"Are you here alone?" asked a woman. She was so compelled by my lone state on a morning mimosa sail (italics seem necessary to capture the easy listening FM essence of such an adventure) around the shores of Newport, Rhode Island, that she put her face mask back on (as was required for anyone leaving the squares laid on in blue painter's tape designating safe, socially distanced seating areas) and walked across the boat to ask me.
"Yeah," I answered with a smile, but she was hard of hearing so I had to repeat slightly louder, nodding and grinned emphatically to get the point across. I took a drink from the plastic cup full of low-strength mimosa that I paid $33 to drink on this boat. "Good for you!" She smiled back with an added thumbs up, then immediately returned to her seat, her curiosity over the woman in the crop top getting buzzed alone on a sailboat seemingly quelled.
Yes, I was alone, feeling the wind in my hair and the curious gazes from my fellow passengers. But I was on a mission: to step into the drunken, messy shoes of the Real Housewives of New York by visiting one of the very places they vacation on this current season of the hit Bravo reality series. The status-hungry crew of pushy, loud, middle-aged egomaniacs—which includes Ramona Singer, Luann de Lesseps, and Sonja Morgan, and new recruit, cool-adult fashion designer Leah McSweeney, who is at least 20 years her counterparts junior—had gone on a weekender to Newport. It was there that McSweeney got wasted and went completely off the rails, and it was some of the most compelling, fully bonkers reality TV I have ever laid eyes on. Her co-stars, too, didn't disappoint in their collective self-involved, Upper West Side wasted-style shenanigans, but McSweeney took the cake on their jaunt.
When she joined the cast this season, McSweeney divulged to her castmates that she'd gone nine years sober by choice but had recently decided to start drinking again. Within ten episodes of her entrance into the Bravo reality universe, she'd had two full-blown, alcohol-fueled bouts of berserk escapades. On her first, a nearly-naked McSweeney, drenched from skinny dipping in co-star Ramona Singer's Hamptons pool, flung tiki torches across the lawn, screaming about what they represent. On her second, the hotel employees of an upscale Newport hotel were treated to a wild-eyed McSweeney removing her boot, kicking a camera, getting groped and dragged across the grass by fellow shithoused co-star Sonja Morgan, screaming, sobbing, writhing on the ground, and spreading a single leg on the dining table and twerking against it. To say this dinner was the most chaotic version of The Last Supper, and that McSweeney has been an excellent addition to the cast, is an understatement.
So why would I, a Mexican-American writer from the San Diego/Tijuana border region, want to emulate the drunken antics of a bunch of rich, white yapping New York socialites? The answer is an amalgam of reasons embarrassingly intrinsic to every cliché rom-com. Reason 1: I was about to turn 36. Aside from the faint reminders of mortality that appear in the form of some gray hairs and late-onset lactose intolerance, I don't care about aging, unlike the Housewives who battle every creeping wrinkle using the riches culled from their traveling cabaret show or Century 21 Nantucket divorcée collection. Reason 2: I had just broken up with my boyfriend. It's embarrassing how obvious of a reason this is for doing a RHONY -inspired pilgrimage. (This is the second mention of embarrassment because I want to assure any readers I'm aware of it.) Reason 3: Have you seen this place?? A global pandemic, national uprisings, mass layoffs, a media reckoning I was about to be part of, simply living as a woman of color… I mean, put me on a boat and dump me in the Mariana Trench! Reason 4: I had done extensive research to ensure the utmost safety for myself and others, and was assured by the precautions being taken by hotel, restaurants, and rental car companies. Reason 5 (and perhaps the most compelling reason): To paraphrase something once said by Kanye West, my life is dumb and I do dumb shit. Why not Eat, Pray, Love my way through a fancy New England town?
I showed up at the LaGuardia Airport Budget Rent A Car to pick up a Ford Fiesta at 9 a.m. on a Sunday, chosen because like that subcompact sedan, I, too, was ready to party. But I immediately found myself in rental car hell. Just when I was about to lose my mind, an angelic woman named Aubrey saved the day, going above and beyond to help a stranger attempting to go on a live, laugh, lobster quest. I was so overwhelmed by her kindness and generosity, I ended up sobbing and embracing her for probably too long in the middle of the Queens Dollar Rental and a global pandemic. It was not the energy I was hoping to kick off my RHONY adventure with, but to be fair, having a public meltdown is actually very on brand for a Real Housewife of any city.
There's something really freeing about taking to the road in a part of the country you barely know, venturing to a new place, finding quiet space to be alone in your thoughts, and stopping at a McDonald's to get a no. 2 Extra Value Meal. Being on your own on a trip forces you to decide what you and only you want, whether it's the romantic relationship you left behind or a McFlurry. I'd never done that before. I leaned in all the way, cranking some Sheryl Crow like the aging-ass bitch I am. Everyday really is a winding road!
