This is a story about two people with jobs. Two people with very important jobs. Two very important people, with two very important jobs, who are married to each other and have exactly one child.
Meet James and Winnie Dieke (“it’s pronounced ‘deek,’ not ‘dyke'”). The perfect couple. They live in a five-room apartment on the Upper West Side. They graduated from Ivy League colleges (he, Harvard; she, Smith). Winnie is 37, and James is 42—the perfect age difference, they like to say. They’ve been married nearly 10 years. Their lives revolve around their work and their child.
They love to work. Their work keeps them busy. Their work separates them from other people. Their work, in their minds, makes them superior to other people. They are journalists. Serious journalists. Winnie writes a politics-and-style column (“Is that an oxymoron?” James asked her) for a major newsmagazine. James is a well-known and highly respected journalist—he writes worthy 5,000-to-10,000-word pieces for publications like The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and The New Yorker.
James and Winnie agree on just about everything. They have definite opinions. “There’s something wrong with people who don’t have informed opinions about things,” Winnie said to James, when they met for the first time at a party in an apartment on the Upper West Side.
Everyone at the party was “in publishing” and under 35. Most of the women—like Winnie—were working at women’s magazines (something Winnie never talks about now). James had just won an American Society of Magazine Editors award for a story on fly-fishing. Everyone knew who he was. He was tall and skinny, with floppy, curly brown hair. (He’s still tall and skinny, but he’s lost most of his hair.) There were women all around him.
Here are a few things Winnie and James agree on: They hate anyone who isn’t like them. They hate anyone who is wealthy and gets press. They hate trendy people and things (but James just bought a pair of Dakota Smith sunglasses, and they drive a BMW). They hate anyone who has appeared on TV, with the exception of Michael Kinsley and Ted Koppel (everyone else is a “lightweight”). They hate people who do drugs. They hate people who drink too much (unless it’s one of their friends, and even then they complain about the person often). They hate the Hamptons (but take a house there, anyway, in Sag Harbor). They believe in the poor. (They do not know anyone who is poor, except their Jamaican nanny, who is not exactly poor.) They believe in black writers. (They know two, and Winnie is working on becoming friends with a third—whom she met at a convention.) They hate music. They think fashion is silly (but secretly identify with the people in Dewar’s ads). They believe in women writers (as long as the women do not become too successful or get too much attention or write about things the Diekes do not approve of, like sex—unless it’s lesbian sex).
James says he is a feminist, but he always puts down women who are not like Winnie (including her sister). They put down women who do not have children. Who are not married. Winnie gets sick at the sight of a woman she considers a slut, a gold digger, a whore. The Diekes don’t know people who go to clubs or who stay out late, or who have sex (except Winnie’s sister). People who stay up late cannot, by their definition, be “serious.”
It takes the Diekes all day (and often well into the evening) to get their work done. Then, they are so exhausted, they can only go home and eat dinner (prepared by the Jamaican nanny) and go to sleep. (Winnie has to get up at 6 to be with her child and go running, which is becoming a real chore, ever since their son outgrew the baby jogger.)
At home, they are cozy and superior, and sometimes, when they’re not working, they sit around in fuzzy flannel pajamas with their son, who is 4. Winnie and the boy wear slippers in the shape of stuffed animals, and Winnie makes their slippered, stuffed animal feet talk to each other.
The child is a sweet, happy and beautiful child who never complains. “But he’s a real boy,” Winnie always says to her friends.
It always shocks Winnie when she says this. It makes her a little afraid, because she does not like to admit that men and women are different. (If men and women are different, where does it leave her?) Winnie believes (no, knows) that she is smarter than James (even though she’s not sure that he will ever admit it), and as good a journalist as he is, and as good a writer.
She often thinks that she is actually better than he (in every way, not just journalism), but he (being a man) has gotten more breaks. James’ style of writing and her style of writing (which she picked up from James, who picked it up from other writers of his tall, gaunt, khakis-and-button-down ilk) was not hard to figure out how to do, once she understood the motivation. Ditto for their conversational style: pseudo-intellectual and desperately clever at the same time: clintellectual. (Tell me I’m smart—or I’ll wound you.)
