This was, simply put, not what Tahani had expected.
She had merely been opining over brunch that morning to her dear friend Rita Ora, on the struggles that came along with being the sister of the great Kamilah, and how frustrating it was, that she was invisible to everyone, including her own parents, in spite of her own accomplishments. (Such a dear friend and a good listener Rita was, and she certainly knows a thing or to about what it's like to remain invisible to the public eye, despite your best efforts, the poor girl.)
That was when the conversation turned, as it so often did these days, to the recent exploits and apparent marital bliss of their mutual friend, Prince Harry.
“Nobody ignores Harry,” Rita had pointed out. “And what special thing has he ever done to earn all that love he receives? For one thing, he’s a ginger and he is unlikely to even inherit the throne.”
“He did earn quite the reputation for himself as a party goer,” Tahani had said, contemplatively. “And there was that deeply ill advised situation with the Nazi costume, but the less said about that, the better.
“Exactly,” Rita had said, gesturing triumphantly with a champagne flute perilously full of champagne (Krug Clos d'Ambonnay, a 2002 vintage, because Tahani isn't a savage), “that is precisely my point.”
Tahani blinked, and waited for it to click. By this point, she was more than a little tipsy herself, so nothing quite came together.
Rita took pity on her and said quite clearly and slowly. "There is nothing on earth that people love quite so much as a reformed wild child. You want your parents to pay attention you have to stop being perfectly effortlessly put together just for a little while. Think of it as a chance to have some fun. Get absolutely hammered at parties, and get your picture taken a few times with your top off while you are snogging the boys from One Direction in the fountain at Buckingham Palace. Then, once your parents are good and concerned, you can start to see the light. Acknowledge your demons. Pledge to do better.”
“Let’s say, just for a moment, I agreed to your...unorthodox...suggestion,” Tahani said, considering, “I wouldn’t even know how to begin. The wildest thing I’ve ever done was to suggest to Sir Elton John that a candle in the wind was perhaps a somewhat overwrought and trivializing metaphor for a tragic celebrity death, and that was only after a glass and a half of sipping sherry. I was mortified, and couldn’t show my face in public for days. It was the only year I have missed Wimbledon.”
To Tahani’s surprise, Rita’s smile had suddenly grown wide and conspiratorial.
“What you need, Tahani, my dear, is to find yourself a coach. Someone who can be your wingman and support you in getting publicly, as the Americans like to say, shitfaced in public. Someone who your parents will absolutely, positively, hate when you bring them to your sister’s fete tomorrow.”
As it happened, Tahani's parents were hosting a gala dinner tomorrow, to celebrate the rise of Kamilah's slam poetry album/ framework for a peace plan in the Middle East to the top of the US pop charts. Tahani was positively dreading the prospect having to attend.
“But how could I possibly find a person like that?” Tahani had asked. “All my social circle is of much too high a calibre.”
“Not to worry my dear, I have the perfect person in mind for that.”
So, that was how she came to be sitting in a cafe the next day, with a tiny blond American woman, who was (had she mentioned this already?) not at all what Tahani had expected.
For one thing, based on the way Rita had described the woman’s ludicrously unhinged performance in the pub the other night, Tahani was disappointed to discover that she did not in fact have discernible face tattoos. Then again, there was something pleasing about her straggly blond locks, her shockingly under-moisturized skin, and her completely lack of anything resembling a fashion forward outfit. It all spoke of a woman who was, to use another American colloquialism, all out of fucks to give.
"Well" the woman blurts as she pulls up a seat. (The chair scrapes backwards along the tiled floor with an extravagant atonal squeal that had several heads turning.) "just right off the bat, I gotta say, you really are working the whole," here she waves a hand vaguely in Tahani's direction, "South Asian Princess Diana thing. I’m Eleanor and you have got to be Tahani.”
She reaches her hand across the table, clearly attempting an American style handshake. Tahani is too astonished to do anything more than stare blankly at the proffered hand. Eleanor raises an eyebrow and takes her hand back after a moment.
“Anyway,” the woman says, raising her eyebrows and speaking with a trifle less confidence than before. “I understand you need someone to help get drunk and make a scene at a fancy party tonight. And getting sloppy drunk at parties, that’s literally my thing. Like, my only thing.”
Tahani inclines her head courteously. “I am quite sure you are selling yourself, short” (she can’t hold the pun back, the word has been on the tip of her tongue, and really Eleanor resembles nothing so much as one of those tiny porcelain figurines, except for her deeply tragic fashion sense. Fortunately, Eleanor does not seem to notice her slip.) “You Americans are always so busy trying to make something of yourselves. It’s a bit gauche, I must say that it do admire the energy it takes. It’s clear, based on your sweater choice, that you do not come from money, therefore must have had some success, to have acquired sufficient means to travel to London. What is it you do again?”
