That would be her full-time career: finding and seducing these men, making them love her, and bleeding them dry so subtly, they didn’t even realize she’d sunk her vampire fangs into their necks until they were already in the throes of death. That was her plan. 

Jack may not have been her first sexual experience (not by a longshot), but he was her first mark. He was in his forties, newly divorced and experiencing one helluva midlife crisis. All he wanted was to fuck somebody young, to recover a bit of his lost youth through the vagina of a twenty-year-old. It was just supposed to be a fling, but Kelsey—or Ilana, as he knew her—had a talent for turning flings into serious relationships. She knew all the right words to say and just how to say them, knew how to make men feel strong and smart and important, how to make herself seem maddeningly desirable.

She’d been a recent transplant to the city and was scraping by on a waitress’s salary. Until, that is, she went to a nightclub and met Jack on the dancefloor. She’d recently dyed her hair Elvira black, but she wasn’t planning on adopting a new identity. It had been a spur-of-the-moment impulse, a new hairdo for a new start in the city. But there was something intoxicating about the change, something she loved about the idea of being unrecognizable to the people she knew back home. Not Kelsey, the poor girl from Oregon, but Kelsey, the black-haired temptress from New York. 

Jack had looked out of place in the club, and not her type at all—too old, too gray-haired, too big, with an old-man gut and jowls and a harsh, barking laugh. But she could tell immediately he was rich—she’d always been good at sniffing out money, a side effect of having grown up poor—and she believed, at the time, his money was enough to compensate for his lack of looks. Later, of course, she’d realized she was wrong, that she didn’t have to settle for deep-pocketed old men at all, that she could hold out until she found someone rich and young and attractive. But back then, she was new to gold-digging enterprises and all too eager to quit her waitressing job, so she was willing to take whomever came her way.

She and Jack danced for a while under harsh strobe lights, to the throbs of heavy techno-pop. Over the din of the music, he shouted, “What’s your name?”

For whatever reason, she couldn’t get herself to say “Kelsey.” In that moment, Kelsey seemed so distant—a whole other person, one with brown hair, not black, and one who was still stuck in Oregon, a world away from the buzz of New York. This girl, the one grinding up against a rich man in his forties while a mess of flailing bodies moved around them, was not a Kelsey. She was—

“Ilana!” It slipped out so naturally, you’d have thought she’d been saying it her whole life. 

Soon, she carved out a personality and backstory for Ilana: the Mormon family, the sexual inexperience, the girlish giggle, and her love of high-society things, like the symphony. The type of girl just begging for a My Fair Lady makeover. She knew men in general and Jack specifically would love Ilana, and soon enough, he was flying her around the country, buying her designer clothes, treating her to caviar and champagne, paying her rent, getting her a better apartment. And he was feeling great, younger than ever—he even started to look nicer, dressing like he actually gave a shit—so Ilana, formerly Kelsey, told herself it was a win/win. Sure, she was lying when she told Jack she loved him, and sure, her name wasn’t really Ilana and she hadn’t been a virgin, or come from Utah, or possessed any particular fondness for the symphony . . . but, if those lies filled him with such joy, then what was the harm, really?

One night, over dinner at the Four Seasons, he proposed. She said yes, because that’s what always happened in the movies, and anyway, he could take care of her for life, so surely she’d be foolish to turn him down. By this point they were living together and she’d gotten used to excess. She’d become accustomed to penthouse suites and multi-floor apartments and jetting all over the country, to spending thousands of dollars on clothes whenever she got bored, to charity galas and red evening gowns and everyone fawning all over her. Or rather, fawning all over Ilana, the bright-eyed ingénue. Her old life as Kelsey, which entailed wearing clothes from the Gap and waiting tables at Chili’s and living in fucking Oregon, seemed so far away. She no longer spoke to her beer-swilling father or knit-her-feelings-away mother. Jack was all she had, and he was the only thing that linked her to the life she had long pined for, the one she was convinced she deserved, if only because she’d been blessed with preternatural beauty. 

