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What Nora Knew

1


When Deirdre Dolson left a note on my desk requesting my presence in her office at 2:00 sharp, my first thought was What did I do wrong? My second thought was Hey, maybe I’m getting a raise! But that thought didn’t last as long as the first one.

You may have read about Deirdre in the gossip columns—she employs a personal publicist to make sure you read about her. Good for business, she likes to say, but really, it’s just good for Deirdre. She’s the editor in chief of the online newsmagazine EyeSpy. Gossip! News! Pop Culture and Reviews! And the reason I have dental and a 401(k).

The note was written in Deirdre’s signature purple ink. Her other signature is her headache-inducing perfume. She wears it by the gallon. I couldn’t tell if Deirdre personally deposited the message on my chair or if it was dropped off by her assistant, Gavin. Deirdre’s assistants are always male. I’ve worked here four years now, since the year after my divorce, and in that time she’s been through half a dozen assistants, all male.

I got to the office around eleven, having written at home that morning. One of the perks of my job is you’re allowed to go off and be creative in other locales. Deirdre sees our main competitor as either Gawker or Jezebel; it’s hard to tell, but someone once told her that Gawker writers get to work at home, so now we get to do it, too.

When I walked in, ass-kissing, backstabbing Emily Lawler was sitting in her adjacent cubicle with her nose in a book. Usually, she’s poking her nose into my business. Emily has this really white skin and really dark hair and round, dark eyes. She looks like Snow White minus the dwarfs. After I stowed my purse in my file drawer, next to my backup heels and box of Lipton chicken-soup packets, Emily popped up, looming over me with that cutsie, sneery face of hers, and said, “Good thing you showed up before two,” which proves she didn’t have the decency to even pretend she didn’t read my note. “Gavin was asking where you were.”

“Oh, really?” I turned on my computer.

“I told him if there’s something Deirdre needed, that I’d be happy to help.” She smiled her fake sweet smile that’s not meant to be sweet, just fake.

“You’re a true pal, Emily.” I feigned intense typing to make my pal go away. “Must be nice to sit around reading all day.”

Emily’s got the all-time cushiest of cushy jobs. She writes book reviews for EyeSpy. She held up a novel, Larceny among Lovers. The cover had a cornball illustration of a man, in a trench coat and fedora, standing in a doorway and casting a shadow across a dead woman’s legs.

“This guy had to grow up with a lot of sisters,” she said, pointing to the author’s name. “He really understands women.”

“Isn’t that a crime book?”

“Criminals have sisters.”

“Emily, can I pay you to go away?”

“You wish,” she said and disappeared behind our mutual wall.

When I first started at EyeSpy, we all had actual offices. Now only Deirdre and the CFO have offices. About a year ago they knocked down walls, squeezed us together, and knocked off a full floor’s rent. The official party line was that an open plan would foster communication and encourage rapport, but all that really happened was now everyone sits at their desk listening to iPods, blocking out any distractions and each other.

Maybe Deirdre wanted to meet to tell me what a commendable job I was doing. We’d discuss moving my office; she’d say I deserved any cubicle of my choice. Maybe she was so thrilled with me that I could request my own column again. I do that a lot. Request a column. And maybe this time she’d say yes!

Well, maybe.

Before EyeSpy, I was writing for Hipp magazine, which was anything but. Hipp’s readership was decent until the magazine industry went into the toilet, and even after that it was still semidecent, but their readers are aging—more interested in hip replacements than hip nightclubs, a side effect of Hipp not converting to an online format. The good news was, the magazine was floundering enough that they pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, which is how I got to write a piece about a powerful, well-known, unnamed New York divorce attorney who cheated on his expense account and did unflattering impersonations of his clients.

Oh, and who’d recently dumped his journalist wife.

I still don’t know how Deirdre ended up reading the story—she must have been at her beauty salon or something—but she called me at Hipp and introduced herself. Like I wouldn’t know who she was!

“Loved your piece on Evan Naboshek,” she said. “You did to him what Nora Ephron did to Carl Bernstein.”

“Technically that piece wasn’t about my ex-husband; it was about—”

“Your ex?”

“My ex.”

“Did you hear from him?”

“A cease-and-desist order, although it was too late to cease or desist because the piece was already published.”

“You’d think he’d be a smarter lawyer than that.”

“You’d think.”

She asked me to send her my résumé. To say I hung up the phone and wanted to knock out a few cartwheels would be an understatement.

