So why was I feeling anything but empowered?
I’d always thought standing up for myself would feel celestial. Like a fully grown butterfly bursting out of a cocoon, flapping its colorful wings. In practice, I felt grossed out with myself by the way I’d turned Chase away on the day he’d hurried to the clinic to take a paternity test. I felt so empty I could feel my bones rattling inside my body as I set foot in the studio the next morning. New York Fashion Week was mere weeks away. August had bled into September, and my sketch was ready and submitted to Sven. We were supposed to start stitching the dress today. The model was supposed to be on her way to the office. Sven told me he had taken our discussion about the sketch to heart. Not only had he not made one change to my sketch, but he’d also suggested we use an everyday woman to model the dress. And by “everyday woman,” he still meant a nineteen-year-old, ridiculously gorgeous model with perfect skin and silky hair. But unlike most runway models, she was a whopping size six. Super skinny and fit to the rest of the world, but on the curvy side in fashion standards.
All I had to do was see the production of the dress through, stage by stage.
“If it isn’t the office mattress. Grab a ticket, gentlemen. Everyone gets a lay,” Nina proclaimed as I skulked into the office. We were the only two people in. Everyone else at Croquis liked to be fashionably late. Yesterday, Nina had reached an all-time-bitch level. The type normally saved for Korean high school dramas and daytime soap operas. When I’d gone downstairs to buy a salad, condoms had spilled at my feet from my shoulder bag. She’d crammed them into it when I wasn’t looking.
“Shut up, Nina,” I said tiredly, collapsing into my seat and powering up my laptop.
Realizing I’d actually answered her back, Nina whipped her head around, twisting her mouth in distaste. She was wearing a Stella McCartney black day dress paired with flat Louboutins. “So now you have a mouth? I mean, for more than blowing important men? Figures.”
Figures? What did she mean?
“Seriously.” I rolled my eyes, fed up with her crass behavior. “That mean-girl cliché is super early 2000s. It’s 2020. Throw shade. Finstagram me. Graduate from petty slut-shaming me. This is getting real tiring.”
“You’re so lucky to not have any principles,” she continued, undeterred. “I bet I could get where you are if I chose to let the right people in the industry get a piece of me.”
I snapped my laptop shut. “Nina,” I warned, finally taking a good look at her. She was shoving pictures of her with her lobbyist boyfriend into a cardboard box. Her eyes were red. She was . . . oh God, she was packing.
“Spare me your victory speech, okay? I got fired yesterday, as you’re well aware. Sven handed me my notice personally. Said something about Chase Black bringing his attention to the HR manual of Croquis. Apparently, Mr. Black read the entire thing yesterday while waiting at the clinic for some type of results—for what, he wouldn’t say. Hopefully for chlamydia. And hopefully it turned out positive. Anyway, Chase was super happy to let Sven know I am apparently bullying you.” She sniffed. But I knew she was talking about the paternity test. “Whatever, I don’t even care. My first-choice internship was Prada, the second Valentino. Croquis was my fifth choice.” She quickly wiped a tear that slid down the tip of her nose.
I stood up, making my way to her. She grabbed one of the boxes and turned her back to me. I tugged at the fabric of her sleeve. “Look at me,” I said harshly. No sign of Martyr Maddie in sight. I was pissed, and I owned it.
She looked down, shaking her head.
“Nina.” My voice grew sharper. “You are bullying me.”
“It’s just banter!” she cried. Bullshit.
“Why do you hate me so much?”
She looked up, giving me a duh look. “Why wouldn’t I? Look at you. You have horrible taste in clothes, yet you feel so comfortable in your own skin. You’re the uncoolest person I’ve ever met, no offense. Yet you’re probably Sven’s favorite employee. Men like Chase Black throw themselves at you and have bathroom sex with you and fire people for you. You are way ahead of the game for our age, and you didn’t even go to a good college. You just . . . have it all together. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem natural for a twenty-six-year-old. It feels like you got a lot of shortcuts.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that my life is not all unicorns, hearts, and baked goods?” I was surprised by the fact I was yelling at her, and yet here I was—literally screaming at her. “I’m super insecure about . . . well, most things, really. I live in a tiny apartment with a dog I am mostly allergic to. My love life is a disaster, my mom died when I was a teenager, and I never fully recovered from her loss. To stay on top of my game, I pretty much had no social life for the past five years and focused on working my way up. Staying an intern wasn’t a luxury I could afford, as it meant I’d be homeless. Which was why I got a quick promotion from Sven, at the price of my working fifty-hour weeks. The grass is always greener through someone else’s Instagram filter. No one has their shit together. Fully, anyway. We’re all just pretending we know what we’re doing. Those of us who do it with a smile on our face just look like we’re enjoying it more.”
Nina sniffed. “Well, yeah, I guess, but . . .”
“You’ve been a petty, jealous, out-of-control bitch to me, Nina. And I cannot and will not allow anyone to treat me like this anymore. Enough is enough. To be honest, you probably deserve to get fired. You stuffed my bag with condoms, for crying out loud. But you know what? I don’t want your unemployment on my conscience, so I’m going to give you one chance. I’ll talk to Sven about letting you keep this position. He will probably listen, seeing as I’m the person who got picked on. But you have to promise me you won’t let the green-eyed monster get ahold of your mouth and say awful things to me ever again. Jealousy is like a fart. It stinks, we all have it, but it is best to keep it inside or release it when absolutely no one can see or hear us. Am I understood?”
She stared at me in shock, blinking the tears away from her vision.
“Nina, answer me.”
“Yeah,” she whispered, still mesmerized by the one-eighty I’d done. “I promise. I’m . . . I’m sorry.”
“You should be.”