But she couldn’t marry him.

She’d wanted to go through with it, if only to cement her place in the upper-echelons after a childhood of poverty. But marriage was just so different than dating, so much more serious, more suffocating, more everything. And the truth was that she couldn’t imagine waking up each morning to Jack’s jowled face, his beady little rat eyes and Buddha belly. 

So she ran.

Though, first, she packed everything up in suitcases he’d bought for her. She started by packing the obvious, like her designer wardrobe, and then moved on to things that technically belonged to both of them, like their Egyptian cotton sheets, and finally, she got her claws into that which technically belonged only to him—like cash she found lying around the apartment, or in his wallet. She took as much as she could, and then, while he was gone on a weekend business trip, she flew to Los Angeles and never looked back.

She kept the engagement ring, too. Wore it on the plane and admired it from her first-class seat, as she drank champagne and thanked God she’d never have to kiss Jack’s dry, thin lips ever again. She planned to start anew in Los Angeles, find another rich man—somebody better-looking and, with any luck, even richer—and get as much out of him as she could. 

Years went on. Other Jacks followed, each more attractive than the last. She flitted from LA to San Francisco, from Boston to Chicago, from Las Vegas to Seattle, from Philadelphia to, finally, New York once again. Right back where she started—but only because, by this point, ten years had passed, and she was sure she’d been long forgotten by her former New York social circles. She’d Googled Jack on a whim two years prior and found an obituary, so she didn’t have him to worry about, at least. And of course she looked so different now, and she would go by a different name, as was her tradition. New city, new name, new hair, new personality—though the personalities never strayed too far from one another, having each been designed to attract men, and men, as she soon discovered, were all the same no matter which city she landed in. 

There had been eight of them in total—cities, that is. Eight stops on her grand gold-digging tour of the US, and in each city, there’d been a man. Each had given her an engagement ring at some point or other. She always said yes, and then would leave—vanish into the night, never to be seen or heard from again. During their proposals, she’d already be making plans in her head. Sorting out her next name, her next city. She’d pack up her clothes, her jewelry, their shared sheets and whatever money she could get her hands on, and then she’d be out the door, on a plane before they even realized she was gone.

Her most recent creation had been Danielle, who had buttery yellow hair and a passion for art. She was too old to be a virgin, so she gave Danielle experience, but with only one partner: her longtime sweetheart, whom she supposedly began dating in college and had only just broken up with when she met Joe. And Joe, who, coincidentally, was coming off a bad breakup himself, was more than willing to console the very sweet, very beautiful Danielle as she sniffled into his shoulder. 

One night, early in their relationship, she looked up at him with fearful eyes and said, “Joe, I got a degree in art history. How am I ever going to support myself?”

“Don’t worry,” he’d told her as he wrapped her into a hug. “I’ll support you.” That was all she needed to hear.

But, as soon as he popped the question, she ran away like always. Back to New York, now with an English accent and caramel hair and the name Cate, with a C instead of a K because she decided it looked classier that way, and Cate was nothing if not classy. 

She now had enough engagement rings to cover all of her fingers, minus the thumbs. She’d slip them on occasionally and hold out her hands, admiring each precious diamond, trying to remember which man had given her which. The sad truth was that they all blurred together—the rings, the men, the relationships. But she had no problem keeping her identities separate. She could easily recall in which city she’d been which girl, though she preferred not to think of it, because to her, each of her identities died the moment the plane left the ground. Or perhaps even sooner than that—perhaps it was the moment the engagement ring appeared.

She knew, of course, that she only had a finite amount of time left to run this scam. She was, after all, twenty-nine now, and it was no secret that rich men preferred their women young. Not just young, even, but so young that they were practically still children—sexy babies, Cate called them. Little nineteen-year-olds with pert breasts and fertile wounds, who sauntered as they walked and didn’t yet know how to apply their makeup with any degree of subtlety. Girls who spoke too loudly and Snapchatted their lives away, who wouldn’t even know the difference between Audrey and Katharine Hepburn, who ate appetite-suppressing gummy bears and used the word bae. They inspired in Cate the worst kind of bitterness (old-lady bitterness) and, for the first time in her life, she could understand why Jack had been so desperate to recover his youth in her then-nineteen-year-old vagina. If she was optimistic enough to believe the fountain of youth could be found in a twenty-year-old’s penis, she would’ve fucked every college-aged boy she could find. 

