Lilly Lejeune, ’90s nightlife ingenue, strolls past Tiffany’s. Her plan is to live her own best version of the iconic Manhattan film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The actress Audrey Hepburn is Lilly’s north-star.
Lilly glides from velvet-roped clubs to packed, sweaty dives, comforted by her fashion choices, her dirty martinis, the story of her glamorous rebellion and the arrangements she has with men to support her independence. But despite Lilly’s nostalgia, this is the ’90s and the grungy, heroin-chic, pre-gentrified NYC isn’t filmed in 1961’s Eastman color film stock. In this world, the extras are cloaked in hoodies as pagers beep, and votive candles flicker.
Time for one more round? Hell, yeah! Because no one leaves the East Village until night fades into the searing flames of day. Much like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lilly, her new writer friend upstairs, George Nichols, and her dive-bar locals have a choice: Hide in the neon, or wake up and face the day. Join them on the streets of Manhattan and see how they face the journey in Desert Hot Springs author Bruce Craven’s new novel, Sweet Ride.
Bruce Craven is a writer, public speaker and leadership consultant who is part of the faculty of executive education at Columbia Business School. He published the nonfiction book Win or Die: Leadership Secrets From Game of Thrones, the poetry collection Buena Suerte in Red Glitter and the novel Fast Sofa, which was made into a feature film. He lives in DHS with his wife and two sons.
Here is an excerpt from Sweet Ride.
Struggling screenwriter, George Nichols, has arrived in New York City, and after a long first day that included meeting his employer and going to a nightclub, he has also met Lilly Lejeune, who lives downstairs in the apartment building where he is staying. Lilly was at the same nightclub with her lover and now appears at his door the following morning, having stayed up all night.
Hungover, exhausted and half awake, George looks at the telephone in Dave’s apartment, trying to decide whether to ring Nicki’s new cell phone. His knees are scraped, and his slacks are ripped from the fall on the cement. New York has a three-hour time difference with California. Nicki had probably finished up her Pilates class and was on her way to the airport, maybe even on the plane. George hadn’t looked closely at the ticket. He jumps when the door of the apartment goes chock, chock. George stares at the door. He holds an empty can of tuna in his hand. He drops the can in the trash. Another chock, chock on the door. A small white puppy rattles a ceramic bowl at George’s feet, licking up all the tuna. The puppy barks at George. George’s head hurts. He looks at the puppy. The puppy is the size of a very big boot. What was George thinking? George vaguely remembers sitting on the curb at the corner of Ludlow and Stanton, trying to recite John Donne’s “The Flea” as the puppy licked tuna off his fingers. The puppy barked and looked very hungry and cute and George saw blood on the knees of his slacks. The knocking gets louder. Maybe it’s the little Mexican girl … could Nicki be surprising him already? George opens the door.
Lilly Lejeune is still dressed in her white gown and has the rhinestone tiara in her hair. Her eyes are a bit glazed from the long evening. She raises a brown bag of groceries, with her cigarette holder clenched in her teeth. “Can I come in, sailor?”
George looks down the hallway.
“Don’t worry, it’s just me, little Lilly Lejeune, all alone.” Lilly steps into the apartment before George answers. She hands George the sack and surveys the room. “I decided we must absolutely celebrate the beginning of your new project.” Lilly pulls a bottle of bubbly and a carton of orange juice from the grocery sack. “I love mimosas. Do you love mimosas too, George?”
“Sure?” Lilly gives him a look.
“Yes, I mean, yes. That sounds great. I was thinking how dull it felt being sober.”
“Can you rustle up some ice cubes?”
George walks into the kitchen, pulls out a fresh tray and knocks them into a bowl.
Lilly walks around the apartment. “The place is cleaner than I remember? Did Dave fix it up for you?”
“No, I worked on it yesterday. It was in bad shape.”
“I remember,” Lilly says in response to George’s look. “I popped up here on the rare moment, when Dave had friends over and it was too noisy to sleep.”
“Uh huh,” says George. Lilly would be Dave’s style.
“Is this your animal?” Lilly looks down at the puppy sniffing Lilly’s white heels.
