The Internet told me the temperature in Brooklyn was ninety-three degrees, but my fourth-floor apartment wrapped those ninety-three degrees in ancient plaster, a sweaty hug that pushed things that much closer to triple digits. The large windows could have helped, but this was a day when flags hung limp on their poles. Instead of offering a breeze, all the windows did was lap up sticky sunshine. Even standing motionless in front of my blaring fan, perspiration trickled down my temples and pooled around my waistband. Still, before I dialed, I flicked off the fan. I didn’t want to risk missing a word, and the beauty of phone calls is that the other person can’t see how damp you are.
I rehearsed what I’d say to whomever answered the phone. Hi, this is Dawn West. Regina should be expecting my call. Too formal. Hi, Regina asked me to give her a call this morning. My name is Dawn West. I said that one over and over a few times. If I got the words out fast, it sounded okay. And what to say to Regina? Hi, we met this weekend? You said to phone your office Monday? Why was I making everything sound like a question? And surely she’d remember me. It’d only been a day. Cross-legged in the corner that got the very best cell reception, I punched the numbers slowly, my mouth moving as I checked each digit against the ones on the card I held between my fingers: Regina Greene, Editor in Chief, Charm.
Her assistant answered on the first ring.
A whole new line of sweat bloomed on my upper lip. The words blurred together. “Hi Regina asked me to give her a call this morning my name is Dawn West.”
“What was your name again?” the assistant asked. I wiped my lip and enunciated a bit more clearly.
Moments later, Regina was on the line. “Dawn!” She answered like we were old friends. “So glad you called!”
Since college graduation more than a year earlier, I’d applied for 116 jobs. (I knew the exact number because I’d kept scrupulous track of every application in Excel.) I might as well have been paper-airplaning my many résumés into the Grand Canyon for all the good my rigorous applying had done me. But now, I was on the phone with Regina Greene, and surely she hadn’t asked me to call just to say hello. I could feel disappointment poised and ready to fire—after all those months of trying and trying and failing, I was riddled with bullet holes—but right there beside the potential dashed hopes was so much pulsing want and need that even if it had been fifty degrees, I would have been sweating.
We exchanged a pleasantry or two, and then she got right to it.
“Have you seen our Ten Girls to Watch issue, Dawn?”
Regina explained that every year Charm picked ten remarkable college women—violin prodigies who also discovered vaccines, Olympic archers who also ran orphanages, things like that—and this year marked the contest’s fiftieth anniversary.
“We’re looking to do some special coverage for the magazine,” she said. “Plus something for the web, and then an event. A fun gala or luncheon or something for all the past winners. The only trick is that we don’t know where the winners are. I mean, we know where a few of them are. For instance, Gerri Vans was a winner in the eighties.”
Gerri Vans, the talk show star turned media empress. I glanced over at my coffee table—a generous description of the cardboard box over which I’d thrown a folded sheet. There, like millions of other American women, I had multiple copies of both Gerri, Gerri’s original magazine, and G-Talk, her interview spin-off. Each issue featured Gerri’s beaming face on the cover, angled just so to show off her trademark dimples. On the cover of the G-Talk topping my pile, Gerri leaned her less dimply cheek on Bill Murray’s shoulder.
“Gerri Vans,” I said reverentially. “Wow.”
“I know. She’s great,” Regina said, pronouncing the word “great” as if she were Tony the Tiger: “Grrrreat!” The way you would say it if you were talking about an old pal you hadn’t seen in awhile but were dying to catch up with. From which I inferred this was exactly the case.
I drew the perfect picture of Gerri and Regina, giggling in a discreet corner of some swank, downtown restaurant. Then for good measure I made the table four-top, added some candles, and popped me and Bill Murray into the picture. I told a joke. They all laughed and laughed.
Regina went on. “So we know where the winners like Gerri are, but most of them are a mystery to us—1957 was a long time ago. And that’s where you’d start. Tracking down all five hundred of them, or as many as possible, interviewing them, and figuring out who’s worth featuring. And then figuring out what sort of celebration makes sense.”
That’s where I would start? Had she really just said that?
It was like a cold hand had grabbed my heart, like icy air had just poured through the windows. I felt like I might cry. I didn’t breathe for a few seconds. I closed my eyes.
Yes, she’d really just said it.
She didn’t get around to telling me when I would start. Or whether I’d work from home or get a desk at the office. Or how much Charm was planning to pay me. And it was pretty clear that whatever this was, it was temporary. But I said yes as fast as I could.
During the one year, two months, and fourteen days since college graduation, the closest I’d gotten to anything other than office-drone temping was a web marketing company I’d found on Craigslist that hired me as a “lawn care writer.” They paid me eleven cents a word to write columns and answer questions on their lawn care website, with the understanding that I would use the search engine keyword phrase “lawn fertilizer” as frequently as possible. I’d baked a cake the day I’d gotten that gig. This, though, this was worth a real celebration.
After I hung up, I leapt to my feet and hopped across the room, flinging droplets of sweat as I danced. I turned on the fan and said “I have a job” into the blades, the words echoing with grand Darth Vader distortion. I was tempted to shout it out the window, but I’m not really a shouter. Instead, I paced my apartment in giddy shock, hands held over my mouth like a girl who has just been given an engagement ring.