Cate, always the pragmatist, was well aware that women in their thirties were obsolete to wealthy men. Hell, she knew that at twenty-nine, she was already pushing it—they preferred their girls twenty-five and under. But she told herself she still had time, because she could pass for twenty-five and, in fact, frequently did. Even still, signs of her age had been creeping up on her—already her hips had begun to widen, just slightly. If ever there was a time to genuinely accept a rich man’s proposal, to hitch her wagon to the estate of yet another Mr. Moneybags, the time was now. And she knew it.

She supposed that’s what brought her to the charity gala that night: not out of any altruistic instinct, but out of the knowledge that scores of wealthy men would be in attendance, and perhaps she could find one so perfect, she was willing to—at long last—settle down. She’d thought, for half a second, that Graham could be that one. And she liked to think that maybe, in some other universe running parallel to her own, he had been. 

“So that’s what brought me here,” she finished—a rather abrupt, unceremonious end to her long and winding story. 

Graham, by this point, was leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, eyebrows drawn together. “Kelsey” was the first thing he said, and a silence fell between them as soon as the word left his (full, provocative) lips. 

She couldn’t believe how strange it sounded, hearing someone say her name—her real name. She had stopped feeling like Kelsey a long time ago, somewhere in between the time she danced with Jack in that club and when he proposed. No one ever called her Kelsey, least of all attractive men at rich-person parties. Yet here they were. Here was Graham, saying it like it meant something, like it belonged to her. She didn’t know how to explain to him that it didn’t, that she felt far more like a Cate these days—which was a name she picked out of the clear blue sky. Even her memories from back when she still went by Kelsey had started to seem like make-believe, something she’d glimpsed in a fever dream rather than experienced. Had she really ever been that girl in Oregon, with the braces and the frizzy hair and the classless K-name? It didn’t seem possible.

“There’s still something that puzzles me,” Graham said. His eyes wandered briefly to the Manhattan skyline before returning to Cate—or Ilana, or Danielle, or whoever she was. “Why do you do this?”

“I already told you. For the money.” Thinking a moment, she added, “And for what money brings with it. You know, the clothes, the trips, the apartments, the people. The lifestyle, I guess.” She hugged his jacket closer. The cold air was starting to creep in. She thought about the party, what might be going on inside. The eligible men she might be missing. 

He looked at her seriously for a moment. Then said: “I don’t believe you.”

“Everything I told you was true—”

“No,” he interrupted. “What I mean is that I don’t believe you do this for money. Or for the ‘lifestyle,’ as you put it. If all you wanted was to be rich, you would’ve married one of those men a long time ago. What you do is different. You run from this lifestyle, as soon as it’s actually within your grasp.”

She shrugged. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you. But all this”—she gestured toward herself—“is a carefully-choreographed act designed specifically to entice rich men.”

“Right, but for what reason?”

“For their money,” she said again. Her voice had risen, just a touch. She pressed her lips together in a thin line, holding back some words she thought it best not to say—something along the lines of, Are you fucking stupid? Her situation was too precarious to insult Graham right now, not when he knew all her secrets. But Jesus, what a moron. He had to be thick, to have heard all about her gold-digging exploits yet still come away unclear on the concept. 

“You have money, though. I mean, you’re here, so I assume you must.”

She looked away from him, back to the skyline. “Or maybe I found another way in. Greased the right palms, so to speak.” She gave a thin, fleeting smile. “The truth is that I still have some money from my last . . . relationship. Enough for now, but not enough to get into a party like this or hang with this crowd. I blend in because I’ve amassed a wardrobe worth a small fortune, and so if I weasel my way in, they just assume I’m one of them. But if I want to actually live like them, in a perfect apartment with a perfect view of the park, and invitations to all the big parties, and million-dollar spending sprees and trips to the French Riviera, then I need another man to—how did you phrase it? Oh, right: bleed dry.” Another smile, this one rueful. “I’m a vampire, after all. It’s what we do.”

