She moves quickly and with purpose, threading the tight corridor between a hedge maze of cubicles and the string of office doors. Her stride is serious; I have a thousand questions, but the snap to her step suggests I should select only one. Maybe two. Nope, one. I try to take everything in, to remember the details-I'm going to want to recount them later, to relive this in my head-but we're moving so fast. I see paper. Lots of paper. And push-pins, I think, colorful ones, tacked directly into the cubicle walls, holding calendars, schedules, memos, and important lists (more paper!) in place. Marketing standees announce titles as Coming Soon, and a parade of book covers framed like art hang evenly spaced on the walls between doorframes, following me down the hall as if I'm viewing them through a zoetrope.
"I'm sorry, where are we going?" Just like that, my one question wasted. And I hate that I apologize. I have been invited here and I need to act like I belong before they figure out that I'm the wrong guy. An imposter. A dupe.
Without looking back, she says, "Conference room. End of the hall." Then, with barely a pause, "Would you like some water, James?" The sound of my name startles me. Hers is Lila. She told me, by the bank of elevators, where we were introduced. My agent's assistant told me it was Lisa, but that's typical Donna. Thank goodness Lila introduced herself before I had a chance to call her by the wrong name. That would have really started things out on the wrong foot. Lila has blond hair, but not so blond that you can't take her seriously. I really like her shoes.
"No. No water, thank you." I can't imagine walking this fast with a glass of water and not sloshing it everywhere, on my sleeve, or-heaven forbid-down the front of my pants. "I'm sorry I was late." Another apology, but this one is warranted.
"You were five minutes early."
Was I? "I'm usually ten minutes early, so in that sense I was late."
Lila ushers me inside the last room at the end of the hall. "Here we are. Conference room." She stares at me, and for the first time I notice her clothes are impeccably tailored. She's serious for a beige girl. That's what I've heard people call a lot of young women in publishing. I'm not fond of the term; it reeks of an unnecessary sexism. They're called that, beige girls, because they wear understated monotones and sweaters to match. But this girl (woman!) is a different animal. Power beige. Like a caf-au-lait color, or camel or ecru.
"It's nice," I say, about the conference room, which is stupid. It makes me sound impressed, like I've never seen such a room before, and of course I have. I've worked at pretty much every office in Midtown in a never-ending string of toxic, depressing temp jobs. This conference room is exactly like any other conference room, with a bulletin board, a whiteboard, a phone in the center of a long table (at least I think it's a phone-it looks somewhat like a light-up game I had as a child), and a set of dry-erase markers.
"It serves a purpose." Her enthusiasm is considerably less than mine.
Yes, conferencing. For some reason I try to sell her on it. "It has everything. Even a window." Then, as an afterthought, "Anyone ever jumped?"
"Out the window?" She is appalled. I can tell. She tucks her hair back behind an ear while pursing her lips.
"It's just . . . I can imagine these meetings get a little . . . I mean, I know I'm feeling . . ." Fraught? Power Beige is just staring at me. "I'm sorry." I cringe. My third apology inside two minutes. "You're not interested in my twaddle."
For the first time in our incredibly brief relationship, she perks up. "I'm interested if you're going to jump out the window."
"I promise I'm not going to jump out the window."
She exhales. Disappointed? Perhaps. "Why don't you just have a seat, then." We've officially run out of things to say.
Which I abhor.
I pull a chair back from the table and start to sit and then stop. There's a loud ringing in my ears similar to the one I would get as a kid after swimming endless summer hours in Lake George. "I always thought I'd be more of a pills person."
"More twaddle?" There is the vaguest hint of a smile. She's joking with me, letting me know to relax.
"Ha, no. It's just, I don't like it when other people have to clean up my messes." Talk of suicide has gone on so long, it may be professional suicide. To change the subject, I try to steer us toward business. "So, my manuscript. You've read it?"
I replay that last bit in my head; it doesn't sit right. "Not that I think my manuscript is one of my messes! I just wanted that to be clear."
"It was. Clear." Lila picks up a dry-erase marker from the table and sets it on the lip of the whiteboard. In doing this, she softens slightly. "And even if it wasn't, that's an editor's job sometimes. To clean up."
"And you're interested? In being my editor?"
"You ask a lot of questions."
"It's nerves, I guess. I tend to . . ." I make a motion with my hands like I'm vomiting words. Lila grabs the corner wastebasket and holds it out for me. She smiles again, this time more broadly. I decide I like her; she has the ability to play along.
"No," she responds.
"Oh." I can feel the heat in my cheeks.
"You're here to meet with someone else."
"Oh my gosh. I'm sorry. I was told by my agent's assistant to ask for Lila. Well, she said Lisa, but she can't read her own handwriting." I'm going to have real words with Donna for putting me in this predicament.
"James, it's okay. I set up the meeting for you and this editor."
"And he liked it? The editor I'll be meeting with?"
"Sorry." Apology number four! I wince. This must be some sort of record.
"Take a deep breath. We're not really in the business of calling writers in to personally tell them how much we didn't like their work."
A wave of relief. "No. I don't suppose that's the best use of anyone's time."
"It's easier to do that in a letter."
"I received plenty of those," I say, before realizing how unvarnished that truth sounds. "Well, not plenty. A normal amount." Pause. "Lila." I use her name as punctuation, unsure if it sounds like an exclamation point or a period.
She pulls the chair out farther and pats the back of it. "It won't be long now. If you'd like to have a seat."
I sit before I get myself in any more trouble, and she leaves the room, closing the door behind her. I swear I can hear her chuckle on the other side before heading off down the hall.
