Bretagne, Pas Grand

Of all the people she could have asked, could have reached out to–I’m still not really sure why it was me (well, maybe now I’m sure). I didn’t even have that great of a singing voice, or at least not one that I had been able to finely tune. She could have paid someone professional to do whatever this weird concept she had in mind was. One that, as I later learned, involved me singing during other people’s karaoke performances. It didn’t make any sense–for although karaoke singing was generally bad, it didn’t justify upstaging someone as though out of malice. But this is what Brittany had instructed me to do, for it was always in her nature as a popular girl to undercuttingly make others feel like shit.

This “wave of the future” was part of Brittany’s latest attempt at being relevant, at coming up with something “fresh and exciting” for a new iteration of the company that had made her rich when we had just gotten out of high school, and the Tavi Gevinson-like blog she had started centered around her more expensive fashion taste sparked the interest of Karl Lagerfeld when we were sophomores. With the money she got for posing in a Chanel campaign, she built up an haute couture e-commerce juggernaut called Grand Bretagne (she was always pretentious, hence being the president of the French club despite an accent that would even make a country bumpkin retch), an homage to her name–Brittany, Bretagne–tu comprends? She only kept me around as a “friend” because I spoke better French and she wanted product descriptions in the language so as to secure a built-in international audience/sense of superiority for being perceived as a bilingual ingenue. I, not having any interest in going to college and with no job prospects, was in no position to turn down this under the table work. To make the deal sweeter (and more incestuous), she cosigned on a studio I wanted in Santa Monica. As her star employee, I had to be in the same city that she, in contrast to me, was attending school: UCLA. She figured even though she was already self-made, partaking of higher education would increase her cachet and respectability in the misogynistic business world. It was moments like these when I realized she wasn’t as stupid as she looked, embodying the ditz cliche with her white-blonde hair and orange skin. She was perfect for Los Angeles. It was almost as though she had never spent anytime in Sacramento at all. I, on the other hand, looked fresh from the NorCal recesses with my pale skin and dark hair. I didn’t want to be in this town. I would’ve obviously preferred San Francisco (mind you, this was still during a period when it wasn’t totally unrecognizable as a tech hub chasing out all the freaks and artists). But the first lesson of adulthood, sometimes called selling your soul, is that you follow the money. And Brittany was willing to give me ample quantities of it without questioning any of my more rough-hewn qualities.

I owed her a lot at the beginning of my twenties. However, things between us quickly devolved on the politesse front, for we both had very different visions for what the tone of Grand Bretagne ought to be. I wanted it to have a more youthful, approachable voice, while Brittany wanted it to sound stodgier to appeal to richer clientele. I told her it would be the undoing of her company if she relied on the rich as her sole market (let’s just say someone had given me some insider information about the 2008 financial crisis). She couldn’t be persuaded or convinced, and soon enough, the website started to lose traffic. The dip was palpable when my copy became even frillier, but then unignorable when Brittany raised prices by ten percent on all products. It was as though she was self-sabotaging. Or maybe that’s giving her too much credit. I think the truth was she had some sort of god complex, and genuinely believed in her own untouchability. Of course, one tends to have that frame of mind when they’ve been swimming in money their entire lives. And even if Grand Bretagne went bankrupt, Brittany knew there were her parents to fall back on, they who owned multiple million dollar enterprises throughout the capital city. Plus, she was an only child, so she had no one to compete with for funds, which meant she could be as big of a cunt as she wanted to her parents, and often was.

Hearing her talk on the phone sometimes, I had to wonder whether it was to one of the board members or her mother and father. She had no qualms about tearing into either of them, one moment calling her mother a “plastic repository” and the next doling out sugary compliments like, “I would be nowhere in this world without you.” I frequently Googled symptoms of bipolar disorder whenever I was near her. I’m about ninety-nine percent sure she has it and still hasn’t sought the necessary treatment. Then again, maybe bitches get too conflated with bipolars. In any event, I had enough money saved to get me through a year of living modestly (for me, this meant subletting my apartment at an overcharged rate and fleeing the U.S. for a while). So one day, to perform a scene I had long fantasized about, I came into the office pretending as though I didn’t already know I was going to walk out about ten minutes later. Brittany, being her usual clipped and cold self, proceeded to berate me for the latest descriptions and tag lines I had come up with, citing my incompetence as the core reason for why the company was in turmoil. I let her words wash over me like a warm bath, smiled at her in my Joker-iest fashion and said simply, “Well then, I suppose I oughtn’t continue to stay here and make things worse for you. I think I’ll be on my way.” Calmly and collectedly, I gathered my few personal effects into the giant tote bag I had deliberately brought with me that morning (walking out of your workplace with a box is both gauche and humiliating, after all). And, just as I had anticipated, Brittany proceeded to go off on me with even more intensity in front of the rest of the small staff, calling me an ingrate, a talentless hack who would never amount to anything without her. It felt incredible to be free of her as I let the words bounce off my back on the way toward the elevator. Even freer still when I landed in Australia and was far from any potential legal action she might take against me–because I wouldn’t put something so petty past her. She was venomous to the core, case in point being whenever we would go out on the town together–at her insistence, of course. I would’ve been perfectly content to go home and watch Sunset Boulevard for the umpteenth time.