“But you said yourself that if you’d wanted to secure yourself a permanent place among the rich, all you would’ve had to do was accept one of those proposals,” Graham pointed out. “And, sure, maybe Jack was wrong for you because he was old and schlubby, but you also said the other men were young and attractive. So what’s the holdup?”

She shrugged. “Maybe I want to marry for love. You ever think of that?”

“You said you came here tonight because you’re finally ready to get married—for money. But only because you know you’re running out of time. Rich men like sexy babies. That’s what you said, isn’t it?” 

She stared at him with a volcanic intensity that could rival his. No smile now. Her face was stone. She glanced toward the door they’d passed through earlier in the night. How long has it been? Long enough, she suspected, to have missed many chances of charming Mr. Right. If she listened closely, she thought she could hear the sounds of laughter and clinking glass, soft strains of classical music. Life was happening back inside the ballroom. Meanwhile, she was stuck outside, in the cold, narrating all her dirtiest secrets to a goddamn stranger. 

She looked back at Graham and asked, “Why are you giving me the third degree? I’ve told you everything. That was the deal. I tell you, you don’t tell them. So I should be free to go.” She rose to her feet. 

Immediately, he stood up as well. “You still haven’t told me why you do this.”

“I already admitted—”

No, you didn’t.” He moved around the table with surprising speed. Now, with no buffer in between them, he huddled right beside her, so close she could feel his breath on her face. “I want to know why. The real reason.”

She looked up at him for a moment, as if seriously considering the question. Then she forced her most polite smile, said cheerfully “I already told you,” and stepped around him. She was heading for the doors, ready to make her escape at long last. She knew she was still wearing his tuxedo jacket and she didn’t care—she figured she’d keep it, a memento from her worst night ever. She’d earned it, really. 

But then, right as her hand was reaching for the doors, Graham spoke. “You leave and I’ll destroy you. Not just with the people in that room, with all the wealthy man I know. Outside of New York, too. I’ll make sure rich bachelors in every fucking state get a heads-up about the crazy bitch who uses a fake name and makes up entire personas just to collect designer clothes and engagement rings.”

Her hand froze midair. He’s probably bluffing, she told herself. But, of course, she couldn’t know that for sure. Through the doors, she could now definitely hear chatter and music. Did I really hate parties at the start of this evening? Here on the balcony, nothing sounded better in the world. She would’ve loved to have dipped back inside, to drown her sorrows at the bar, to be complimented by strangers and dance with oafish investment bankers. 

But then there was Graham. She could feel him staring at her back. Those terrifying eyes of his, now burning a hole through his own jacket.

She put her hand back down. She stepped away from the door, moving on autopilot until she was back on the couch again, sitting across from him. As if she’d never stood up at all. 

“So,” he said. “Tell me why you do this.”

She stared up at the sky, searching for the invisible moon. She half-hoped a meteor would come crashing down on the both of them, right there and then, if only because it meant that Graham would be dead, and therefore unable to tell her secrets, and Cate would stay young and beautiful forever. She wondered if she did die, and it were reported on the news with her real name, would all her ex-fiancés know? If they saw a recent photo of her, with her newly-caramel hair, alongside the name “Kelsey” and some sparse details of her real life, would they recognize her? Maybe they’d look at her face as it smiled at them from the screen and think, Wow, that dead girl looks a lot like the bitch who ran away from me. Or maybe they’d know immediately that they’d been duped even more than they thought, that their former fiancée was actually Kelsey-from-Oregon all along, and then they’d go out to celebrate her death because hell, she got what she deserved. Death-by-meteor. It had a nice ring to it, really. And if she had to die some way, well, she’d hoped it would be something as exciting as a meteor. She could do a lot worse. 