For years, my résumé was a testament to hyperbole, exaggeration, and creative fiction. Two days after graduating college I moved to the city to be a famous writer, vowing to never end up in my family’s Long Island upholstery business. (Four generations of upholsterers—if you count my sister—a solid, successful business, and my worst nightmare.) Appalled to discover my journalism degree did not lead to offers to run the New York Times or write cover stories for Time magazine, I re-aimed my career goal to paying the rent.

I started with a job at Starbucks that came with a cute title but lousy pay. To compensate for the gaping hole in my budget, Barista Molly spent the next two years posing nude three nights a week at a SoHo art studio. I developed a talent for holding still without shifting or wobbling or needing to pee. During breaks I’d slip on my robe and walk from easel to easel to see how I’d turned out. Despite my lifelong desire to look mysterious and exotic, I am incorrigibly fresh-faced and all-American. Like somebody whose face belongs on a box of laundry detergent. Pretty enough to be pretty, but maybe not so pretty as to stand out in a crowd. Unless, of course, I’m the only naked person in the room. Then you might notice me.

Along the way I sold ballet shoes, house-sat, cat-sat, and worked behind a Hertz rent-a-car counter, a job I left the nanosecond I got hired as an advertising writer for kids’ cereals. That job lasted until the client meeting where I made an unfortunate comment involving the word crap, followed by a job as a technical writer for a mountain-biking company, until it was discovered I knew everything about lying my way through an interview, and nothing about technical writing or mountain biking. Next came a few years writing for a Weight Watchers–type website, and one Christmas season selling Mixmasters and can openers in the appliance department at Bloomingdale’s. I stumbled onto my job at Hipp because of someone I slept with whom I had no business sleeping with right after my divorce, but my self-esteem at the time wasn’t exactly helping me make sound decisions.

Other people might have read a résumé like mine and thought, No focus.

Not Deirdre. She got it in her head that I was some sort of fearless daredevil who’d do anything. For my interview we met in her office “before hours,” which for her meant before her 8:00 a.m. meeting, and for me meant before I was actually awake. When she offered me a cup of coffee, I didn’t tell her I’d already had two.

Deirdre’s office at the time was all-white laminate and chrome and glass with a white carpet. Now it’s all-white laminate and chrome and glass with a gray carpet. She sat on one side of her glass-top desk; I sat on the other on a white Mies van der Rohe pavilion chair. A side benefit of a family in the upholstery business—you know your furniture styles.

“So tell me about this nude-modeling job,” she said, running her gel-tipped fingernails through her spiked, blond hair. Deirdre dresses young for her age—her age at the time being forty-eight, but her wardrobe more like eighteen, with her low-cut dresses and ankle-high boots and enough bracelets to open a jewelry stand. “What did you get from the experience?”

“Fourteen dollars an hour plus tip jar,” I said. “It helped pay expenses.”

“Were you self-conscious?”

“It’s not a good job for self-conscious people.”

“It must have required a certain amount of bravado.” Deirdre held out a bowl and offered me a cashew. I shook my head no; I didn’t want nuts in my teeth. “I admire that,” she said. “The piece about your ex demonstrated bravado.”

I tried to look full of bravado while she told me she needed a writer who’d be willing to take on the more creative challenges. She emphasized the word challenges with an odd smirk.

“Will it involve removing my clothes?” I asked.

“No. It requires a good attitude and a sense of humor.”

A good attitude and sense of humor? How tough could that be?

Deirdre told me the job specifics and benefits and gave an example of a typical assignment, something about a pit crew at a racetrack and changing tires under duress, but I was too busy getting inwardly thrilled from hearing the salary and how I could come and go as I pleased and that she didn’t believe in chaining her writers to their desks. By then I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth fast enough when I said, “I’ll take it!”

So while Emily sits on her sweet ass reviewing books for her column, Emily Literati, I get assigned all the whack job pieces, or what used to be called human interest, but in my case is more like human sacrifice.

I reviewed my last several assignments in my head looking for ways I might have screwed up, reasons why Deirdre might have requested our 2:00 meeting.

Let’s see, the aerial-yoga class where I had to swing upside down on fabric trapezes? No. Deirdre liked that piece. The shooting-range-in-New-Jersey article also went well, and I really think the gentleman from Passaic got over that little incident with the clay pigeons. And Deirdre wrote me a purple-inked memo congratulating me on my undercover bra-fitter piece. We received all sorts of comments online, most of them positive, except from that one woman who swore she’d never shop at the Brassiere Firm again. (Honest, Ms. 42D, I swear it wasn’t my fault.)