What I felt was something close to pure delight. Close to, but not quite pure delight, because there was a slight complication, above and beyond the fact that this job wasn’t a long-term proposition and might pay close to zero dollars. For this job, I had two people to thank: my ex-boyfriend Robert and Robert’s new girlfriend, Lily.
Robert Rolland and I met second semester freshman year on a shared overnight shift at the student-run homeless shelter. We’d walked back to the dining hall together, shared waffles (I doctored mine with sloppy syrup, he carefully and lightly applied powdered sugar to his), and gone hardly a day without seeing each other for the rest of college.
It had taken him six months to admit to me that he was a pretzel baron. Pretzel baron, pretzel mogul, pretzel heir, however you said it, Robert was in line to inherit the Rolland Pretzel empire. His great-grandfather, the one who got the family into the pretzel business in the first place, owned just a single pretzel shop. But after World War II, his son, Grandpa Rolland, came back from France determined to do something big. He turned out to be a uniquely gifted pretzel entrepreneur, and anyone who’s ever been to New York and had a soft pretzel from any street cart has contributed to the Rolland family fortune. They expanded the empire to hard pretzels in the sixties, but only folks in the big beer-drinking states (the Rollands have beer-consumption coded maps up on the walls at HQ and also in their billiard room at home) get to see the full range of their products, readily available at grocery and liquor stores.
Over the four years of college, Robert and I broke up two or three times a year, then got back together, more or less instantaneously. We always broke up because of small things that really stood for big things. For example, Robert approached the world in a smooth-sailing, moneyed way. Whenever he needed help, be it movers, caterers, delivery services, he could buy it. I, on the other hand, could not. Once, we broke up because I walked home from a party at two in the morning and he thought this demonstrated incredible irresponsibility. What if we had kids? Would I traipse all over the city at night then too? I said wasting twenty dollars on a taxi was what was really irresponsible. We’d sharpened the tone of our voices and assessed our utter incompatibility as life partners from there, and though we’d gotten back together in less than seventy-two hours, it wasn’t like the argument went away.
But he was funny and handsome and almost painfully smart, and I’d never thought anybody smelled as good as he did. Undoubtedly it was something to do with his soap and deodorant and fabric softener, but it was more than that. I wanted to nuzzle my face between his neck and collarbone and breathe in that exact smell forever. That seemed important, not trivial, like the deep animal part of my brain had zeroed in on him and millions of years of evolution dictated that we belonged together.
He felt the same way about me, or so he said. “There’s no one for me but you,” he’d written, just a one-line e-mail, after a breakup junior year when he’d said my parents’ divorce made me skeptical and mistrusting. And since then, every so often, he’d say those words to me, never in a whisper, but always in a low voice that caught just the edge of his vocal cords, like sawteeth catching in wood. “There’s no one for me but you.”
And so, despite the fact that after graduation Robert’s parents had sent him on a six-week trip to Asia, then set him up in a nice apartment on the Upper West Side so he could take his place in the family pretzel empire—the exact opposite of my postcollegiate setup (which was limited to the twenty-five-dollar Red Lobster gift certificate my mother had sent along with her “Congrats, Grad!” card; nothing from my dad)—we persisted in our back-and-forth.
During one of our postgraduation breaks, Robert started dating some nineteen-year-old NYU freshman, which made steam shoot from my ears and hot fountains pour from my eyes. I particularly hated that she was nineteen. Four years past being a college freshman, I would never date one. What would we talk about? Homesickness and final-exam jitters? But apparently that didn’t matter to Robert. I felt like a jilted middle-aged wife whose husband has taken up with some young trollop. I was only twenty-three, and already I was being cast in that part? A few friends tried to set me up. I went on a date or two, and even though I didn’t like the guys, I turned into a puppet, tap-dancing my way through the part of a girl pretending to have a good time on a date. When they phoned later, I dodged their calls. How was Robert so easily finding other people he wanted to date? Fortunately, the freshman didn’t last long, and, perhaps unfortunately, Robert and I continued “hanging out” until we lapsed into dating again.
Which had lasted a few months. Until nine weeks ago, to be precise. And yes, I was keeping track. Inside my head there was a mechanism like one of those elaborate clocks in the town squares of German villages. Each week, it was like a bunch of birds and a little wooden girl dressed in a dirndl whirled out of the clock and yodeled a bit, then announced how long it had been. One week, two weeks! With each calendar marker, I was supposed to feel better. And I kind of was feeling better, until week three, that is, when Robert started dating Lily Harris. Week three! The dirndl girl’s weekly cuckoo had not prepared me for that. At least Lily was our age, even if she was a University of Texas debutante sorority girl. Not that I’d Internet-stalked her and seen any stupid blowing-kisses-at-the-camera sorority-girl photos . . .
As always, Robert and I kept having dinner or going to the movies. Now, as “just friends,” though of course “just friends” had devolved back into more than just friends a dozen times before. I kept waiting for it to happen. At the movies, my arm next to his, tingling with anticipation. At dinner, waiting for the invitation to go on a walk after dessert or to go for another drink or to “watch a movie” back at his place. But he hadn’t leaned into me, and the invitation back to his place hadn’t come either, and even though my brain knew we were broken up and knew, furthermore, that he was seeing someone else, the loud glockenspiel of reason didn’t keep me from feeling rejected anew, every time.