Alone, I rifle through my bag to make sure I have a copy of my manuscript, should they ask to see it. I do. I walk over to the window and press my forehead against the glass to look straight down at moving vehicles that look like Matchbox cars. SPLAT. That would do it. I cross back to the phone. What was the name of that game? Simon. There's one visible button, and without thinking, I push it. It beeps loudly and I jump, but then there's a dial tone. I push the button again, quickly, and it stops. I pray the commotion doesn't summon Lila. She would not be pleased.
I've been a writer for ten years. Since I graduated college. Or maybe it's twenty-five years. Depending on when you start counting. My mother had an old Swiss Hermes typewriter when I was growing up; I have no idea where she acquired it or why she had it, but it was a thing of beauty to me. It was robin's-egg blue and came with a lid that clamped to the typewriter itself, turning it into a stylish, if heavy, attach. The keys clacked and the bell dinged and I always pulled the lever for the carriage return like I was casting the deciding vote in a crucial election.
"You're not writing about me, are you?" I remember my mother asking, when I was only seven or eight years old. Like many of her questions, she delivered it more like a command.
"No," I would say, and at the time that was the truth. My stories were small, trite, about cats and the neighbors with the horse stables and a pond in the woods that wasn't much more than a puddle. But I felt they carried literary heft once they were typed. To me, typing was akin to publishing. I lived for that typewriter, and I would agonize when the ribbon became twisted, or the keys stuck, and I needed my mother's assistance. She didn't prioritize typewriter repair the same way I did. When I would point this out to her she would roll her eyes and say, "One day you can tell your therapist." She said that about a lot of things. But instead of getting a therapist, I became a writer. Instead of telling one person, I aspire to tell the world.
I rearrange the thumbtacks in the bulletin board on the wall into a peace symbol before having a seat. At least I think it's a peace symbol. It may be the Mercedes-Benz logo. I often get those two confused, so I get back up to undo my work in order to keep my mind on track.
I had some early success. As a writer. Two short stories published in two different literary journals. With typical youthful na•vet, I thought it would always be that way, but, of course, it wasn't. I took odd jobs to pay bills, convincing myself the whole time that these jobs provided life experience-essential to a writer who wants to have something important to say. But I don't have much insight from these experiences to share other than how to make coffee and remain invisible in a room full of people and battle a growing depression. It's been years now since I've had anything published, so long that I wonder if it's still acceptable to call myself a writer. That thought in itself is depressing, so I sit. Someone, an editor, is finally interested in my work, I remind myself, and I have to make the most of this nibble. I have to turn it into a bite.
Then I have to turn that bite into a sharklike chomp.
As soon as I'm settled in the chair the door opens. A woman enters, immediately turning her back to me so that all I can see is her slender frame and that she is a brunette and tall. She closes the door, taking pains to do so as gently as possible.
I scramble to my feet, knocking a knee against the table with a deafening whack. And even though I want to scream out in pain, to sink back into the chair and massage my leg, when she turns around and I meet her gaze, I stop. And then, strangely, I begin to bow.
Because . . . because . . . I don't know the protocol.
I don't know the rules of conduct in this situation.
But I no longer feel any pain. I don't remember that I have knees, that everyone has knees or what knees are even for. I'm completely mesmerized by her hair, blown back and resting gently on her shoulders, and a demure smile both shy and radiant. I look down at the ground as if I've dropped something, convinced when I look up again it will be someone else, a look-alike, perhaps, a woman who molded her style after hers.
But when I look up it's still . . .
It's you. I almost say it out loud.
She's immediately recognizable. Her posture, her eyes-there is no mistaking her. Of course I know who she is. But that's an understatement. I try to breathe. Have I not been breathing? In fact, it's perhaps the biggest understatement in the history of understating things. Which on its face sounds hyperbolic, but in this case I don't think it is. It's not even whatever falls just shy of hyperbole. Embellishment? Overstatement? No. It's a simple declaration of fact.
Because everyone knows who she is.
Now I try to remember how to breathe. What is breathing? The process of moving air in and out of your lungs. It involves the diaphragm? Something expands, something collapses, the blood gets what it needs. Oxygen in, CO2 out. My inner dialogue is as deafening as it is dull.
"James," she says. "Lovely to make your acquaintance." Her voice is breathy, impossibly feminine, even in her . . . I try to attempt some quick math . . . late fifties? She's wearing dark slacks. A cashmere pullover. A jacket. It has shoulder pads. Chanel, maybe. Something distinguished like that. I'm not good with designers or labels. Daniel would know. He knows these things. She's very still and her gestures are small, her arms stay close to her body; it's as if she's spent a lifetime trying not to make sudden, attention-grabbing moves. When she steps farther into the room, she glides with a seamless light-footedness.
"I'm Jacqueline," she says, somewhere between the French and American pronunciations. That voice! Is it real? Is it really addressing me? She holds out her hand and I watch as my arm rises reflexively (lifted, perhaps, by an invisible bouquet of helium balloons), and as my hand reaches out for hers, I try to say something, but words fail me. That's not good for a writer. She looks at me quizzically before moving her hand the rest of the way to meet mine. We shake. Her skin is soft. My only thought is that she uses lotion. "You are James, aren't you?"
I blink. My own name somehow passes my lips. "James." I manage another word. And my last name. "Yes. Smale."
She smiles and our hands drop back to our sides. "Very good. And you were offered something to drink?" She pulls back a chair for herself but hesitates before sitting.
"Not anything strong enough for this."
"I'm sorry?" Her apology has an airy lightness; it's not clumsy like mine. It's less an expression of regret and more a cue for me to make yet another apology myself.
"No, I'm sorry. I may be in the wrong place. I was told by Lisa to wait here for an editor regarding my manuscript." It's a sentence, but it ends on an upswing, impersonating a question.