“I guess so.”
“This is a pit bull. Don’t these dogs grow into big monsters that kill people?”
The puppy stares up at them. The act of sitting, a balancing act of incomprehensible delicacy, is a challenge that overwhelms the puppy, who keeps its eyes locked on George and Lilly. Ears flopping, the puppy rolls on its side, with its paws scrabbling for the floor.
“I think she wants to kill my shoe,” says George, “but I stopped her.”
“What’s its name?”
“I don’t know. I found her on the street, I guess. Last night is kind of hazy.”
“What you choose to take care of is your own business, George, but I think this animal is spoiled. I tried to feed it a chocolate croissant on the street yesterday and the animal refused my offer.” Lilly rubs the dog’s head. “Maybe the little monster is on a diet?”
“She ate a whole can of tuna in three seconds. Maybe she doesn’t like chocolate?”
“How can anyone not like chocolate?”
“She’s a dog. I think dogs die if they eat chocolate.”
“Do you know,” Lilly asks, “how bothersome it is to have to take care of a creature all the time? I have a parakeet that simply will not escape from its cage.”
Lilly unwraps foil from the cork of the champagne. She pops the cork and champagne foams, running down the bottle. George locates two glasses in the kitchen, mixes the champagne and orange juice together, clinks glasses and sips. “Hmm,” says Lilly. “Too bad we don’t have a yacht. It would be nice to be out on a big boat today.”
George picks up the puppy, and rubs her head. The puppy nips at George’s fingers. “No!” George points at the dog. “That is no!” He puts the puppy on the ground and watches it waddle toward his wing-tip near the unmade bed. “I think I better find her owner,” George says. “Or get some chew toys … or at least some cheaper shoes.”
“She needs a bath,” Lilly says. “She probably has fleas.”
George pulls the puppy away from the shoe and lifts her, running a finger over the puppy’s fur. George extracts a flea and pinches it between his fingers.
“Yuck,” says Lilly. “You better buy it a flea collar.”
The flea bisects between George’s fingernails. “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, how little that which thou deniest me is; it sucked me first, and now sucks thee …” George flicks the terminated flea out the window. “And in this flea our two bloods mingled be …”
“Maybe I’m just tired,” says Lilly, “but what are you talking about?”
“It’s from a poem called “The Flea,” which was written a long time ago in England. It’s about a man who wants to sleep with a woman. She resists him and he argues that she might as well give herself to him because their blood has already mingled in the flea.”
“That’s really disgusting,” says Lilly. “Why does she resist him?”
“I never thought about that,” says George. “Maybe he isn’t a great catch?”
Lilly punches his arm. “You’re too busy being smart. Shut up and drink your mimosa.”
George sips the champagne and orange juice.
“You look like you could use a little hair-of-the-dog,” Lilly says. “And not the kind filled with fleas.”
“If she didn’t resist him,” George points out, “he wouldn’t have written the poem …”
“Of course not. He would have been too busy making love to her.” Lilly sips her mimosa. “It’s a good thing what’s-her-name isn’t here. You probably wouldn’t get anything done.”
“Because I’d be making love?”
“Exactly,” says Lilly. “You are sharp, George. What’s-her-name must be terribly impressed to date the sort of man who can recite poetry, even if it is about fleas and blood.”
“I seem to please her.”
“Bottoms up,” says Lilly and clinks his glass. They each down their drinks. Lilly gets the champagne and orange juice and pours another round. “Isn’t this a grand way to start your new project?” Lilly sees the bouquet of roses. “Looks like someone beat me to it. Are these from what’s-her-name?”
“Her name is Nicolette. Yes. Nicki sent me the flowers.”
“She must love you terribly … or are you just a terribly good lover?”
“Do I have to choose?”
“Do you always date older women, George?”
“It’s not a pattern. Like I said, we met at a car accident.”
“Did you smash into her on purpose? Oh, wait … you already told me…”
“I was trying not to run a red light.”
“Too bad,” says Lilly. “Smashing into her on purpose is more romantic.”
“Sorry to let you down.”
“I wonder if she likes you because you’re not threatening?”
“Who says I’m not threatening?”