“This is my friend, Crotchen,” she drunkenly slurred to any guy that tried to buy us a drink. Whenever she wanted to bait me she would call me that instead of Gretchen. She had been doing it since elementary school when she first discovered what a crotch was and subsequently wanted to touch mine to “compare.” I wouldn’t allow it, and that’s when the name Crotchen was born.

I suppose in that instant I knew she wasn’t really my friend, but some strange First World mutation of what female “closeness” entailed. Often, one party getting treated like an emotional punching bag for the sake of the other’s dominance. And though at the time I couldn’t say precisely why I went on being Brittany’s friend after that, I later realized just how much I feared being totally alone and ostracized for being from a white trash, broken home. Maybe now, it’s the norm. But in the Bush II years, it was still extremely important to exude an aura of stark-raving normalcy to the outside world. Brittany was my insurance that everyone at school would treat me with respect instead of shunning me. An act I don’t think I could’ve withstood at that period in my life. In between beer bottles flying and blows delivered to my mother by whoever her latest suitor was (she, too, had trouble being alone), I was trying to study, to avoid fulfilling my trash legacy with further ignorance and, worse yet, contentment with that ignorance. Brittany was willing to overlook this facet of my person if I was her devoted lackey. So I became it. I paid a price for social insulation. It was a price she seemed to want me to pay over and over again, for the very second I touched back down in California, it was as though she had her spies inform her. I received a call from her on my reactivated phone just two days later.

“Gretchen, let’s talk. We need to have a business meeting.”

“I don’t work for you anymore. I haven’t for a year.”

“I’m not brain dead, I have an opportunity you might be interested in.”

While I was away, I heard that Grand Bretagne had closed down its website. I was guessing Brittany had some new scheme for me, some other unwanted tantalization to bring me down a rabbit hole. But I had grown stronger during my time away from her, coming to comprehend just how much she had kept me down by merely keeping me afloat. I had more to offer than she would ever permit under her reign. In fact, I had already lined up several interviews at various startups in the coming weeks. I wouldn’t tell Brittany this, naturally. She might ensure calling them all personally to give me a bad recommendation.

***

At Urth Cafe, still her basic bitch milieu of choice for rendezvousing, she commented on how tan and relaxed I looked. “Maybe Australia is your version of L.A.,” she added as a backhand to the compliment, inferring that the natural “rejuvenating effects” of the City of Angels made my pallor less demonically rouge than it ought to have.

“Thanks, you look great too,” I inserted hollowly.

“I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me so soon after your return, too. You must be super jet lagged.”

“Whatever.”

“Well, anyway, after you left I came to the conclusion that Grand Bretagne had served its purpose in my life. Fulfilled all the potential it was going to. And now I want to start something else. Something novelty yet retro at the same time.”

I braced myself for whatever she was about to say next, sipping my mineral water in silent expectation.

Disappointed by my overt lack of interest, she continued, “It’s a party company. As in: servicing all party needs–weddings, banquets, movie industry shit, whatever. But the twist is, everyone who hires us does so knowing that they have to get at least ten or more guests to agree to karaoke.”

I almost spit out my water. Had she gone mad? Had her out of touchness with the common man finally caused her to flip her lid with the worst business idea of all-time? And while my first reaction was to tell her how terrible this “company” was, I quashed my desire and instead filled her ears with obsequious encouragements. I wanted her to fall irrevocably on her flat ass for once. To know the sheer defeat of money not being a solution to daftness spurred by hubris. Only I had failed to take into account what she might want from me as part of her latest endeavor.