Winnie is deeply bitter and James is deeply bitter, but they never talk about it.
‘Our Salon’ James is scared about his work. Every time he finishes a piece, he’s scared he won’t get another one. When he gets another assignment (he always does, but it doesn’t make any difference), he’s scared he won’t make the deadline. When he makes the deadline, he’s scared his editor (or editors—there are always faceless editors lurking around in dark little offices at magazines) won’t like the piece. When they like the piece, he’s scared that it won’t get published. When it does get published, he’s scared that no one will read it or talk about it. If people do talk about it (and they don’t always, do they?), he’s scared he won’t be able to pull it off again. But most of all, James is scared of his wife. Winnie.
She doesn’t seem to be scared of anything—and that scares him. When Winnie should be scared—when she has an impossible deadline, or can’t get people to cooperate on interviews, or doesn’t think she’s getting the assignment she wants—she gets angry instead of scared. She calls people and screams. She faxes, she e-mails. She marches into her editors’ offices and has “hissy fits” (his term, and he’d never tell her he uses it). “I hope you’re not implying that my work isn’t good enough,” she says to editors. “Because I’ve already done a kazillion [that’s one of her favorite words, kazillion] stories for you and they were good enough. So if suddenly you don’t want to give me the assignment …. ” She lets her voice trail off. She never says the word: “sexism.” But it hangs in the air, like a glass ornament, threatening to break and draw blood. Everyone is just a tiny bit scared of Winnie, and James is scared that one of these days she won’t get the assignment, or she’ll get fired. But she always gets the assignment.
At the potluck suppers (“our salon,” they call it) they host every other Tuesday night (they invite other serious journalists like themselves, and discuss the political implications of everything from the V-chip to rent hikes, to what’s happened to the journalists who were fired from New York Newsday, to the scandal of 60 Minutes pulling its planned segment on the Clinton Whitewater book), Winnie will discuss whatever story she is working on. Everyone will be sitting with Limoges plates on their laps, and they will be eating iceberg lettuce with fat-free salad dressing and skinless chicken breasts, and maybe some rice, and then there’s fat-free frozen yogurt for dessert, and Winnie will say, “I want to know what everyone thinks about the new NBC 24-hour news channel. I’m doing my column on it this week.”
When she started doing this, a few years ago, James thought it was cute. But now he gets annoyed. (He never shows it.) Why is she always asking everyone else what they think? Doesn’t she have her own thoughts? And he looks around the room to see if any of the other men (husbands) are sharing the same sentiment. He can’t tell. He can never tell. Maybe if people got drunk—but they only drink little, wee glasses of wine. No one they know drinks hard alcohol anymore.
James often wants to ask these other husbands what they think of their wives. Are they scared of them, too? Do they hate them? Do they ever have fantasies of pushing their wives down on the bed and ripping off their underpants and…. (James sort of tried something like that with Winnie, but she slapped him and wouldn’t talk to him for three days afterward.) Mostly, he wants to know: Are other men scared of Winnie?
Sometimes, James thinks Winnie is scared that he’s going to leave her. But she never says she’s scared. Instead, she says something like, “We’ve been married for 10 years and have a child. I’d get half of everything if we ever got divorced and it’d be awfully hard for you to live on half of what we own and only your income, minus child support.”
There are times when James doesn’t feel like the man in the relationship. But then he asks himself what Winnie would say if he told her that. She’d say, “What does it mean to ‘feel like a man,’ anyway? What does ‘a man’ feel like?” And since he never can answer those questions, he has to agree with Winnie.
