against type

As some of you already know, I have a Notorious Neighbor (NN for short). There’s a strong chance you are familiar with his work, especially if you are a man. In fact, when one friend found out where I was going for the weekend, she passed along a message from her husband: “He is begging you to take him along. He’ll stow away in your suitcase. He’ll tie himself to the wing of the plane. He’ll be your slave. He doesn’t care.”

NN has an estate in Mexico — “I always wanted a tropical estate” he tossed off by way of explanation — where he often hosts people, famous and non-famous alike. This past weekend, my husband E and I joined him down there, along with several other non-celebrities, including a lean, easy-going, likeable guy named Ken, who works for a popular entertainment magazine. Ken is heading off to Rome this week to cover the TomKat wedding. “The fake wedding,” scoffed NN. “The wedding is real,” Ken quipped. “The baby is fake.” “Justine will read all about it,” said Ken’s wife, grinning at me, since NN had already singled me out as an enthusiastic observer of pop culture. “I have no interest in TomKat,” I said haughtily. “I care only for stories about Britney’s divorce.”

NN is an interesting character because in so many ways he is not what you’d expect. Over the weekend I became friends with a young actress I’ll call A. who appears on the show Studio 60 (who cracked us up with the Britney impersonation which helped land her that job). A. described the interior of a certain young socialite’s house, involving pink fuzzy pillows, mirrors, a stripper pole, photographs of this socialite everywhere, a video of this socialite playing endlessly on the plasma screen, the socialite’s album playing in the background, etc. You sense the theme. “Cheesy,” A. declared. You’d expect something similar from NN — who knows this socialite and her circle rather well — but what you get instead is an elegant, streamlined, sophisticated aesthetic, whether it’s his house in Los Angeles or his villa in Mexico. The staff in Mexico provides impeccable service, and NN was fine-tuning and tweaking things, soliciting our opinions: “Did they put candles in your room…? Did they unpack your stuff okay…? What do you think of that dessert, it’s good, right…? [The chef] does a variety of cuisines well, right? What do you want for dinner?” He also has such a ferocious drive for everything — for luxury, sensation, experience, conversation — that it makes him exciting and entertaining to be around (he can also be funny as hell)…and yet, that kind of appetite makes your life double-bladed. It helps drive you right into the thick of everything you’ve ever wanted but it could easily turn on you and cause a lot of damage if you don’t fight to keep it in line. Especially when the world opens wide — and stays open — in a way it does for very few people.

NN is too smart not to know this. He was kidnapped last year. His ordeal didn’t last longer than a night, and he emerged physically unscathed, but as Ken observed over the weekend — the experience affected him. It made an impression. Of course it did. It also meant he can casually start sentences with the phrase, “After I was kidnapped…” which gives a bit of jolt to the conversation. A jolt which I think he can’t help but enjoy: the one upside to the whole experience.

One of the highlights of the weekend was meeting A, who is entertaining, smart and funny, educated at Columbia and Duke and the Sorbonne, speaks three languages, was planning to be an international tax attorney before taking an acting class in LA, impressing her teacher and landing the first job she went out for. I was expecting somebody different. I first heard about her as “a friend of NN’s” who had “missed her flight” to Mexico (she was supposed to travel down on NN’s plane) and was hitching a ride with us instead. I groaned inwardly, thought, Okay, she’ll be 19, blonde, busty, nice enough to deal with but self-absorbed and utterly vacant and at least half an hour late. I showed up at the terminal, and there was a dark-haired woman in jeans sitting by the window, eating a Subway sandwich. My first impression: That can’t be her, because she looks like someone I’d actually like to hang out with. Plus she’s even earlier than I am. Plus she eats. She was also looking at me with the same blank expression, and it wasn’t until she overheard me giving the airport people the plane’s tail number that she realized who I was and introduced herself. Because she’d arrived at the terminal with her own expectations: “I heard you were ‘the wife’, right, and I thought you’d be all la-di-da,” she later told me, flipping a hand and lifting her nose in imitation, “loaded down with jewelry and ordering people around and I thought you’d be mean. But you came in and you were so down-to-earth and — and you got out of a cab. I just didn’t think that would be you.”

But we’ve both had too many encounters with people who give truth to the stereotypes that we could hardly blame each other.

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