“I’ll tell you,” she said to Graham, her breath a visible puff in the cold night air. “But only if you tell me how we knew each other.” Just to be petty, she added, “Because I really don’t remember you. At all.” 

He nodded his agreement, then stood up, walked over to the railing and stared out at the city, his back facing her. “We only met a handful of times. We ran in the same circles. That crowd.” He gestured behind him, in the general direction of the party. “We had a few conversations at social gatherings. I always liked you. Everybody did, of course.” He turned around, slumped against the rail, and met Cate’s gaze. “When I heard you left Jack, I remember thinking, ‘Good for her. She managed to get away.’ And now you’ve come back here.” He paused. “Why the fuck did you come back here?”

“I told you already. Ten years had passed, I thought that was enough—”

“I’m not asking why you thought you could get away with it, I’m asking why you wanted to.” 

She took a big breath, tried to figure out how best to explain it. “I guess I always saw myself here. When I thought about living somewhere—like, permanently, after I give up the whole transient, runaway routine—I sort of always pictured my life unfolding in an Upper East Side apartment. And I’d go shopping at Bergdorf’s and get my jewelry from Tiffany’s, and I’d be a part of the New York elite, and I’d have everything I could want. Right here.” She arched a brow. “What do you mean when you say I ‘managed to get away’? What’s wrong with New York?”

“It’s not New York, it’s them.” He nodded again toward the doors, the party, the life that was happening without them. “Those fucking people. You want to be part of the New York elite? I’m part of that elite, and I wish I wasn’t. I was so happy for you when I heard you left Jack, because I thought, ‘Here’s a girl with some life in her, and thank God, she’s managed to run away from these people before they can turn her into just another soulless trophy wife with too much money.’ I liked you. I wanted you to be free. And, for ten years, I thought you were. I thought you had seen what this life was like and realized it’s a fucking blackhole, and that you, wisely, took off while you had the chance. I thought you were brave, better than these people. I wished I’d had that same courage. I envied you. But then you came back.” He chuckled darkly. “And I see now that everything I thought you had going for you—that sparkle, that sweetness, that zest for life—was all fake. You’re just as bad as any of those people.” He paused. “And, I mean . . . I don’t know. I saw you there, inside the party tonight, with your fake fucking hair and your fake fucking accent, and I just felt . . . betrayed. 

“Betrayed,” she repeated. “So now, because I wasn’t the person you thought I was ten years ago, a person you barely knew outside of a few conversations at parties—because of that, you have to punish me?” 

“What? No, I—” He broke off. A cloudy expression passed over his face, and for a moment, it looked as if he was questioning whether that was, in fact, what he was doing. After a long pause, he started again: “I don’t want to punish you. I just want to know why you do this.”

“Tell me something first. If you want to leave this rich-person world so badly, why don’t you? What, are you a trust-fund baby? Can’t escape your insanely wealthy family no matter how much you love poor people, or how edgy you think you are? Must be hard, huh?” 

He shook his head, turning again toward the skyline. With his back facing her, she had a brief moment of insanity where she fantasized about running over and pushing him off the balcony. He’d never see her coming. She’d be so fast, and he’d fall so easily—out of her life, just like that. One less problem to deal with. But, despite all of her morally questionable behavior, she was not a murderer, and so declined the opportunity. 

“I wasn’t born into this,” he said. “I chose it. And maybe that’s why I hate it so much. Because no one made me join these people, I sought them out. I wanted to be rich and important, because I thought then that I’d be special, or happy, or . . . I don’t know what I thought. But when I pictured myself as an adult, it was always in one of those beautiful apartments with a view of the park. Just like you.” He placed his elbows on the railing and leaned over, his head down and eyes on the street below. “You say you don’t remember me. Well, perhaps you remember my wife. She was at all the parties you and I attended. Her family was friends with Jack.” 

“Wife?” Graham looked so young—no more than a few years older than Cate, maybe even the same age. It was hard to believe that, ten years earlier, he’d already been a married man. 