On their second date, Winnie told James that, in the 70’s, she smoked marijuana (age 14), let boys feel her up and down (16), lost her virginity (17) to a neighborhood boy (18—very good-looking). They did it in the basement of his parents’ house, where he had a cot set up. After, he drove her home, and she can still remember him singing along to the radio (R.E.O. Speedwagon), oblivious to her wounded, yearning presence. He wasn’t impressed that she was going to Smith in the fall, and he didn’t care that she was No. 3 in her high-school class (tolerable only because the two students above her were boys). That night, she learned that achievement and intelligence were not a guarantee against being treated badly, and vowed never to be in that situation again.
Winnie’s birthday is coming, and James is scared. And excited. Because of Winnie’s sister. ‘Evil’ Winnie has a sister and a brother. Everybody loves Winnie’s brother. He graduated from UCLA film school and just finished a serious documentary about rice farmers in China.
But everybody “worries” about Winnie’s sister. Evie (“Evil,” Winnie calls her sometimes) is two years younger than Winnie. Eight summers ago, Evie had to go to Hazeldon. Since then, she’s changed her mind every six months about what she wants to do: Actress. Landscape architect. Singer. Real-estate agent. Novelist. Movie director. Painter. Now she wants to be a journalist. Like Winnie. Recently, Evie showed up at a very important, very serious party for a journalist who had just written a serious book about a right-wing politician. Evie’s blouse was unbuttoned too low and she was showing off her breasts. (She used to be fairly flat-chested, like Winnie, but a couple of years ago, her breasts mysteriously grew and Winnie thinks she had breast implants.) Evie walked up to the important journalist and locked him in a conversation. The women were fuming, but they couldn’t “take care of” Evie the way they normally would have because she was Winnie’s sister.
The next day, Winnie got a call from a female colleague who said Evie had gone to the important journalist’s hotel room. ”
Winnie, I just want you to know that I’m not going to judge you by your sister’s behavior,” she said.
Then Evie herself called. “I think I’m going to get an assignment from The New York Times,” she said.
“Stay the fuck out of my life,” Winnie screamed at her. “You’re ruining everything.” Then she added, “Why don’t you get a job at a fashion magazine if you want to be a journalist so much?”
“Oh, no,” Evie said. She swallowed loudly. She was drinking a Diet Coke. She drank eight Diet Cokes a day. (Just another thing to be addicted to, Winnie thought.) Evie always acts as though her behavior is that of a normal, decent person. (She is in denial, James and Winnie think.)
“I’m going to change my life,” Evie said, “I’m going to be successful. Respected. Maybe even powerful. Just like my big sis.”
A Treat for James
Evie is a mess. Sometimes James wonders if he should have married her instead. Every year, James asks her to help him pick out Winnie’s birthday present. At first, he did it “as a treat for Evie.” (It was good for Evie to spend time around a man who wasn’t a user, an asshole or a scumbag—and Winnie agreed.) But then he realized that she was attracted to him.
He calls her up. “Evie,” he says.
“Hey, Bro,” Evie says.
“Did you hear I met … ,” she says, naming the important journalist. “And I might get my first assignment. With The New York Times. Pretty great, huh?”
Evie is always so chipper, James thinks. “It’s Winnie’s birthday,” James says (staying in control by getting right to the point).
“I know,” she says.
“Any suggestions?” He asks. “I think I want to get her something from Barney’s. Jewelry.”
“No, Jimmy,” Evie says. She’s the only person who has ever called him Jimmy. “You can’t afford jewelry worth giving anyone.”
This is why everyone hates you, he thinks. But he says, “So what then?”
“Shoes,” she says. “Winnie needs a great pair of high-heeled sexy shoes. I’ll help you.”
High-heeled sexy shoes are the absolute last thing that Winnie would want. “O.K.,” he says.
He agrees to meet Evie in the shoe department at Bloomingdale’s. He hangs up the phone and feels scared.
Then he realizes he has a hard-on.
This article was originally published in the June 24, 1996 edition of The New York Observer.
Candace Bushnell began Sex and the City as a column in The New York Observer in 1994; it subsequently became a book and a series on HBO.