Then, two weeks ago, Robert had phoned. “I hope it’s not weird,” he said. “I invited Lily to the Pretzel Party. I mean, I hope you don’t think it’s weird that I invited you too. I want you to come. I want you to meet her.”
Every summer Robert’s parents threw a party at their house in the Hamptons, which they called the Summer Party, but which everyone else referred to as the Pretzel Party. Robert had called to tell me I’d be getting an invitation in the mail. I’d never gotten a formal invitation before. I’d just gone as Robert’s girlfriend.
Trying to pretend, to myself most of all, that I was cool and totally over it, I said sure, of course, I’d love to meet Lily. And then I put on my sneakers and ran four miles to try to shake off the awful feeling. It didn’t work. Robert was really, truly dating someone, who was not me. And I wasn’t dating anyone. Not that I would be guaranteed to feel better if I were, but that was the thought that reverberated in my head, like some big flashing scoreboard. Robert, 1; Dawn, 0. Or more accurately, Robert, infinity; Dawn, negative infinity.
The fact that Lily was going to be at the Pretzel Party meant I definitely shouldn’t go. Yet there I’d been, the morning of the party, getting ready in the so-hot-you-might-pass-out heat of my banged-up old Brooklyn apartment with my fan blowing straight into my face in order to avoid sweating off my eyeliner before it even dried. Anyone sane in New York has an air conditioner. I was sane—it was just that expenditures of more than, say, nine dollars weren’t in my temp-and-lawn-care-writer budget. My dress, a blue polyester number pretending to be silk, had, in fact, rung up for precisely nine dollars at H&M. With a vintage gold pin my grandmother had given me and a yellow belt I’d had since high school, I liked to imagine it could pass for Anthropologie, but that might have been wishful thinking.
“You look nice,” my roommate, Sylvia, said, standing at my door with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch in her hand. She took a slurpy bite, a Crunch Berry falling to the floor and rolling toward the center of the living room.
Turns out a lot of people will say no to an apartment with a twenty-degree slope to its floor. Not me, and not Sylvia, another Craigslist find. I’d rummaged her up with a posting that did its best to match honesty (“near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so a little noisy”) with salesmanship (“vintage details”). Other than the fact that Sylvia never, ever wore a bra (despite her rather voluptuous form) and sometimes went a day or two past the point where hair washing was truly necessary (even for a girl whose curly brown mop masked a lot of grease), she was all right.
That said, certain things about her frightened me. For instance, she was twenty-eight, and although she’d been working at a marketing firm in Soho for a few years now, she didn’t seem to have any more cash than I did. That seemed a worrisome indicator of what I could expect in New York in years to come. And then there was her boyfriend, Rodney, a linebacker-looking fellow she met back home over Christmas and who now flew in from Ohio every month or so. He responded to all my attempts at cordial conversation with one-word answers and a blank face, his eyes flashing to wherever Sylvia happened to be, whether she was grabbing her coat or behind the bathroom door. I’d never seen a single slitty-eyed look silently yell “hurry up” in another person’s direction quite so loudly.
“Where you going?” Sylvia said now, but since she had cereal in her mouth, it was more like “Wuh yu gwon?”
“A friend is having a party out on Long Island,” I heard myself say.
Ugh. “A friend.” And, ugh, “Long Island.” My first Pretzel Party, the one right after our freshman year, Robert told me his parents were having a get-together in the backyard of their house on Long Island. I’d never been to the Hamptons, but I’d watched a VH1 celebrity special or two, so a more specific geographic reference might have given me some hint as to the true nature of this party. But Robert wasn’t up for saying the H-word, which meant I got ready for this party like I would have any backyard barbecue back in Milldale, Oregon—just a T-shirt and jeans. When Robert picked me up for the drive from our summer dorms in Boston down to New York, the fact that he was outfitted in a sharp white linen concoction should have tipped me off. I did feel instantly nervous that perhaps the party was going to be a little fancier than I had guessed, but still, I didn’t quite get it.
When did I actually get it? Was it when we pulled up to the house, or should I say, estate? Not fully. Was it when we walked into the little backyard party, or should I say, extravaganza on the grounds? Nope. Was it when the first person at the party I made eye contact with was Alec Baldwin? Yes, I’d say that was the moment.
“Is that Alec Baldwin?” I whispered to Robert.
He nodded, and then a second later as a waiter passed by with little spoonfuls of caviar on a silver tray, he whispered ferociously, “This is all tax deductible.” And I suppose he was trying to say that otherwise it’d be Ma and Pa Rolland flipping burgers themselves, which I almost believed until I met Ma and Pa Rolland.
But apparently, now I said “Long Island” too.
