One in the morning! Tonight is tomorrow, and disbelief is suspended—or at least left outside on the curb, blocked by the velvet rope. Inside a vaguely South African–themed nightclub called Cain, a pale-skinned, blonde-haired girl named Sophie is on the dance floor. She sports a yellow blouse with a plunging neckline, white jeans that look grafted to her skin, andshimmery ice-pick heels. Yesterday, Sophie graduated from a certain all-girls private school uptown, and she is still three years shy of being legal in such an establishment, though right now that’s irrelevant. Right now, Sophie is a woman in her twenties, just like her I.D. says, and just like she told the guy in the preppie blazer with the gelled-back hair on the dance floor. He’s sort of annoying. But sort of cute too. And very likely graduated from high school right around the time Sophie was born.
“Him? Yeah, I think he’s like 35, or even 40,” observes Sophie’s friend Audrey. “She hooked up with him last week at Lotus.”
Audrey is also 18, also pale and blonde. When she imagines herself in ten years she sees a successful woman working as “a representative of some corporation. Like if I’m doing press for JPMorgan, that’s fine.” She is slouched in the banquette running alongside the dance floor, sipping her second Grey Goose and cranberry. Next to her is Lana, 17, all long brown hair and big, drowsy brown eyes. The three girls (whose names have been changed “because otherwise our parents will freak”) are jaunty, sweet-natured, sophisticated, and acutely self-aware. They know which is the dessert fork. The last time any of them looked their age, they were in elementary school. Like so many privileged New York kids, they have been taught, since they were small children, never to act like children.
“Apparently I hooked up with him last week at Lotus, but I don’t remember” is how Sophie had described the incident to her friends earlier that day over lunch at Nello, on Madison Avenue. “That was totally uncharacteristic, and you know it. I don’t just randomly hook up with people. I can count the number of guys I’ve kissed on”—Sophie did some math with her manicured fingers—“two hands. But I’d only had a sushi roll for dinner, and we drank way too much.”
Audrey rolled her eyes and mentioned another guy from the Lotus night, a man who was married.
Sophie: “I didn’t hook up with him!”
Audrey: “Oh, I thought you did.”
“The married guy kissed me, but we didn’t hook up,” Sophie clarified. At that, the girls cracked up.
Such is the secret life of a certain kind of New York girl: precocious, a touch lonely, alienated by boys her age, and eager to trade in the husk of adolescence for the façade of womanhood by spending a few nights a week in places she’s technically not allowed to go. If not Cain, then Marquee; if not Marquee, then PM; if not PM, then Bungalow 8; if not Bungalow 8, then Hiro. The lighting is dim, the music loud. Reality chips apart. Assistants become partners at the firm, married men are temporarily single, fifth-floor walk-ups morph into luxury lofts, and high-school girls become the most eligible women in the room. Being a teenager anywhere is to want, more than anything, to be old; being a teenager in the ageless playground of New York City—especially a girl, especially at night—is to be able to pull it off. And in this age of perpetual adolescence, when adults worship teenage pop deities like Lindsay Lohan—whom Audrey saw the other night in the bathroom at Bungalow 8—there are plenty of men with receding hairlines and disposable incomes who want to play 21, too.
“But it’s complicated,” Sophie explained as the waiter cleared her pasta at Nello. “It’s nice going out and meeting older guys, but at the same time it’s also kind of weird.” Until recently, Sophie was dating a guy in his twenties who lived with an older married couple in the luxury-magazine business. She’d lie to her parents (“Mom, I’m crashing at Audrey’s …”) only to find herself accidentally emulating her parents’ lifestyle. “It was like I was hanging out with who my parents were ten years ago,” she said. “But that’s nothing. Did you guys hear about—?” Sophie whispered the name of a classmate. “She was sleeping with this married guy in his forties. He had kids. That is just wrong.”
“Ewww, are you serious?” asked Lana.
Stories like these hover about. The girl involved with the music exec, the girl who had an affair with a Hamptons promoter, the girl who found herself skinny-dipping in a rooftop pool with some gray-haired guy. Even Audrey recently went to dinner with a lawyer the girls pegged at about 45 years old. He told her that “he got a lot of free stuff,” invitations to private parties, movie premieres, sample sales, sneak peeks, you name it—and that she and her friends were welcome to come along anytime. It was the standard older-guy pitch. Audrey went because she wanted to see, as she put it, “if he just wanted to be friends or what.” They went to Nello.
“People were giving him weird looks,” said Audrey, summing up the night for Sophie and Lana. “I felt awkward. He was just really underdressed. I was considering going out with him, but not the way he was dressed. In the end he paid for dinner and I had a really good meal. I had $50 ravioli.”