Eleanor actually flushes slightly. Tahani must admit, the color looks nice on her. “Oh well, I’m not actually employed at the moment. I was a pharmaceutical sales rep. A really good one. But I had what you might you call a crisis of conscience recently. There was a whole thing where I turned state’s evidence, and yada yada, I needed to get out of Arizona for a few weeks. London seemed like as good a place as any for that.”
Curiosity stirs in Tahani, for this woman who is once again not who she expected, but Eleanor transitions the conversation expertly back to the moment.
"So, yeah, last night I got thrown out of a pub, total misunderstanding, but to make a long story short, turns out the shrimp potato chips you have over here, don't come with actual shrimp. But anyway there is this woman who had been standing there, watching me really get into with the bartender. She immediately follows me out the door. I have no idea who she was honestly, but she starts going on about how she’s a performer herself, and how she has never seen anyone get the attention of an entire room the way I did when I started throwing lit darts at the top shelf vodka bottles. I guess I must have given her my number at some point, because she calls me up the next day, tells me about an opportunity to help out of a friend of hers. I figured that either a. this was a kidnapping attempt and I was going to end up as a head a box in some creepy British person’s attic, or b. I'd have dinner at a place where the hor d'oeuvres would be slamming. So, I figured it was worth a shot, you know. Then she told me that I would meet my accomplice for the evening at this cafe, and that she would be carrying a custom Chanel purse and would look like the love child of Grace Kelly and a perfect baby deer.” Eleanor trails off, like she suddenly realizes how long she had been talking. "Anyway, I tend to ramble a little when I'm nervous, but I got to say, she wasn't lying about the baby deer thing."
“Well,” Tahani says, trying to put this tactfully. “I am truly grateful for any assistance you can offer me this evening. You should know that as my sister’s star has risen, my own relationship with my parents has gotten rather, complicated over the years. I am hoping that your presence tonight might, shall we say shift the trajectory slightly.
Eleanor smiles, all sage and knowing and leans back a little in her chair. "I get it more now. You want me to be the dirt bag from the other side of the pond who scares the crap out of your parents and makes them pay more attention to you. It's the oldest trick in the book. It’s also like, the end result of half the dates I get on Tinder. I’m gonna need you to tell me everything you can about them, if you really want to do this right. I need all the ammunition I can get. She twists around in her seat to signal frantically for a waiter. “Actually let me get some coffee, and maybe cheese if they have it. We’ll probably be here a while.”
No, Eleanor isn't who she expected, but Tahani is starting to think that she's even better than she could have imagined.
"Mother, I'd like you to meet Eleanor Shellstrop, the love of my life." Tahani simpers prettily, with one hand resting on the small of Eleanor's back.
They are in the gala hall, which is slowly filling up with men and and women bedecked in tasteful evening wear. Eleanor showed up in a denim skirt with leather accents, a cowboy hat, and a cut-off t-shirt that said Arizona: #1 in fun, sun and meth labs. Tahani had been rather delighted by Eleanor's obvious commitment to the role. “We met last late night at the tattoo parlor and she positively regaled me with her stories of Arizona. Quite the storyteller, my Eleanor. I’m thinking of bringing her as my plus one to Harry and Megan’s baby shower.”
"That's very nice dear," her mother says absently, looking around the hall for something non specific. "Now is it just me or there something off about the sound in the hall tonight. Kamilah will be simply devastated if her live performance Jesus Christ Superstar doesn't carry with the appropriate degree of resonance. She is playing all of the parts, you know, it was supposed to be a surprise. Tahani would you be a dear and run and fetch your father and ask him to speak to someone about what can be done about the sound system. Measures will have be taken, we can't have your sister's night ruined."
Tahani opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. That seemed to be happening rather a lot these days. She feels rather deflated suddenly as if all of their plans had suddenly gone out of her head, which is a pity, because Eleanor and she had planned so much.
Eleanor comes to the rescue, draping an arm possessively around Tahani’s waist. “Yeah, so I’m gonna need you crazy kids to point me in the direction of the open bar, because it is 5pm somewhere and that means I am ready to get....sch-wasted. Hey Mrs. Al-Jamil, You know what they say about me back home? They say a party hasn't begun until Eleanor has already vomited twice. So what I’m gonna do now, is I'm going to take your sexy ass daughter with her fine ass Downton Abbey accent over to the open bar and we are going to do tequila shots. Then if you are really lucky, we’ll show you our matching couples tattoos. Eleanor leers cheerfully.”
“Very nice dear,” Tahani’s mother says again as she checks her phone.
Tahani squeezes Eleanor’s arm gratefully and seizes the opportunity to guide them both to the bar.
"Wow," Eleanor says as they maneuver their way towards the alcohol.
"She's quite something, my mother, Tahani agrees glumly.
"Something else. And I thought my family sucked.”