“Her name was Marti,” he said, his voice soft, nearly buried by the street noise slithering up from below. “Marti Bordeaux.” 

It took a moment for Cate to remember. But then an image popped into her head, of a woman with a crown of bright, curly clown-hair and orange lipstick. A woman with a squawky voice—ranking above Fran Drescher’s in its ability to irritate—and a long, unfortunate nose, characteristics which had earned her a secret nickname.

“The Bird?!” Cate shouted. “You were married to the Bird?” 

“Don’t call her that,” Graham snapped. 

“Why? Everyone else did. Behind her back, at least.” Cate giggled. “Sure, it’s not particularly clever, but it did suit her. The poor thing.” In truth, Cate had always liked the Bird. She had admired the way she seemed not to care what people thought of her, with her frumpy clothes and crazy hair and unseemly taste in lipstick. Even the way she spoke—you’d expect a girl with an annoying voice to speak in hushed tones, forever apologetic, but the Bird squawked loud and proud. She was a chatterbox, always one of the first people to strike up a conversation with Cate during parties Jack would take her to. Come to think of it, Cate remembered a boy who was often glued to the Bird’s side. A beautiful boy, one Cate had assumed was the Bird’s brother. He smiled a lot and the Bird would always affectionately refer to him as “Ham.”

“Wait, I think I remember you,” Cate said. “Did you have blond hair back then?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Wow! You and the Bird.” She started giggling again, and soon the giggle progressed into a robust laugh, which then evolved into an unhinged, wicked-stepmother cackle. 

“What’s so funny?” he asked, but he already knew. He had to know.

Once she was able to get ahold of herself, she said, through a demented smile: “It’s just . . . you and the Bird. You were so beautiful, and she was . . . well, the Bird.” She laughed again. “God, sorry. I’m just imagining the two of you having sex.”

“Would you shut up?” He walked away from the railing and stomped over to Cate, his placid exterior washed away, replaced by something with sharp, jagged edges. “You’re laughing at Marti because she wasn’t beautiful to you? Yeah, maybe Marti wasn’t the type of girl you’d see in magazines, but she was smart and funny and a hell of a lot nicer than you. More honest, too.”

“Yes, I know.” Cate smiled. “But you didn’t marry her for any of those things. Did you?”

For a moment, he said nothing. His eyes were still flashing with rage. His dark hair—which, in 2009, had been a light, angelic blond—hung over his face like a shadow. As he cooled off, he started retreating, inching back around the table and away from Cate, his expression resetting to a blank expression. “No,” he said as he fell back onto the couch. “I didn’t marry her for those reasons—the right reasons. I married her for her money.” In a dusky voice, he said, “I’m a vampire, too.”

And for a while, it was silent.

Then, once again, Cate began to laugh. That wild, unhinged cackle. 

“It’s not funny,” Graham growled. “Marti was an amazing girl. She deserved better. I tried to do right by her, and I think I even loved her, in my own way. But eventually, we both realized it wouldn’t work out. We had an amicable divorce. We’re on friendly terms. Still see each other occasionally. She’s a great girl. And you have some nerve, laughing at her. Some fucking nerve.”

“I’m not laughing at her,” Cate corrected. “I’m laughing at you. Because here you are, acting like you have the moral high ground, judging me, dragging me out here in the cold and making me tell you what a freakshow I am. But you’re just as bad.”

“I am not.”

“Yes, you are! No—you’re worse, actually. The men I took for a ride? Most of them were creeps, old men preying on a much-younger woman. But you? Marti was just a sweet girl. How old was she? Twenty, twenty-one? And she loved you. I remember how she looked at you, with those adoring eyes. I bet you were her first love. And she’ll never get that back.”

“I know I fucked her over,” Graham said. “I have to live with that every day. You think I’m proud of it? Of course not. Especially because it was all for nothing. Because of our marriage, I got all the money I could ask for. And I have a beautiful apartment on Riverside Drive, and nice suits, and I get invited to every party. But what I learned too late is that those parties are full of assholes. I don’t have any friends. Just a closet full of suits to keep me company, and a great, empty apartment. And every day, when I come home to that perfect apartment, I want to fucking kill myself.” 