I arrived at Hotel Viking in Newport, checking in at the front desk that had been enclosed in plexiglass. Everyone, including myself, wore masks. I had been told ahead of time that if I wanted a robe, I would need to request it so one can be disinfected and brought to me. I put in the request immediately as I fully intended on being a robe queen for my entire stay. I changed into a Real Housewives approved look—a cream, sleeveless turtleneck, jeans, and snake print mules—and made my way to Clarke Cooke House, a casual chic restaurant along Bannister's Wharf that serves New England classics. Once there, the hostess took my name and phone number so as to contact me in the future should they become aware of a coronavirus case within the restaurant.
It was at that colonial-home-turned-eatery-turned-reality-TV-set where Ramona Singer, always obsessed with finding a monied man to flirt with, pestered some yacht bro with shockingly unsubtle teasing. Morgan and de Lesseps joined in, too, never to be left behind when it comes to the attention of some Brooks Brothers-looking finance Chad. The incessant flirting led to an argument about proper seating times, and McSweeney flung a ravioli at Morgan and Singer before storming off. Clearly, I needed to be there, to pay homage to that flying ravioli and the beautiful unrestrained horniness that makes Singer the star she is. I ate a lobster roll and drank white wine until my face felt fuzzy. I looked around for someone I could pester with an annoying flirtation (an actual favorite pastime of mine), but the restaurant was operating at small capacity for safety reasons. There was an old man with wraparound sunglasses secured to his body by a strap that fell down his back. In any other time, and safer circumstances, I would've tapped into my inner Ramona just for the hell of it and said something like, "You ever tie anyone up with that long sunglass strap." Instead, I watched him take down numerous martinis from 30 feet away until he swayed out of my life forever. I'd hoped maybe I could order a ravioli to toss, but they had been taken off the menu, so no dice there either. I wobbled out of Clarke Cooke House, disappointed but not defeated, and walked through a park towards my hotel. I ran into a man calling himself DJ Apple, having earned that moniker because he liked smoking weed out of apples, he told me. "Sick," I said. DJ Apple then played me a song from his mobile DJ booth, and spoke the lyrics to me of a euro-dance song he was blasting: only love can turn your life around. Fuck me up.
Once back to my hotel room, I wrapped myself in the disinfected robe, sprawling across the soft hotel bed and blissfully passing out watching one of my favorite 80's movies, Betsy's Wedding. I'm not ashamed to say Alan Alda can get it.
The following afternoon, after my morning mimosa sail, I made a dinner reservation at the elegant Castle Hill Inn, where rooms run $1,805/night. The gorgeous historic inn is perched on a cliff's edge right on the water, and housed the RHONY ladies during their stay. It was there where Morgan girlishly, and after a few cocktails, exclaimed, "The sea air smells so good! My skin feels so good! I actually feel horny again, don't you?" It was also there that McSweeney's now-infamous wasted meltdown took place. Naturally, it was the only place to spend my final night in Newport.
My very lovely but decidedly not-$1,805/night hotel had ordered a van to take me to the Castle Hill Inn once I realized that Lyfts were not available in the town. A clunky, Chevy van, the kind you warn children never to enter, hobbled onto the driveway with a grumble intrinsic to all 80s-made machinery. Not the preferred mode of transportation for the RHONY gang, but a chariot's a chariot. Waiting in the driver's seat was an elderly man with a face covered in moles and skin tags, ready to deliver me to my destination. He had a gruff, New England accent, made even more so by his surgical mask. I handed him $25 in cash, the agreed upon price for the ride, and he slowly counted it and stuffed it into a white envelope. As we drove along, he pointed out the sites with a blunt tone only an old man tired of everyone's shit can pull off. A massive gilded mansion owned by, I dunno, some rich asshole that deserves the guillotine; another monstrous estate, probably also inhabited by guillotine-worthy billionaires. "That right there is a very exclusive ladies clothing store," he pointed out. It was a Talbots.
Finally at Castle Hill Inn, I settled down at the near-empty outdoor terrace (again, they only allowed a small number of diners for safety concerns and took my information) and ordered an Aperol Spritz. The view was spectacular. I could see why it got Morgan so horned up. Adirondack chairs lined the grass along the cliff's edge, and I watched as women took endless selfies holding their glass of wine. I ordered lobster, and wine, then more wine, and finally decided it was my turn. I wouldn't get dragged across the grass or spread a leg across a table or writhe on the cold, wet grass, but I could sit on a chair and drunk dial my favorite people. "Heyyy biiiitch," I slurred at my poor friends back in California, then shortly freed them from the call because it was too dark out to actually see them. So I just took videos of myself, the drunk almost-36-year-old fool with a heart of gold set free. The circumstances of the coronavirus rendered this trip companionless by necessity, and it was impossible to have basic human interactions because of social distancing, but still, it was perfect and what would be the last taste of normalcy I'd have until who knows when.
To borrow former Housewife Bethenny Frankel's tagline from back in season 7, "I'm not a housewife, but I am real." I may not have the checking account, or ugly clothing line, or ridiculous dance-pop career, or complete lack of shame that is required to be a Real Housewife of New York, but I can pretend for a little while… as a treat.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. You can follow her on Twitter.