“I feel bad using guys,” said Lana. “I feel like there’s always an obligation.”
“Yeah, Audrey,” Sophie chimed in. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know!” cried Audrey. “I’ve never done this with any man. It’s just … ” She paused. “At least he’s not a 17-year-old boy, you know?”
“I know,” agreed Lana. “I have nothing to say to those boys.”
“I honestly feel like a 30-year-old trapped in the body of a high-school girl,” said Audrey. “I don’t know if that goes for all girls in New York, or just us, if it’s just the life we’ve been living.”
It’s like when they watch Sex and the City: What they see is not the story of four women twice their age looking for genuine love in superficial surroundings. They see themselves.
“I’m ready, honestly, to be married and pregnant,” said Lana. “Not children, but just pregnant. I know how it sounds. I don’t care. I want to have my belly and my man.”
“Me too,” said Audrey. “People say I should be excited about college, but I’m like, ‘Um, no.’ I want to get on with my life.” She sipped her iced tea and added, “I’ve never been in love.”
“Me neither,” said Lana quietly. “We’re going to be single all our lives.” They considered this.
“What are we doing later?”
“As far as the girls go, here’s how it works,” says Richard Sung, a.k.a. D.J. Crooked, perched in the D.J. booth at a vaguely Japanese-themed club called Hiro, one of the girls’ favorite spots to dance. It’s a typical Thursday night, packed and palpitating; a woman wearing spandex lingerie swings gracefully from the ceiling. A regular at such places, Sung has developed a philosophy about the subtext of New York nightlife: “The more upscale the club, the younger the girls and older the guys. Look around. The girls out there, they’re anywhere between 18 and, maximum, 23. The guys are 23 to, like, 50. It’s why it works, you know? It’s fucked up, but whatever.”
The girls decide that Hiro isn’t happening tonight, and head over to Gypsy Tea, a club on 24th Street that feels a lot like Hiro. They sit at the owner’s table and dance on the dark couches. Around them, like a halo, stands a ring of older men staring, hoping, debating first lines in their minds. “My feeling is that if they’re in here, they’re 21,” says a ruddy-faced man in his forties with a crew cut. “And that’s where I stop asking questions. So you can tell me they’re 18 and I’m basically just like, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ”
“Whenever we do stuff, I feel guilty about it,” said Lana’s much older boyfriend, after dumping her at the prom.
A thirtyish guy with slicked-back hair in a pink polo shirt approaches Lana, sticks out his fleshy hand, and says, “Dance with me.” A moment later she is sandwiched between him and his friend, who’s wearing a blue polo shirt. Eventually, Sophie and Audrey pull Lana away. The polo pals high-five each other.
Pink shirt: “I’m just here to get laid.”
Blue shirt: “But it never happens with little girls like that.”
Overhearing this, a 31-year-old wearing a black suit and baseball cap shakes his head. “It kind of disturbs me to see all my friends hitting on girls twenty years younger than them,” he says. “I guess the girls just don’t care. Maybe they just care about the money, I don’t know. It all comes down to that because, come on, it’s not like they’re going to fall in love in a place like this. They can’t possibly think they will. I’ll tell you, I feel really terrible for women my age, in their thirties and forties. There’s no market for them anymore. Everything is about girls like these.” He takes a sip of his Heineken and suddenly changes his tone. “But, God, they’re the hottest people in here, aren’t they?”
Tonight at Cain, the girls have a “table,” meaning they’ve agreed to spend $600 for the minimum two bottles of liquor, which in turn gives them a sliver of prime real estate on the banquette. “Look, a place like this is all about money first,” explains Adam Alpert, a promoter for Cain who is standing next to the D.J. as the girls stroll inside. “First money, then celebs, then the girls, who are really just here to feel cool and meet older guys with money.”
No one has discussed who is going to pay for the bottles tonight. When Sophie was hanging out with the married couple, the husband tended to pay, but ever since that relationship sputtered out, she and her friends have scrounged together cash from their allowances. They don’t pay with credit cards, because at clubs like this, you have to show I.D. when using a credit card, and the moment you do that is the moment the artifice crumbles.