“Poor you,” she said, jutting out her bottom lip. “It must be tough to be drop-dead gorgeous and rich and white and male. I can’t imagine your pain.”

“No, because you can never imagine anyone’s pain. What I did to Marti was wrong, but it happened once. I married one woman for her money, back when I was still a kid, too young to realize how screwed up it was. But you’re still conning men. You’re twenty-nine and this has been your life’s work. You must be so proud.” He stood up again, but this time he didn’t head for the rail. He made a beeline for Cate and sat down at her side, so close (too close), his hand reaching her for hers, grabbing it before she could stop him. And then he laced his fingers through hers, almost lovingly, like a boyfriend might. Like he might’ve done with Marti a million years ago, when he looked into her eyes and told her he loved her, yet hadn’t meant a word. Like Cate had done, a million times, in a million different cities. And in each city, she gained a new ring to add to her collection, a new cork to plug up the emptiness. 

I’m a vampire, too, Graham had said. 

She wondered, distantly, if he still had his ring. If he ever got it out and looked at it, just to remind himself of all the blood he sucked. Bet Birdie never realized it, never saw him coming. But she should’ve. Stupid girl—boys like Graham don’t fuck girls like her. Didn’t she know that? How could she not have known that? Cate had always known the kind of girls boys liked to fuck. Sexy babies, with flat stomachs and long legs, with thin faces and button noses. Girls who defied gravity, who didn’t age, who had exotic accents that weren’t too exotic, who loved cheeseburgers but never gained weight, who were busty and giggly, who never complained, who always looked like they were wearing makeup but never actually were. Girls who were sexy, but didn’t have sex; girls who weren’t challenging or spiteful or ever got angry. Girls who weren’t too emotional, who smelled good, who were entirely hairless below their eyebrows. And Marti—stupid fucking Marti, big-nosed Marti, chatterbox Marti; Marti with the crazy hair and orange lipstick, Marti who everyone made fun of, who no one thought was pretty, who no boy would ever, ever want to fuck—had tricked herself into believing a boy like Graham could love her. She deserved it. She deserved to get hurt. 

Ham, Marti had called him. Her sweet little ham, who crawled into her bed and whispered lies into her ear and bled her dry. Cate wondered if Marti had kept her ring, if she ever got it out just to remind herself not to trust men, and beautiful people, and beautiful men most especially. They’ll bleed you dry every goddamn time. 

Graham said Marti was smart, and maybe she was, academically. Maybe she got good grades in school, maybe she was a whizz at math, maybe her teachers fawned over her. But clearly she hadn’t been smart enough to realize what Cate had so many years ago—that to be wanted, to be loved, she would have to change. She would have to speak in hushed tones so no one would hear her godawful voice, and smile demurely, and talk less often and less loudly than men, and watch her weight but not let anyone know she was watching her weight, and keep her hair long and silky, and her nose small, and her personality comprised of only two or three traits. It wasn’t so hard, really, as long as you devoted your life to it. Cate had. And everyone loved Cate. 

But now, in the darkness, Cate found herself in the company of perhaps the only person in the world who didn’t love her. Graham, who was still holding her hand, his fingers laced through hers like they were in love. The most beautiful couple in the world. He was staring at her, just like everyone did. “So tell me,” he said, “why do you do this? What drives you? What do you want?”

What do I want? Nobody had ever asked her that. And come to think of it, she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted, besides that Upper East Side apartment, and a closet full of designer evening gowns. And she knew she wanted to live in a world of parties and beautiful rich people and admiring stares, and men who wanted to touch her, and—if she could have anything—eternal youth and beauty. 

But somehow, she doubted that answer would satisfy Graham. He, after all, maintained Cate wasn’t actually after money. If she were, he said, she would’ve stopped running away from it a long time ago. Perhaps that was true. 