The fan blowing in my face didn’t do much good. Sweat ran from my upper lip into my lipstick, and the whole thing smeared when I attempted to wipe away the moisture. Thankfully, it was a mercifully short walk from my building to the subway and from the subway to the Long Island Rail Road. I cheered for every bit of air-conditioning along the way. Yay for air-conditioned train cars. Yay for the air-conditioned cab from the train, and yay for the waves of icy air I could practically see pouring from the Rollands’ house as we pulled up. I would have cheered more had I been arriving in Robert’s nicely air-conditioned BMW two-seater, which he undoubtedly drove in from the city that morning, but alas, my seat was taken.
Mr. and Mrs. Rolland hovered near what looked like wicker thrones on top of a fancy Oriental rug near their koi pond, greeting throngs of guests with cheek kisses for one and all. I joined the queue, ready for the somewhat strained familiarity that had marked our interactions since they’d first become aware of the turbulence of Robert’s relationship with me sometime during sophomore year. Before I got my chance to say hello, Robert and a woman who could only be Lily swooped in.
All lean angles as usual, Robert looked appropriately like a pretzel heir in his trim tan suit. His dark brown hair had a few lighter brown streaks, and his skin had a slightly golden, baked quality to it. He and Lily must have been picnicking or hiking or doing other summery, coupley activities for the last several weeks while I’d been inside doing single-person things like cleaning the hair out of my brushes.
“Dawn, darling, how lovely to see you,” Robert crooned.
Lily elbowed him. “He thinks it’s funny to imitate his parents. He’s been doing it all day to see who calls him on it and who takes him seriously.” She said it with such jocular ease, like the most popular girl at summer camp.
I looked her up and down. I should have been discreet, but I don’t think I was. I’d imagined being calm and cool, so cool and lovely that the Texas tart would walk away feeling wholly inadequate, trembling at the thought of trying to measure up to me. But I didn’t feel calm and cool. The sight of Lily in real life standing next to Robert tripped my adrenal glands. I felt shaky with nerves, like I was barely holding the reins of rearing horses. She was petite, or normal, but compared to my gangly five-nine she was a diminutive little darling. And while my wavy red hair was piled on top of my head in a way that seemed to advertise what a sweaty morning I’d had as well as what cheap spangly earrings I was wearing, her sleek brown bob announced an invincibility to summer humidity, showed off what I couldn’t imagine were anything other than real pearl earrings, and led your eye straight to her dainty freckled nose. (Of course her nose was that cute. What else could it be since my slightly crooked nose was one of my prime insecurities?) Decked out in a flip-collared seersucker jacket over a white cotton dress and a Tiffany charm bracelet, I thought she looked like polo-pony puke. I was glad to note she wasn’t skinnier than I was. Then I felt bad for noting this, like I was so brainwashed I thought that mattered. Though even after I felt bad, I noted it again from another angle.
“Lily,” I said, doing my best to impersonate a gracious person. “So nice to meet you.”
“So Robert tells me you’re a writer,” she said, leaning in like we were actually friends, not just people badly faking the parts. Her voice was lower and more compelling than I would have thought, a little husky even, without a trace of Texas in it. She sounded like she should be reading the news on the radio.
“That’s very generous of him,” I said, my own voice all of a sudden sounding tinny and irksome to my ear, the way it does when you listen to recordings of yourself.
I might have been flattered by this line of conversation, or relieved, since it at least steered us somewhat delicately around the topic of my actual employment, but instead, I cringed because I knew exactly where it was headed.
“He says you write wonderful short stories,” Lily said, carrying on politely.
“It’s true, she does,” Robert piped up, as if he were just getting his bearings. Usually, when Robert and I were together we generated a sort of undeniable heat, like the waves that radiate from the hood of an idling car. You could practically see it, and everything got hazy, and breathing in the haze was like breathing in a potion that magically pulled us together again. But with Lily here, the heat was diffuse, whatever waves were there refracted and sent bouncing in strange directions. At best, you could get a whiff of the magic. I detected a definite note of fluster in Robert’s voice, and it was like he didn’t know which one of us to look at when he talked, me or Lily. He kept shifting on his feet.
“So have you published any of your stories?” Lily asked, all innocent-like. And there it was, just as predicted: the dreaded moment. Almost as bad as “So what do you do?” Not having an answer you can be proud of for questions like that makes ordinary conversation agonizing, like having a blister on your heel and a shoe that cuts further into your skin with every should-be-painless step.
“Ah, well, I’m still working on the publishing part . . .” I said.
Robert fiddled with his drink.
“I’m sure it’ll be any day now,” Lily said, like she was some wise old woman who knew the ways of the world and was patting naive little me on the head.
I flashed a look of recrimination at Robert while Lily flagged down a waiter with a tray of champagne. He wouldn’t let me catch his eye, and he had a single flushed spot on one cheek.
As we drank our champagne, I shifted the conversation to law school. Lily had just finished her first year at Columbia. I would have been starting law school in the fall, except that I’d decided I just couldn’t do it.
I’d been very close. As a teenager, I’d been hooked on shows like Ally McBeal and The Practice, and maybe the more reasonable conclusion to draw from being attracted to TV programs about lawyers is not that you want to be a lawyer, but rather that you want to be an actor or a writer of shows about lawyers. Alas, that hadn’t occurred to me at the time. Peering into those big-city lives through the television screen was like watching my teenage dreams line up on a slot machine, each piece like a cherry inextricably tied to the next. Ambition 1: Glamour. Ambition 2: Prestige. Ambition 3: Lawyer? Bingo! There weren’t a lot of competing bingos presenting themselves to my imagination in small-town Oregon, other than being a writer, which seemed about as unlikely as being a movie star, and was therefore off the list. Being an attorney seemed exciting and attainable, so the idea stuck.
