They Just Don’t Understand Me
Reed dropped the bomb on the first day of a bizarre May heatwave, one so hot Pat’s Steaks could have fried its cheese-withs on any one of these Philadelphia streets. Let’s have lunch! he had texted me, so at twenty to noon I left the cavernous coolness of Quaker State University, and a couple of soggy public transit rides later I was at Old City Coffee on Church Street. Reed was down from Manhattan for an editors’ panel at the Free Library, allowing our schedules to finally converge. Even though we once fought like cats in a sack, the fact he wanted to meet and talk about my manuscript, had me thinking mine wasn’t one he was about to reject.
“Oh yeah, Jane, it’s got plenty of spark,” he said, his fingers rolling rhythmically on his tablet, the front page of my opus up. When his brow lifted, my guard raised accordingly. At least he had my espresso waiting.
“And that’s not good?” I said, tentatively sipping.
While he said, so Saharan, “Like a spark in a brushfire is good.”
When I kept sipping, saying nothing, he elaborated.
“It’s like it’s shooting all over the place and nowhere at all. Like there’s plenty of shit going on but it doesn’t have that…” He winced, cupping his hands like squeezing melons. “That je ne sais quoi. That thing that yanks you into the page.”
As I waited for the java to upload I tried to remind myself he was still one of the sweetest guys out there, not that it mattered when we were together, and certainly not now. “Why don’t you call it what you really think it is,” I said. “Why don’t you just call it crap?”
“I didn’t call it crap.”
“At least if you did you’d be insulting me in English, n’est-ce pas?”
His sigh crossed the room. “Jesus, Dorothy…”
“Don’t call me that.” Perhaps he thought his use of my given name somehow gave him leverage, but this was precisely why we no longer wrestled with the same blanket. “Tell me what you mean already.”
He smiled, taking my hand, and for a moment if felt like old times. “Jane, believe me when I say I still think you’re one of the most original writers out there. You have a real voice, honest to God, not like those Times list junkies I get everyday. Your pacing is perfect, your plotting, your flow. For Christ sake, you had a short story in The New Yorker.”
Shambles, a few 20 Under 40 fiction issues ago. We edited it in my bed, naked, sipping wine, the only things that got me through his ruthless blue pencil. But it worked, and that’s the reason I was sitting here now. “So shouldn’t that mean something?”
“Sure, but what’s happened since?” He glanced to the tablet. “Now you’re writing characters who—how can I put this? They’re full of noise but there’s no there there.”
I drew my hand back. “In other words, crap.”
Another sigh. “You’re not hearing me, are you?”
“I have to get back to work,” I said, grabbing my purse.
“I’m not done with you,” he said, latching onto my wrist. “Sit down.”
Every bone in my body wanted to leave, but logic prevailed. How often does a writer have the ear of an editor, ex-boyfriend or not? So I slipped my wrist away and sat.
He returned to his lunch, spooning a bit of potato leek which was so like Reed, so snug in that power seat, so blasé when I was ready to jump out of my skin. “How long have we known each other?” he said. “Ten years? Back when you just started that textbook manager job at Quaker State?”
“Back when you were still hustling history books instead of midlists?” I pictured that skinny guy in the too-big suits and suddenly, I couldn’t help it. I smiled with archived and in the moment affection. “Now you’re the big-time editor.”
“Not yet, but I’m only one solid title away.” He looked up and right into me. “I promised my boss it’d be yours.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, honestly surprised. “No pressure there.”
“You can do it, I swear you could, but only if you listen to me.” When I started to laugh, he leaned in, looking bruised. “Goddammit, Jane, I’m serious.”
“I’m sorry.” Just nerves. See what he does to me? “Go on.”
“My point exactly. I have and you haven’t. And that’s why your writing is the literary equivalent of treading water.”
I could feel my face heating all over again. “You know, I really don’t have to listen to this—”
“Oh yes you do,” he said, turning a few heads. “Look, you’re smart and savvy and I’m sure you know how gorgeous you are but Christ! You’re so stubborn. Did you even read the notes I made on your sample chapters?” He jabbed the screen. “If you did this wouldn’t be like a bomb exploding over and over. I wanted to call the Think Tank at Princeton and say, ‘Hey! I’ve got the answer to fusion right here.’”