“I’m so glad you like the idea, because I want you to be a part of the Punk’d element I have in mind for it.”

Punk’d, I thought to myself. She really does have Lindsay Lohan syndrome–forever trapped in the mid-00s. “Um, sure. What did you have in mind?”

***

It was, incidentally, because of Brittany that I had given up my dreams of ever becoming a singer on even the smallest scale. It happened the night of a Christmas choir concert in junior year. She had attended under duress, and I told her not to even bother coming. In lieu, she brought five of her bitchiest friends (three girls, two gays) and proceeded to rip into the performance–most especially my solo–before offering to take me out to Mel’s Diner to celebrate. It was another classic case of what I called “whipping and petting”–critiquing me one second, and praising me the next. It was a constant psychological mind fuck to be both her friend and rival, and if I hadn’t been so intrigued by the car wreck of this attempt at showing her forward-thinking business acumen, I might have refused. But I didn’t. I was taken in by her flattery once more. “You have such a beautiful voice, but I haven’t heard you use it since those choir days. Why don’t you be part of the first little antic and, every time someone gets on stage to sing, you sing louder and better as the song goes on? It’ll be hilarious, they’ll love it.”

Will they? I said internally, but somehow still consented to offer my services, and for the generous fee of $1,500 per gig.

The first booking we had was a wedding reception. It only took about an hour for the guests to get drunk enough to partake of the karaoke Brittany had planted. It dawned on me at one point that her need to start a prank-based party and entertainment service stemmed from the sickness of having no outlet to channel her popular girl power after high school. Of not being able to direct who got laughed at and who left the room unscathed. It was then that her need to birth Fêtard LLC all made sense to me. What didn’t is why she couldn’t fathom that people wouldn’t understand this meant “party animal” in French (her and her fucking French) and would likely bandy the word “retard” on Yelp if they didn’t like what she had to offer. Then again, thanks to the politically correct times that had arisen, maybe such an “epithet” could be avoided as a remonstrance.

When the moment arrived for me to stand behind the curtain and slowly emerge with my microphone while revealing that I had been the one upstaging the karaoker, I couldn’t have anticipated how clammed up I would get at the prospect of singing publicly again. In fact, I completely froze as I heard the first person get on to butcher “Like A Virgin,” always an ironic choice for a wedding celebration. It was as though fucking Ursula had snatched my voice right out of my throat. But no, it was Brittany who had, all those years ago. And I came to terms in that flash with just how much she had done a number on my psyche.

When a brief pause arose, Brittany seized the chance to come backstage and sneer at me. She was dressed in sparkly black tights and frilly stilettos of a lavender velvet composition. Her bodycon white lace dress with a tutu flourish at the waist appeared to be a contrived strategy for upstaging the bride. “Two people have already sang their songs, Gretchen–why haven’t you been doing as I asked? Do you want to get paid for this or not?”

Taking a deep breath, I replied, “I’m sorry, I’m more nervous than I thought.”

“That’s real cute. Now get your shit together and sing for the next one.” She stalked off before I could protest. She knew, in any case, that I wouldn’t even if she had lingered a few ticks longer.

And so, when the next guest, who I later understood was the groom’s brother, got onstage to belt out “You Give Love A Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, I had to do my best to make it sound better. Or at least more operatic. As I grew louder and louder on the mic, it appeared as though no one knew what was supposed to be happening, that their song was supposed to be contrasted with my better vocals as some bizarre means to accent their talentlessness and inferiority. Except my voice sounded more incongruous singing this than Jerry’s. Jerry, who, vexed rather than, as Brittany predicted, delighted by my sudden emergence from behind the curtain, proceeded to burst into tears and confess to everyone in the room that he had been in love with his brother’s new wife from the second he saw her. 

It was a quickly escalating shit show from there, appetizers flying, plates crashing, accusations shouted–the gamut–and I was left standing awkwardly with a spotlight on me and the microphone held at my side, clutching to it as though it might be able to teleport me elsewhere if I did so tightly enough. All in all, it wasn’t exactly positive reinforcement for me to want to ever sing again. And as I gathered my things, I saw Brittany sitting serenely with her feet up at one of the tables, watching me start to leave in a state of horrification. She grinned at me and raised her glass, satisfied with the knowledge that, if nothing else, at least Fêtard LLC had, once again, allowed her to unequivocally mirror my inadequacy back to me.

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