My first two summers of college, I went home and worked at a law firm in Eugene, drafting affidavits and motions for summary judgment for workers’ compensation cases. I liked it, or liked it well enough. Figuring out the formal structure of each document I had to write was like solving a puzzle, satisfying and vaguely enjoyable in a crosswordy sort of way, and I lapped up all the “Good job, Dawn!” comments my work garnered. Plus, it was my first experience with business attire—turned out pencil skirts and I got along quite nicely. Junior year, I stayed in Boston so I could be with Robert. He spent the summer interning for a business school professor, and I got a job as a camp counselor at a city camp for low-income kids, but I still spent my every free moment studying for the LSAT. And then I did the whole thing. I took the test, I applied, and I got in. I had options in D.C., Boston, and New York. But a strange thing happened. Spring of senior year, I stared at the “Yes, I will attend” box on each of the acceptance forms, and I couldn’t bring myself to check a single one of them.
I’d always told myself writing was just a hobby, but it had started to feel like more than that. I’d been churning out stories during creative writing seminars all through college, and a few of my professors had made “I think you have talent” type remarks. They probably thought nothing of their words, but I couldn’t let them go. It wasn’t just their compliments; it was the way I felt when I was writing. When I put together a fifteen-page paper about imagery in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry, the whole point was breaking down and analyzing his ideas. When I wrote a short story, the whole point was breathing life into my ideas. It was like the difference between rummaging around in someone else’s old house and designing and building a whole new house of my own. There is pleasure in rummaging, but nothing like the grand, expansive feeling of creating.
Bit by bit, writing dreams crept into my brain, and now, those dreams were like squatters yelling loudly for their rights. When I looked at law school acceptance forms, it was as if the “Yes” box did not say “Yes, I will attend,” but instead boomed in a draconian voice, “Yes, I will crush all the creativity in my soul.” I checked the “No” box. Robert had applauded my creative ambitions. My parents, on the other hand, fell into a category closer to worried-slash-perplexed. Maybe they were right, after all, since that pen mark had led me directly to the delightful world of unemployment and disappointment I was currently enjoying. My various collegiate activities were fine for grad school, but if you want a job, turns out some summer experience in fields other than playing at law or playing with kids can be helpful. Oops.
But Lily had checked the “Yes” box. Looking at her was like looking into some sort of fun-house mirror. If I’d gone to law school, would I be her right now?
At the very moment I was thinking this, Lily said, “I’m summering at Craven & Swinton, in their tax practice.” She actually used the word “summering.” From which I inferred—as if the seersucker and pearls weren’t enough—that she belonged to the class of people for whom “summer” was regularly employed as a verb. So really, it would take a lot more than some fun-house glass to turn me into her.
My face was starting to hurt from smiling so pleasantly.
“Let’s find some food,” Robert said during a conversational lull. “There’s this new mustard we’re testing.”
After every Thanksgiving, Robert had returned to school with a case of different mustard types to sample. We’d sat on his futon and carefully tried out various mustard and pretzel combinations—Bronson’s honey mustard with the garlic pretzel. Heneman’s dijon with the low-sodium pretzel twigs—Robert writing notes as if it were a wine tasting. When he said “mustard testing” he looked at me, and it felt like the first time he’d actually looked at me since I’d arrived. We exchanged knowing half smiles. How much mustard could he and Lily have shared? Certainly nothing to rival our mustard history.
I wanted to interpret the moment to mean he didn’t love Lily, he still loved me. But after our glancing exchange, he took Lily’s hand, which I knew, coming from Robert, was not uncalculated. He’d grant me our history, but he was with her. I wanted to walk away without saying a word, hail a cab, and disappear. But that would have been so dramatic, so over the top, so final. Instead, I followed along as if I hadn’t noticed the gesture.
We’d just started across the lawn together, me a step behind, when Lily planted her feet and spun around dramatically. “Dawn, there’s someone you have to meet!” she said.
I felt like all sensation had already left me, like I was an empty piñata. “Okay” was all I could muster. She looped her arm chummily through mine, and I let her lead me toward a small circle of partygoers a few yards away.
“Regina,” she said, gently touching the arm of a lovely and somehow vaguely familiar petite, dark-haired woman in red silk. “I want you to meet Dawn. She’s an old friend of Robert’s and the most terrific writer.” Then she turned to me. “Dawn, Regina just moved in down the street from the Rollands, and she definitely knows a thing or two about the magazine business.” And then Lily winked and walked away.
Off-kilter and dazed, I stood there, trying to return to myself and marshal my forces to attempt a passable rendition of a charming person. I’d applied for dozens of magazine jobs, most of which asked for experience I didn’t have. And then there were the internships. What a great idea, except most of them didn’t pay, or required that you were a college student receiving credit for the work, which I wasn’t anymore. While the engine of my brain tried to chug forward on these unhelpful fumes, Regina, who actually was a charming person, provided the conversational fuel to get us going.