I squinted at him. “Not funny.”
“Not trying to be. Look, even historical fiction’s got to have living, breathing characters. And if you want to write them, you need to make them real.”
“Are you saying I don’t do my research?”
“If you call research banging back Demons at the Franklin ‘til two a.m.” His jaw tightened as he set down his spoon. “I don’t even want to think about what goes on after.”
“Good, because it’s none of your business.” I dug a clip from my bag and crammed my hair into it, my neck sweating in that air-conditioned room. “Even so, I take my writing very seriously.”
“I don’t call that writing,” he said, flicking the screen. “I call it bloated eighteenth century melodrama with characters so obnoxious you want to squash them on the first page.”
“Damn, Reed,” I said, taken aback. “Don’t spare the horses.”
“Listen to me.” He gripped the table, never so worked up. “Your characters are like plywood—no. Plywood has more depth. If you want to make them real they need to hurt and bleed and transform, do more than just argue and jump in the sack.”
“I do more than—”
“Shh. Jane, it’s not enough to know the royal mortar was 5.4 inches caliber if you don’t give a shit if one of them blows your hero apart. Or if some lady’s face powder has arsenic in it unless she’s going to dose her husband’s tea. Historical minutiae is fine but only if it advances the plot. But you’ve got such a mish-mash of non sequiturs it’s like an Indiana Jones warehouse of Antique Roadshow rejects.”
I was too impressed to be insulted. “Damn, you’re like Sir Metaphor Mix-a-Lot.”
He sat back, exhaled. “Look, I know you’re a good writer. But you could be a great one if you’d just listen to me on this. You know I’m right.”
He was. He always was, part of the reason we weren’t we anymore. “Are you done?”
“No.” He reached into his inside pocket. “Here, take this.” He held out a business card. “It’s from a real estate agent down the Jersey Shore. Found us a really nice place for Fourth of July week.”
Us. Meaning he and his glorious new wife, Carol. Met, engaged and married her in under a year, something I couldn’t get out of him in three. Not that it ever crossed my mind, but still. “How wonderful for you.”
“No, how wonderful for you. Because for you she found something perfect.”
“For me?” I shoved the card back. “Sorry, Reed, I’m strictly mountains. You must be confusing me with another ex-girlfriend.”
“That would be highly unlikely.” He dropped the card into my bag. “I think you need to go away and chill for awhile, and I’ve found just the right place for you to do it. Ever hear of a town down the Shore called Dorothy?”
Was he kidding? “What’s that supposed to be, some kind of ironic karma-type thing? No, I haven’t heard of it.”
“That’s because you’ve conditioned yourself to hate anything with sand. But Dorothy’s not on the beach. It’s built around a snug little harbor on Barnegat Bay, fairly infested with Park Slope. They’re calling it ‘Little Newport.’ Ring a bell?”
It did, vaguely. But I hated anything that smelled of salt air, hot hipster haven or not. “Okay, maybe. Why?”
“Because—excuse the pun—the town’s got your name written all over it. It fairly bleeds history. There’s got to be a million stories there.”
“But I’ve just written one. What if I give it—”
“In-season rentals with boat slips start at four grand a week,” he went on. “This agent has a listing for a cottage at $3500 for six. But you’d have to take it now, like today, because it’s not going to last. After the Fourth the price will explode.”
“What makes you think the price’ll make a difference?” This meeting was going south and fast. “I’m not looking for a vacation spot. I’m looking to get back in the game.”
“And how do you expect to do that?”
“With this,” I said, looking to his tablet. But even to me that sounded futile.
“Look, Jane.” Oh no. I knew only too well what his Look, Jane voice meant. It was all but over. “If you want me to buy your historical fiction you need to give me something fresh. Dorothy’s got a lot of history but it’s also quirky enough to appeal to your inner urbanite.”
“So you want me to go there.”
“So much I’ll make you a proposition. If you can get me a proposal for a new book by say…the Fourth of July, we’ll talk contract.”