So why was she doing this, then?

“I think,” she said, speaking very hesitantly, “that I want to be loved by as many people—as many men—as possible. One right after the other. So I don’t want to settle down, because then, there’d be no new seductions, no new admirers, none of the fun. And also, men don’t love their wives. Or they do, for about five minutes, but then they stop. Because wives are shrews, and joykills, and harpies. But men do love their girlfriends, because their girlfriends are always perfect. And no man loves a woman more than when he proposes. Except, I guess, in your case.” She gave a quick smirk. “It’s like a game, a race to see how fast I can make someone love me. How many beautiful, perfect men I can get to propose. And once they do, I’ve won the game. I don’t need to keep playing. The only thing I can do is start a new round—in a different city, with a new name, and new hair, and a new personality. And then the race begins all over again.” She smiled, more to herself than for him. “Everybody always loves me.”

He kept holding her hand and staring deep into her eyes, and if she didn’t know better, she might’ve thought he was going to propose. But then he shook his head, and he said, “No, Kelsey. Nobody loves you.”

Her eyes widened. “That’s an ugly thing to say, Graham.”

“But it’s the truth. Those men? They loved Ilana, and Danielle, and Cate, and whoever else you’ve been. They loved women who never existed. You said it yourself—male fantasies. That’s what those personalities were. They’re not real. And,” he added, “they’re not you.”

“You’re wrong,” she said, but her voice shook and hitched upwards at the end, sounding less than convincing. “They do love me. Everyone is drawn to me, everyone looks at me when I enter a room. Everyone wants to touch me.”

“And so that means they love you?” Now it was his turn to cackle. “God, you’re so naïve, Kelsey.”

“Stop calling me that,” she hissed. “My name is Cate.”

“No, it isn’t.”

Yes, it is. I haven’t been Kelsey in a long time.” She whispered the last few words. There were tears in her eyes, for the second time that night. She knew sobs would come next—big, ugly sobs, which would ruin her makeup, which would make her look ugly. She couldn’t remember the last time she let herself cry. It had been years—it might’ve been before she met the Bird and Ham, before Ilana, before Jack, before New York, before she became beautiful. Before her life had begun. 

“Your name is Kelsey,” Graham told her. “It has always been Kelsey.” And then he stood up, and she realized, suddenly, that he was walking away—not to the railing, but to the doors. Back to the party full of people he hated. He was leaving, stranding Cate there, while she was still wearing his tuxedo jacket. Still trying not to cry.

“Graham!” she called, just as he reached the doors. She jumped up, ran over to him, a pleading look on her face, desperation etched into every minuscule pore. She grabbed onto his arm, holding him back, holding him to her. “All of this—everything I told you—it’ll stay between us, won’t it?” Her eyes—the color of sky—had gotten huge. They were still filled with tears. “Please,” she begged him. She didn’t even bother trying to hide her desperation, even though she knew it was unattractive. 

Graham shook her off. He gave her an appraising stare, up and down. Then he scowled. “You’re pathetic,” he told her, the words tinged with disgust.  

Please. This is all I have.”

“And you don’t even really have this,” he said.

She didn’t care. She didn’t care that nobody loved her, that all of her personas were mirages, that her youth was fading and her beauty would, inevitably, disappear along with it, that she hated parties and probably wouldn’t be happy even if she did get her dreamy, Upper East Side apartment. None of it mattered. All that she cared about was that her secrets would stay hidden, and—if she chose—she could scam again in the future. And again, and again, until that ache in her subsided and she no longer needed the thrill. 

So, she said it again: “Please.

He hesitated.

Then: “I won’t tell anyone. About any of it.”

She let out a breath, and that did it: the tears were finally, finally unleashed. She was crying. She was standing in the cold, in a tuxedo jacket, and crying. And a man was watching her. And she couldn’t seem to give a fuck.

“Goodbye, Kelsey,” Graham said. And with that, the beautiful boy, the gold-digger, the vampire, vanished through the doors. Out of her life once again.