“So what kind of writing do you do, Dawn?” she asked in the most warm, interested way, like she’d just made me tea and cookies and now we had an entire kettle’s worth of chitchat to enjoy.
“Well, lots of things.” I laughed a little. “Short stories, you know, for the money. Ha-ha. But mostly, well yes, mostly, I’m a lawn expert.”
I’d expected questions along the employment line, and I’d prepared my “lawn expert” answer in advance. LawnTalk.com hadn’t given me a title. It wasn’t like I had business cards. I didn’t even use my real name. And it certainly wasn’t a full-time gig. But I couldn’t stand saying “Well, actually, I graduated a year ago and I’m still looking for a real job.” That either stopped conversation or unleashed a river of comforting, even wistful advice from older adults, intoned as if my problems were a quaint reminder of their younger years.
“A lawn expert?” Regina smiled and leaned in. “Do you take care of lawns? Do you have a lawn?”
This was a much better approach.
“Actually, don’t ever tell anyone”—I leaned in conspiratorially—“but I’ve never had a lawn. I mean, my parents had a lawn for a while, though I never helped take care of it, but eventually my mom ripped it out and put in a rock garden. And now I guess I can see grass from my apartment window in Brooklyn . . .”
“So how did you become a lawn expert?” she asked, wide eyed.
I heard myself taking on a slightly swashbuckling tone. “Well, actually, Craigslist . . . This website was looking for a writer who could write about lawns, and I told them I’d seen neighbors mow their lawns, I’d run through sprinklers on lawns, I liked lawns, and somehow they were hard-up enough that they signed me. I have about half the Brooklyn Public Library system’s lawn care books on my floor at home right now. But I’ve been doing it for a few months now. I write a little weekly column and then answer all the questions users post, and somehow, it’s worked out.”
I expected a “Gosh, that’s kind of funny” reaction, but that’s not what Regina was giving me. As I talked, she actually bent toward me like a tennis player, crouching and tensed, ready to spring at the ball the second it left my racket. It made me nervous, and I wondered where things had gone wrong.
“I’m sure the lawn care expert world must be pretty small,” Regina rushed, “so I have to ask, do you know a writer named Kelly Burns?”
I felt a terrific zing all the way from my toes to my fingertips. “Kelly Burns?” I said. “I’m Kelly Burns! That’s my online pen name.”
She snatched my forearm. “No way. LawnTalk.com Kelly Burns? We just bought a house down the street, and my husband is obsessed with having the perfect lawn and has this total crazy need to do it himself. He seriously reads your site every night. He actually says ‘Time for Kelly Burns’ and cracks his knuckles as he sits down with his laptop. You’re Kelly Burns?! Oh, he’s going to love this.”
A few users on the site had sent me nice thank-you messages after I helped them diagnose their mysterious lawn diseases or choose the best grass type for their yard, but a real-life, in-person fan? I felt a glow of pride, the first time I’d felt any such thing in a long, long while. Forget my air conditioner–free digs, forget that Robert seemed to have found his dream sorority-girl counterpart, forget that I still wasn’t getting interviews and that the idea that I’d ever publish any fiction seemed totally laughable. Someone in this world cracked his knuckles every night, logged on to LawnTalk.com, and said “Time for Kelly Burns.”
Regina released her grip on my forearm, only to grab my bicep, mafia-escort style. “I think he’s out back. Let’s go find him,” she said, and just like that we were swerving through the crowd (I saw Alec Baldwin out of the corner of my eye), out onto the deck by the pool, and from there down to the west garden. We stopped at a table up near the band, where a group of handsome men, one of whom was apparently Regina’s husband, were sitting around enjoying fancy foreign beers and a bowl of Rolland’s Bavarians.
“Tony,” she said, looking at the curly-haired one with super-thick-framed nerd-cool glasses, “I’d like to introduce you to Kelly Burns, the lawn expert.” She waved her hand up and down over me, like a manic version of a model on The Price Is Right. The other men looked a little bewildered—who was this slightly sweaty, blushing lawn-expert person?—but Tony jumped up to shake my hand.
“Kelly Burns? Kelly Burns of Lawn Talk?” He beamed. “No way. I’m Buddy 7468.”
“For real?” I answered giddily. “Have you treated the bindweed yet?”
“Oh yeah, did exactly what you said. Double treatment of dicamba, cut off their water supply. Worked like a charm.” He turned to his wife. “How did . . . ?”
“Robert’s girlfriend just introduced us,” Regina said.
Robert’s girlfriend. Robert’s girlfriend. Robert’s girlfriend. The words were a cartoon echo in my head.
“And actually,” Regina continued, “it’s not Kelly Burns, it’s Dawn in real life, right?”
I nodded. “Kelly Burns is just a pen name.”
“Crazy,” Tony said. “I always figured Kelly Burns was a fifty-year-old dude living in Ohio.”
“Don’t tell anyone I’m not,” I whispered.
Just then the band started playing “Blue Skies,” and Lily swung by our table and touched my shoulder, a dainty interruption. “Dawn, I wondered if I could grab you for a minute.”
I could have said no, but anything other than gracious acceptance would have sounded strident after Lily’s dulcet request.