The girls are dancing to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” a song almost older than they are, when one of the D.J.’s makes his way over to Lana. Outside of clubs, Lana is shy, even a little clumsy. She looks younger than the other girls, although that didn’t stop a 27-year-old from asking her out on her 15th birthday. “I wouldn’t have been into the whole going-out thing if it weren’t for them,” she says of Sophie and Audrey. More than club life, Lana likes sleeping over at Audrey’s apartment, staying up all night listening to Stevie Wonder and mocking Audrey’s taste in corny movies. But inside a club, something shifts and Lana becomes one of those dancers who is disturbingly confident. She stretches out her arms, leans back, shakes her shoulders—“That’s her move,” says Sophie—and the men jockey for position. The D.J. is a hell of a dancer—handsome, too, in a personal-trainer sort of way—and probably somewhere around 25. It’s an age Lana has developed a theory about. “It’s like the whole quarter-life-crisis thing,” she likes to say. “Guys in their twenties, they feel like they’re getting older. They’re starting to look back. So they come to us, wanting to feel a little younger, a little more free-spirited and lighthearted.”
In theory, anyway. The reality is more complicated. Lana recently had a bad experience with a guy that age. It all went down at the prom, of all places, the whole debacle an unfortunate reminder of the pitfalls of growing up in a city where no one acts their age. Three weeks ago, the girls made what in retrospect proved to be a poor decision: asking some twentysomething finance guys they were seeing to be their prom dates. The guys did everything they could to get out of it. They didn’t have tuxedos, they said. Didn’t know where to buy corsages. One even confessed that he was being seriously chastised by his friends. And so the girls did everything they could to ease the discomfort: paying for a private table, renting an Expedition instead of sharing a limo with their classmates. But the illusion was already infected by reality, and the night was a disaster.
“It wasn’t a good idea to bring them there,” says Audrey. “It just made everything too concrete, the fact that we are still in high school.”
It was Lana’s date who had the crisis of conscience. He left in the middle of the dance. That he and Lana had been sleeping together for a few weeks made this all the more intense. Lana thought everything was going to work out when they met up after the prom at PM, and she found herself on the dance floor with her boyfriend. He was kissing her neck and whispering in her ear, “You’re so sweet, you’re adorable, you’re perfect, and, you know, we have really great conversations. Really, you’re everything I want.” For a moment, Lana thought he was simply apologizing for acting like such a child at the prom and started kissing him back. That’s when he said it, the part about not being sure it was going to work between them.
“You know,” she tried, “I don’t expect anything from you.”
Then he said something that’s been ringing in her ears ever since: “But whenever we do stuff, I just feel guilty about it afterward.”
Guilty! He’d just pawned off his shame on her! How … juvenile!
Lana ran outside to the Expedition and had a drink in the backseat. It was 5:30 in the morning. She wanted to go home, but just then a limo pulled up next to her car—a limo that had nothing to do with the prom. Things were blurry. Somehow Lana and a friend ended up in the limo. Just dumped by a guy in his twenties, now she was riding around with a bunch of “Euro-trash guys in their forties and fifties.” One of the men put a dollar bill in her purse that turned out to be filled with cocaine. Another did a line off her friend’s hand. Lana doesn’t do coke—none of her friends do, they’ve seen too many of their classmates go through rehab—and couldn’t figure out if what was happening was comic or tragic. When everyone started talking about going back to the hotel, “to party,” Lana hailed a cab.
“That night was crazy,” she recalls, without a trace of nostalgia. The truth was, dumb as it sounds, she’d just wanted a normal prom night. She wanted to feel, for once, before she was no longer a teenage girl, like a teenage girl. “Sometimes I hate this city,” she says. “Sometimes I hate what growing up here does to you.”
All night long at Cain, the men come and go, buying drinks, paying compliments, attempting to dance, asking for numbers. The guy in the preppy blazer whom Sophie hooked up with at Lotus comes over for one more attempt, suggesting they all get a drink sometime soon—like maybe in the next hour, maybe someplace quiet. When it’s clear that he’s not going to get a repeat performance, he finally says good-bye.
As the crowd thins, the bill arrives: $900. “What the fuck is this?” demands Audrey. Apparently someone ordered a third bottle, which has barely been touched. The girls had hoped that the college boys in their entourage might pay for the liquor, but they’re refusing. And the girls have only $200 in cash. “We will call the police,” the manager says sternly, ignoring the fact that if the police are called, it’s the club that will be in real trouble. Audrey thinks about those nights out with the married guy, the one Sophie’s ex-boyfriend lived with, how men like that always paid and generally treated the girls with chivalry, like grown-ups. For now though, she’ll have to be a grown-up, sort of, and take care of things herself. She makes cute faces, professes ignorance, apologizes. Eventually, her antics get the third bottle removed from their bill.In the meantime, Lana and Sophie are over it. They yawn dramatically, leave their money with Audrey, and head outside.
“Whatever,” says Sophie. “I’m tired.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” says Lana. “We should go out.”
Kiss-kiss. And good-night.