Was he joking? “You expect me to write a book in six weeks? I couldn’t do that in six months.”
“Calm down. I’m only talking proposal. An outline, maybe a couple of chapters.”
“But what about what I just gave you?” I said, already knowing the answer.
“Forget it, it’s DOA. Bury it and move on.”
All of a sudden I felt sick. He wanted me to toss three years of work? I just couldn’t let it end that way. “Reed, please, I know I can do better. How about I just give it another go? You know my best work always comes out in the edits. I mean seriously, would The New Yorker have taken a chance on me if they didn’t think I had potential?”
“Potential, yes, but at thirty-six?” He winced. “Jane, your 20 Under 40 days are getting further behind you, but they’ve got just enough juice left to convince my senior editor to take a chance. But only if you regroup and give me something new. Seriously, take my offer. You’re not going to get a better one.”
“The hell I won’t.” He was throwing me crumbs and I was far from ready for that. “You’re not the only editor out there.”
His eyes narrowed. “As far as you’re concerned I am. No one knows what you’re capable of like I do. And no one is going to put their ass on the line for you like I just did. Now call that real estate agent. In fact, she’s expecting you to.”
I should’ve figured. “Like you’re expecting me to jump when you say go? If that’s true then you don’t know me at all.”
So I left, fuming, knowing even without the humidity, it was going to take much longer than usual to cool off.
* * * * *
When I got home I brought up one of my best scenes from Chapter Forty-nine, a particularly pivotal juncture in my epic which was obviously lost on Reed.
“Mr. Smith,” Sally said throatily, “I do believe your commentary is based not on observation but on your own secret desire!”
“Do you now. You flatter yourself, wench.”
She glared at him. “You arrogant—prancing in here like the cock of the walk!”
“Mistress Boyce…what an interesting choice of words.”
All right, he’s a bit of a pig, and Sally does tend to accumulate too many exclamation points. Still, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t fix and certainly very far from hopeless. If Reed was any kind of editor he’d realize that, right?
“Damn.” I closed the file, not knowing what to believe. Maybe I just needed to think about it awhile. Maybe over a cup of coffee. Coffee, I knew, could fix anything.
Coffee was the duct tape of my life.
I went to the kitchen and retrieved Spanish Dark Espresso, and filling both chambers, settled the Moka pot to the stove. As its perk filled the room I went to the window, skipping my gaze across the stoops of Society Hill. For lack of a better descriptor, I had fallen into a funk.
Damn Reed. I’d let that pernicious echo of my past get to me again.
He wanted me to get out of the city. But what he didn’t get was how bred into me Philadelphia was. I loved its old, scrolly buildings and its walkable streets, Citizens Bank Park and the blue Ben Franklin Bridge reflecting off the Delaware. Loved University City where I was born the one-and-done child of two math academics, loved Society Hill where I lived now. How could Reed possibly think I’d go to New Jersey?
Spent my college years there at Rutgers, tolerable only because New Brunswick’s an hour train ride away. So between semesters while so many of my friends were at the Shore, I was trolling South Street or the Delaware Avenue clubs, never a fan of anything salty. Concrete and compact living was what I was made for. My Granny got that, and when she died she willed me this house, making me smile even through my grief.
Reed also needed to shut up about my research skills. By doing my homework I made a killing on the stock market, enabling me to redo this townhouse from tile roof to French drains. Maybe he’s jealous because he’s crammed into a third floor walkup in Manhattan, while my walk-in closet’s the size of his bedroom. So what if I like to go out? So what if Olivia and Amy meet me on Arch Street for dim sum, or if I end up at the Raven and go a little crazy. Because don’t get me started on men. Reed’s a nice guy if not a bit bossy, but nothing prepared me for The Dean.
I had on my end table an Art Nouveau lamp. There was a time when I liked to warm my hands under its leadened hood just because it reminded me of him. Long and lean and smooth like watered glass, he was the dean of the law school and such a slick cross-examiner he could’ve talked the ocean out of its tides. When those blue eyes took a stroll down my hills and valleys, well…I was ready to give him a whole new definition of habeas corpus.