“So great meeting you, Regina, Tony, everyone.” I put my hand up in a wave and turned toward Lily.
“I’m sure we’ll talk again before the night is over.” Regina smiled.
I nodded, smiles all around, and let Lily take my arm.
“I’m sorry to pull you away,” she said in a low tone as we made our way across the lawn. “I got stuck talking to this horrible horseradish distributor, and I needed an excuse to leave and I saw you across the way and told him I had to give you a message. I think the horseradish guy is still looking, so try to look superengrossed in conversation.”
Confident presumption seemed to define Lily. She talked to me like she naturally deserved to be in charge. And I recognized it because it reminded me of Robert. Like the time Robert picked me up after my last final sophomore year and drove us straight to Portland, Maine, where he insisted on instructing me in perfect lobster-eating technique. He’d sat down beside me and practically moved my hands for me. I’d loved it. It had felt so caring and fun. On the way home, though, he’d told me I should stop holding my head at an angle when I talked, and I felt assaulted by such minute criticism, so there’d always been both sides. But there was a gleam to it, being singled out for attention by someone so obviously striding wherever he pleased. I didn’t want to feel drawn in by Lily. I wanted to find her undynamic and dismissible. But she wasn’t either of those things.
Lily led us to a place by the pool, where she sat on the edge, took off her shoes, and dangled her feet in the water. I joined her.
“Robert says that after you guys broke up, you didn’t talk for a little while, but then it was pretty much normal and friendly.” She kicked the water and little droplets splashed back onto our dresses.
So, she wanted to get right into it, did she? I was surprised Robert had told such a massive lie. I held my breath, waiting for whatever was coming next.
“I think that’s awesome.” She splashed the water with her feet again, this time a little harder. “The guy I broke up with before Robert and I started dating—or who broke up with me, actually—I sent him squirrel heads in the mail and programmed my e-mail to send him a message every single morning for a whole month that just said ‘Fuck you,’ nothing else. I’m sure he figured out how to block it, but it felt great sending it anyway.”
None of this was what I expected from the rose of Texas.
“Rewind,” I interrupted, “squirrel heads?”
“Oh, it’s the best thing I ever discovered. Roguetaxidermy.com. They’ve got amazing stuff. Bags of bird wings. Pickled sheep brains. You can do cleaned squirrel heads so it’s just the bones, or mummified squirrel heads. Mummified is the way to go. Much freakier.”
“Wow.” I nodded with real admiration. “I mean, I guess the most I’ve ever really done is write mean e-mails, but then not send them.”
“You’re a killer, Dawn,” she said, and then after a long and what seemed appraising pause, “I think we should be friends. That way you can give me the dirt on Robert.”
I smiled without saying anything, then looked away, almost embarrassed. Announcing friendship felt like too much, not just for us but for anyone. What was I supposed to do if I didn’t want to be friends? Say no? Then I’d seem confrontational when in fact she’d introduced the demands.
Robert arrived just then. “I wondered where you two disappeared to!” he said in his jocular host voice. I watched his eyes flick between us while his mouth held a steady smile.
He gave a flourishy little bow and offered his hand to Lily to pull her up. She took his hand and glided to his side. Before Robert could extend the same courtly hand to me, which would have been awkward, or leave me to get up from the pool deck by myself, which would have been even more awkward, Lily reached her own hand down to me. “Heave-ho, up we go!” she groaned as she pulled me up.
There was nothing dainty about her grip, and when I was finally standing beside her, she smiled and nodded, like we’d just sealed the deal on our agreement to be friends. I glanced at Robert. He looked away.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s get some dinner.” And again, it was diffuse, an invitation to Lily, to me, to the air.
We got some of the chic pretzel pastrami sandwiches, put our feet in the pool again, and talked to Alec Baldwin. (In all my years at the party I’d never talked to him before. In real life he was nicer and had fatter fingers than expected.)
After sunset, crickets now chirping all around us, guests began to leave. Still in our awkward but seemingly inescapable trio, Robert, Lily, and I were sitting near the koi pond when Regina and Tony walked by. I popped up, and Regina saw me, waved, and quickly walked over. Gosh, she was stylish, her red dress swishing around her legs like she was some jazz-era singer as she moved across the lawn.
She gave me a quick air kiss on the cheek, then took a card from her purse and leaned in close. “Call me Monday, Kelly Burns.”
She pulled away and walked off with Tony, turning back to wave over her shoulder. I looked at the card. In big pink letters it said: Regina Greene, Editor in Chief, Charm. For years, I’d been reading Charm magazine in doctors’ offices and hair salons, and even, occasionally, off the periodicals shelf at the library when I just couldn’t study for one more second. (I’d always hid in one of the carrels in the back when I executed that move, since reading about lip liner and layering when you were supposed to be reading critical interpretations of King Lear struck me as embarrassing.) Surely, I’d seen Regina’s photo inset on the editor page any number of times. I felt dopey for not recognizing her.
“Looks like you sure charmed them, ha-ha, get it?” Lily said.
“Or was it bedazzled them?” Robert said.
“Wait, did Tony invent the bedazzler or something?” I asked, ready to be astounded if Tony or Regina were somehow affiliated with such a wardrobe revolutionizing tool.