“Is it possible this woman has taught you special skills in the art of the boudoir … skills that only a woman of experience might know?”
“I’m 31. It’s just an eight-year difference.”
“OK,” Lilly holds up her hands. “Eight years seems like a lot, but I guess I’m used to the more traditional arrangement … older man, younger gal. Do you think this Nicolette would be jealous that I’m alone here … alone in your room with you?”
“No,” says George, thinking, Yes. “Why would she be?”
“Do you flirt with every stranger that knocks on your door?”
“Just the nice men with snazzy engagement rings on their fingers,” says Lilly. “A girl in the big city doesn’t see that very often … a handsome man wearing a snazzy ring to ward off evil women. I doubt it works, quite the opposite … besides, who says I’m flirting?”
George walks into the kitchen and splashes water on his face and brushes his teeth. He smooths water in his hair and checks his face in the cracked shard of mirror over the sink.
Lilly’s image sways in the glass shard. “Women like the challenge. A man with an engagement ring must be flirted with… it’s a test.”
“It’s not a test. It’s safe.”
“A-plus. You are bright.” Lilly sips her mimosa. “I like you, George. I don’t know quite why I like you so much, but I do.”
“Thanks. That’s nice to know.”
“Is she the jealous type?” asks Lilly. “For some reason I imagine this Nicolette to be the jealous type.”
“I imagine she gets jealous,” George says, “but not about me if I can help it.”
“Well, you better get to work on your project or I’m just going to get quite drunk.” Lilly walks to the desk with the typewriter. “I bet important things happen here,” she picks up the page on the desk and reads, “Boy meets girl… surfing.” Her eyes scan the page in the typewriter. She reads, “The waves were gone now. He sat on his surfboard and watched the beautiful girl in the green dress standing on the sand. Yes, he would love her forever.” Lilly sits on the edge of the desk, ponders the sentences. “I guess you got some work done already?”
“It is a beautiful typewriter,” she says. “Do writers still use typewriters?”
George shrugs. “I do, but I’m not sure if I count.”
“Don’t be silly, of course you count.”
He lights a cigarette. His first smoke of the day. His second cocktail. He still has one can of tuna left. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really. Why do you use a typewriter? Are you trying to be cool?”
George points to the photograph of his father on the hood of the Army Jeep. “The typewriter was my dad’s.” Lilly looks close at the photograph and sees the hard face of a man with a cigarette, dog tags and fatigue pants. He is shirtless in the jungle, sitting on the hood of a U.S. Army Jeep, with the typewriter on his lap. “I barely knew him,” George adds. “I was a little kid. All that came back from Vietnam were his dog tags and this typewriter. He was killed in a city called Quảng Trị.”
“I see where you get your good looks,” Lilly says, adding, “I’m sorry, George. I really am. I know what it’s like to lose a Dad. Only mine just ran away.”
“It’s tough, no matter what the reason.”
“Your father looks like an interesting man.”
“What are you doing here, Lilly?”
“Salvatore was ready for bed. I wasn’t.”
“What about your passionate affair?”
“I said, Passionate. I didn’t say, Predictable.”
The phone rings, and it’s a shattering rotary-dial rattle. George would let the answering machine pick it up, except there is no answering machine. “It’s probably for Dave.” George is thinking it’s Nicki.
“Unless it’s an emergency.” Lilly points to the phone, “No answering machine.”
“What if it’s your girlfriend?”
“Good thing,” says Lilly. “That is, if she’s the jealous type.”
“You act as if we have something to hide?”
The phone rings.
“Is she staying here with you?” Lilly makes a delicate attempt to sit in a chair. She hovers in a half-squat, with the tiara in her hair. “Dave’s place is very romantic. Rustic yet charming…” She straightens and touches the chair with her heel. Flakes of green paint flutter to the wood floor. Lilly presses one of the dowels in the chair and the chair collapses into a pile of wood. “Did you say what’s-her-name was an adventurous gal?”
“No, I didn’t,” George picks up the ringing phone.
Excerpted from Sweet Ride by Bruce Craven, copyright 2021 Bruce Craven, used with permission of the author and publisher.