The lamp was his present to me at the zenith of our relationship. So when it finally hit me I was speaking more to his prerecorded voice than having the real thing whisper in my ear, I got real and came to a decision. A moving target will never get hurt because a moving target will never fall in love. So I became one.
After that, the men I allowed in my life were more or less like a new pair of tights. They looked great at first, they wore a few times, but ultimately they were disposable. That dinner, a couple of drinks, and a protected toss between the sheets was as good as it was ever going to get. If I wanted faithful, I’d be better off getting a dog.
And I didn’t even like dogs.
Coffee done, I poured myself a cup and took it to the living room, passing my laptop along the way. No sense writing tonight. Better to drop to the sofa and bury myself in someone else’s book. Reed had done such a stellar job of pushing my buttons every one of them were set directly to off.
* * * * *
I awoke, thinking of fish. Which was odd because I hardly felt cold and clammy. I felt a-swim in a pool of sweat.
I had fallen asleep on the sofa and somehow during the night, my brand-new air conditioner had botched its own suicide. There it was, perched on my living room windowsill wheezing metallically, its dying engine sucking in and spewing forth an invisible murk of city hydrocarbons and ozone-depleted air. I got up and gave it a good smack. It obliged me by quitting altogether.
Excellent. Philadelphia was having a heatwave, and my one-month-old-24,000-BTU-still-under-warranty air conditioner had bailed on me, leaving me to stew in my own caffeine-deprived juices. So I showered, dressed, and hurled myself into the rolling refrigerator of a SEPTA bus, buoyed by the prospect of venting my spleen to Handy Appliances once in the air-cooled comfort of the Quaker State University bookstore. But as soon as I got there I found a small crowd huddled outside my office.
“What’s going on?” I asked. Four clerks immediately scattered, leaving a pot-bellied maintenance man at my doorway. When I came beside him I knew why.
“Oh God,” I barely managed, getting a face-full of mist.
The man snorted, slurping from a stained paper cup. “Pipe broke.”
Except for my desk there wasn’t a right angle in the room. Every book, binder, and piece of paper was saturated into lasagna noodles, the wallpaper sagging like cheap socks. The woven cushion of my chair was bubbling.
The maintenance man shook his head. “What a mess.”
I wanted to scream. “This is not a mess—this is a cataclysm. Do you have—”
I looked over my shoulder. Damn. Marilyn. My boss.
“Come to my office,” she said. Then she turned on her heels and went to it, readily expecting me to follow. “Sit,” she told me when I got there.
When I did I put my head in my hands. “Oh Marilyn…did you see it?”
“Of course I did,” she said, her pencil skirt rustling as she crossed her legs. “And it’s going to take two weeks to get fixed.”
“That’s right,” she said calmly, pinching off a nibble of carrot muffin. Sometimes I thought she got nourishment by photosynthesis. “You’ll use Michael’s desk until then.”
I blanked. “Michael?”
She crooked her lipsticked mouth. “The trade book manager. He’s on vacation in Prague for the next two—”
“I knew that.” Truth was, I forgot. With so many underlings skittering around it was hard to keep track.
“Hey,” Marilyn said, eyeing me, “are you okay?”
Was she serious? “Okay? Aside from the city reservoir exploding in my office?”
“Really, Jane,” she said, pinching another nibble, “it’s just an office.”
“Sure, it’s just an office, but why couldn’t it have been your office?”
“But if it had been mine, you’d still be sitting at Michael’s desk.”
We shared a good laugh over that one while once again, I fumed. Bosses, editors—I sensed a conspiracy.
* * * * *
By four o’clock I was ready to scream. It seemed the whole city was on a two week schedule.
“We’ll pick it up,” the man from Handy Appliances said. “But it’s gonna take at least two weeks.”
Two weeks. Like how long I’d have this pathetically tiny desk out on the sales floor in trade books, right below the display of redundant New York Times bestsellers. A Masters in Library Science and ten years as a text manager at a major Eastern university, should not get me hunched under Nicholas Sparks and Stephen King. I wanted to spin their leering faces into Literary Criticism.
“Bad day, dear?” said Marilyn.