“Indeed. Do you know the worst part? Jesus Christ Superstar was always my favorite. Kamilah knows that. When we were in secondary school, it was the end of term play and Kamilah and I alternated in the role of Mary Magdalene. Lord Andrew, he’s a family friend, he came back stage after my show and told me that none had ever played it better. It was the single time in my life when someone’s compared me to Kamilah and I’ve come out on top.”
Tahani trails off uncomfortably, not really liking the whine that has crept it’s way into her voice. She is also not sure how she feels about the way Eleanor is staring at her, eyes soft and sympathetic.
There is a quiet moment in the midst of the crowd. Then Eleanor nudges her with her shoulder and jerks her head towards the bar. “Hey, so do you think they’d pour tequila shots here?"
Three tequila shots in, they run into Tahani's father. Tahani's world is just starting to get warm and fuzzy at the corners, and she's discovered that tequila makes her a little bit handsy.
Daddy, she says, grabbing her father's arm as he goes by. "I want you to meet my girlfriend. She's so, small you know. So, so, terribly small.”
Tahani's father looks at Eleanor, who is currently locked in an intense discussion with the bartender over whether or not the Spice Girls tour should have happened, or whether it was in fact, better to let Sleeping Spices be. Tahani grabs her by the elbow, to prevent Eleanor from lunging across the bar as the bartender asserts that David Beckham could in fact, have done way better than Posh.Then her brain catches up to her and she realizes that Eleanor starting a fight is in fact, exactly according to plan, so she lets go of her elbow and watches as Eleanor flails in the general direction of the bartender.
Tahani turns happily to her father who is watching the scene with mild interest, mixed with slight distaste the way one might watch a nature documentary that highlighted the more unpleasant side of life in the wild. “Isn't it so avant garde? Back home in Arizona she wears flip flops and low rise jeans, flip flops can you imagine? And she keeps promising that we are going to do meth together. It's the Arizona way.”
“I suppose,” Tahani's father says with a polite smile, “Arizona is as good a place as any for you to end up. Well done you for knowing what you are capable of, and setting your sights accordingly.”
He pats her on the arm and walks away as Tahani sinks into herself. It's a few minutes before she realizes that Eleanor has gone missing.
The microphone on the small dais at the far side of the room crackles to life. "Um, hi. Excuse me, " Eleanor's voice flares to life across the room, and honestly Tahani has no idea what her mother was talking about. The sound carries beautifully, Eleanor’s voice sounds rich and full. " Holy shit, that tequila is really hitting me. Anyway, I was originally planning to get up here a little later in the evening. After Kamilah had done her thing, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but I figured I would make it up as I go along. The important thing was just that it was going to be rambling, and really, really, sexually explicit. So you all are lucky I guess, that you were spared that. Because I don’t think it’s actually worth it.
Instead I’m gonna keep this short and sweet. I just want to say, Tahani, your family blows. You are spending so much time, trying to get their attention and earn their love, and maybe they are not actually worth all that. You are talented, and accomplished, and I wasn't kidding about your accent. So, honestly, if your family can't appreciate just how special you are, than you should find some people who can. And yeah. I don’t really have a big finish for this. I probably should have stopped talking already. So I’m uh, just gonna go now.”
It suddenly feels very warm in the room, with everyone in the crowd turning to stare at Tahani as she makes her way across the room to help Eleanor down from the stage.
“You certainly do know how to make a scene, “Tahani admits as she takes Eleanor by the elbow and guides her to the exits and fresh air, which she suspects they both could use around now. "I never lie." Eleanor informs her with the solemnity of the very drunk."Well, I lie about a lot of things actually. I lied to get backstage at a Britney Spears concert once, and there was a whole thing with Kevin Federline that I don't really want to talk about, but what I said up there, I wasn't lying about that.”
They've suddenly made it outside, though for the life of her, Tahani can't remember how that had happened. The air feels fresh and dark around her, except for the space where Eleanor inhabits. That's warm. (Warm and small, has she mentioned how tiny Eleanor is? She sort of wants to lick her.) Tahani learns down and presses her lips against Eleanor's. It's a quick gentle, perfunctory kind of thing.
Except then Eleanor is kissing back, sloppily, enthusiastically. Tahani tastes the tequila and something that might be cocktail shrimp on Eleanor's breath, and pulls her closer to her.
Then suddenly, Eleanor pulls away, uncertain and younger than Tahani has ever seen her. “I'm leaving soon you know, in just a week or so. Back to the States. So, you should know, I’m not really worth getting invested in, you should, you know, find someone better, someone who gets how special you are.”
“Not worth it?” Tahani says, “ I'll have know that I am somewhat famous for my discerning taste in fine art. My good friend Jay-Z once offered me a job curating his private collection. I didn't accept the money you know, I did it as a favor. But I digress. My point is that I should think that I have some standing when I say that you are in fact, very much worth it.” And she leans down to kiss Eleanor again.