“Uh, no,” Robert said.
“Then I don’t think I get your joke,” I said.
“I guess there wasn’t really one. Just that bedazzled is a funny word?” He shrugged and flashed a supplicating smile.
Lily splashed Robert with water from the pond, and I plopped back on the grass, turning my face away from them. The grass was soft and deep green—the loveliest fine fescue blend around. It hadn’t been so long ago that I’d imagined Robert and me getting married and having kids and our kids running around on this lawn. In fact, I could still imagine it. But as Lily moved, her silver kitten heel sandals flashed into my periphery, and I suddenly had a crystalline vision of their wedding, right here, in this same yard. In the rest of my view, though, I saw fireflies, more and more of them every second, rising out of the grass with perfect blinking zips of gold.
Just a few minutes later, I said my good-byes. Robert offered to drive me to the train. I said no. He didn’t insist. The walk to the train station was just under a mile, but with Regina’s card tucked in my wallet, it felt like just a few blocks.
When I called her office Monday morning, she offered me Ten Girls to Watch.
And like I said, I danced and power-pumped my fists the second I hung up. I wanted to sing. I did sing! But after the initial bright white surge of delight dimmed slightly, I saw a few other colors.
A job you find online and apply for and get through your own shining résumé—no one can say anything about that except congratulations, you deserve it. A job you get because you met someone at a party in the Hamptons—it has the taint of privilege, as if Regina hadn’t chosen me because I’d wowed her but because I’d been vouched for by the right people. I knew “that was how the world worked,” and after a year of searching, it wasn’t like I was going to turn down the job. It was just that this was the sort of thing I’d resented most about Robert. When he wanted a summer job on Capitol Hill, his dad called some friends. When I wanted a summer job anywhere other than Oregon, my dad said good luck. Meaning, I was usually the person who got screwed by “that’s how the world works.” Just shrugging and taking advantage of it now made me feel a little like I was pocketing an envelope full of dirty money. Pocketing gratefully, but still.
And then, of course, there was the fact that Lily had introduced me to Regina, which meant I now owed Lily. Lily, a woman I didn’t exactly wish bodily harm, but whose sudden disappearance from the world I would not mourn. I’d have to thank both Robert and Lily. Should I send one e-mail or e-mail them separately? Together felt like it solidified their status as a couple. Separately felt like I was attempting to further forge some sort of independent relationship with Lily. Bah, I’d figure it out later.
I marched out of the house to buy an air conditioner on credit. A much sweeter celebration than any cake.
That night, I sat on a blanket directly in front of the newly installed window unit and lapped up the cool while earning my day’s wages on LawnTalk.com. Even with the vague promise of a future Charm payday, I still desperately needed my eleven cents a word.
After a solid chunk answering questions about grubs and crabgrass, I gave myself a little e-mail break. I’d gotten this:
Dawn, Regina asked me to e-mail you
please come in tomorrow at 10am with the following
1) your resume
2) your passport
3) a working knowledge of excel
4) a can-do attitude
From this e-mail, I determined the following:
1) Regina worked fast.
2) Xadi was my new boss.
3) Xadi liked lists.
4) Xadi didn’t like punctuation.
5) Xadi imagined that if I didn’t know how to use Excel, I would learn overnight.
6) XADI expected others to capitalize her name too.
I felt weird about all-caps names, so that was going to be an adjustment, but I was just the can-do girl she was looking for, so all caps it was. But those were the subtleties. What beamed out from the screen was this: I hadn’t made it up. The job was real.
Ten Girls to Watch
Like so many other recent graduates, Dawn West is trying to make her way in New York City. She’s got an ex-boyfriend she can’t quite stop seeing, a roommate who views rent checks and basic hygiene as optional, and a writing career that’s gotten as far as penning an online lawn care advice column.
So when Dawn lands a job tracking down the past winners of Charm magazine’s “Ten Girls to Watch” contest, she’s thrilled. After all, she’s being paid to interview hundreds of fascinating women: once outstanding college students, they have gone on to become mayors, opera singers, and air force pilots. As Dawn gets to know their life stories, she’ll discover that success, love, and friendship can be found in the most unexpected of places. Most importantly, she’ll learn that while those who came before us can be role models, ultimately, we each have to create our own happy ending.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Dawn West knew life would be hard when she moved to New York. She just didn’t know it’d be this hard. On top of being broke, jobless, and living in a shabby Brooklyn apartment—complete with a slob of a roommate who won’t pay rent—Dawn is struggling to get over her ex-boyfriend Robert, who is blissfully dating a girl Dawn wants to hate. Making a pittance from her gig writing for a lawn care website under a pseudonym, Dawn is thrilled when a chance to freelance for Charm magazine comes her way. Her assignment? To track down the past winners of Charm’s annual Ten Girls to Watch contest and plan an event to honor their achievements.
As Dawn tracks down each of these extraordinary women, while experiencing the highs and lows of being twenty-something in the big city, she begins to question much of what she thought she knew about success, friendship, love—and ultimately—about herself.
Questions & Topics for Discussion
1. Read each of the Ten Girls to Watch profiles interspersed throughout the novel. What do you th see more