I couldn’t come up with anything, at least not anything that would get me fired. Of course, I’d been fired enough times in the past to know you never know.

*  *  *

“I want you to write a piece about romance,” Deirdre was saying to me, the two of us sitting on opposite sides of her big-kahuna desk.

“Me? Really?” I’m the last person on the planet Earth I’d assign to write about romance. Maybe a nice dissertation about loser romance, but any other expertise on my part was highly questionable.

“Did you see that video of the guy proposing at a basketball game?” Deirdre said. “The couple on a Kiss Cam?”

“The viral one, where the girlfriend walked out and left the guy on one knee?”

We cringed in unison.

“How can anyone so totally misread his relationship?” Deirdre said.

Been there, done that, I thought.

“He’s buying diamonds while she’s signing on to Match. What made him think she was the one?” Deirdre paused, looked at me, and waited.

I finally said, “That was a rhetorical question, right?”

She leaned forward, all earnest and excited. “What with texting, skyping, online dating, how’s anyone to know what’s real? How does romance cut through the digital bullshit?” Deirdre’s energy went into overdrive. “We’ll make this a big article, have you question people on how they recognized their soul mates.” I didn’t mention that I thought soul mates were bullshit. “Did their eyes meet across a crowded bar? Did a brick land on their head? Or did they get humiliated on a Kiss Cam?”

I said I believed any circumstances leading to a Kiss Cam were humiliating.

Deirdre swept her hands in the air, her bracelets jangling. “ ‘Cyberdate? Or Soul Mate?’ ” She was writing headlines in the air. “ ‘Love at First Sight? Or First Gigabyte?’ ” She zoomed her attention back to me. “I’m giving you three weeks.”

Boondoggle! Turnaround time on assignments is usually never more than a few days. Then Deirdre explained she wanted an extensive, well-researched piece with lots of interviews; and I’d be writing it in addition to my other assignments. A certain personality type might have thought, What an opportunity! I was thinking, Dammit, extra work.

“Sound good?” she said.

“What an opportunity!” I said.

“I want this to be sharp, witty, candid. Poignant and intimate. Written like Nora Ephron.”

I gulped. An audible, embarrassing gulp. “But I’m not Nora Ephron.”

“You aren’t Abe Lincoln, but you can study the Civil War.”

Before I could respond, Deirdre told me she was simply unable to emphasize the importance of the assignment. Then spent the next five minutes emphasizing it.

I sat there wondering what was the downside of bungling the job. Failure? Embarrassment? The disdain of my peers? Versus pissing off Deirdre if I said thanks, but no thanks. My Visa bill flashed before my eyes. “Tell me more,” I said.

“Make it fun and romantic. Like Nora’s movies,” Deirdre said.

“Fun and romantic. Like her movies. Fine. Got that.” Holy shit. “Do you mind me asking why you chose me for this assignment?”

Deirdre laughed. “You’re not afraid to ask people personal questions.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

Deirdre frowned. Sat back.

“If I do a good job on this, can we talk about me writing a column? I’d call it MyEye. Mainly the same sort of things I’m writing already, but with, you know, my picture and name on top.”

“See,” Deirdre said. “You’ve got nerve. That’s why I value you.” She hit her buzzer and barked into the little black intercom, “Gavin! Coffee!” She smiled at me, nodding at the same time. The smile meant You can go now. The nod meant Right now.

But on my way out of her office, she added, “Let’s see how you do on your Nora piece. Then we’ll talk.”

*  *  *

As soon as I returned to my cubicle, Emily’s head floated over our divider. “Hi!” she said, as if she were surprised to see me, instead of what she really was—going crazy waiting to hear what had transpired between Deirdre and me.

A crueler, unkinder Molly Hallberg might have taken serious advantage of the situation, told Emily that I was getting promoted, that I was Emily’s new editor, and that my first official act was to slash her salary by 50 percent.

“Hi back,” I said, not particularly enthusiastic.

“How’d things go for your meeting?”

“Great! I’m getting promoted, I’m your new editor, and for my first official act I’m slashing your salary by fifty percent.”

“Hardee-har-har,” Emily said. “What did Deirdre want to talk about?”

“Oh, the usual. Financial advice. Love-life advice.”

“Well, I hope she didn’t stick you with that soul-mate assignment. Even I dodged that land mine.”

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