“Hrummph…” was the best I could offer.
“Well, at least we get to go to Marrakesh in a little bit. Nothing like some champagne and baba ghanoush to boost your boat.”
Again my head was in my hands. “What are you talking about?”
“We’re all going out after work. For Jenna’s shower, of course.”
I flipped through my mental database. I’d heard Jenna was getting married, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember anyone mentioning a bridal shower. “We are?”
She looked horrified. “You must have gotten an invitation. Why, Lily sent them out two months ago. Perhaps it’s just…” she grinned weakly, “floating in your office.”
“Believe me, it isn’t.” Then she looked to me with what was surely the purest expression of pity that had ever crossed her almost flawless Estee Lauder-ed face.
“Jane, I don’t know what to say. Truly, I don’t.”
I grabbed my bag, ready to leave. “How about ‘oops’?”
* * * * *
It came to me like a shot out of the dark.
As I sweated on my sofa, watching the blades of my new $19.99 box fan spin into a gray blur, I came to a decision. I could bemoan my DOA book, my suicidal air conditioner, my tidal pool office, or even that some pierced-tongued clerk thought it would be hilarious to dis me knowing I couldn’t do a thing about it. Or I could turn that DOA book into a masterpiece and fuck them all. I dialed Marilyn’s cell.
“Hello!” she answered through the din of Marrakesh.
“It’s Jane. Hey, I’ve got some vacation time left, don’t I?”
“You’re joking right? You haven’t taken a real vacation in two years.”
“Well, then, you know that book I’ve been working on?”
“Yeah…” she said tentatively.
“I’ve got an editor who’s interested but only if I act fast. Do you think you could spare me until…” I knew I was pushing it, but I had to try. “The Fourth of July? I’ll even take a leave of absence if I have to.”
“What? Oh! Of course!” she cried, sounding as if she’d just found an exit in a smoky room.
And just like that, the first part of my plan fell into place. I dug into my tote for the second. After I left a voice mail I sat back to wait. Ten minutes later my phone rang.
“Jane? Alice Munson, Lighthouse Realty. So, you said a friend referred you?”
“Yes. He said you have something nice in a vacation rental in…” I felt myself cringing, “…Dorothy. His name is Reed—”
“Oh! You’re the writer!” She seemed really excited by the fact. “He must have told you about the cottage!”
The cottage? “He really didn’t—”
“Just listen to this. ‘Historic cottage on creek. Two bedrooms, one bath, eat-in kitchen, screened-in porch, boat dock. Walking distance to shops and restaurants. Only $3500 from immediately to the Fourth of July.’ A steal because after the Fourth the price will go through the roof. So what do you think?”
I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll take it.”
“Wonderful! No beating around the bush for you. I’ll just need your name, address, and phone. And a credit card for your deposit until I get your check.”
My name, which actually meant my legal name. I really hated it when they asked for that. “Dorothy J. Moss—”
“Dorothy?” she said. “Oh boy, it’s almost like fate, isn’t it?”
If Reed was playing a joke on me I failed to find the humor. I gave her the rest of what she needed and hung up. Just one more call to make.
“What’s the word, Jane?” Reed said.
“Just two. You’re on.”
I could hear him smiling from a hundred miles away.
* * * * *
So a day, a train and a bus ride later, this city girl found herself standing outside a trendy little supermarket in picturesque downtown Dorothy, New Jersey. After the bus pulled away and its obligatory cloud of exhaust cleared, I saw a bare-chested man in overalls and too-big knee-high rubber boots turn from a stack of heirloom watermelons. Before I could reach the shade of the store’s canvas awning he was before me.
“Dorothy Moss?” he said over what sounded like a hundred dogs barking.
“Who…wants to know?” I said, absolutely stricken by the deep green of his eyes.
He wore a cap with a jumping fish on it over short-cropped black hair. “That would be me. So, are you or aren’t you?”
Little hairs spiked on the back of my neck. “It’s Jane Moss. Who’re you?”
He slipped my suitcase from me and lit a thousand watt grin. “Restrain your enthusiasm, Dorothy Jane. I’m your landlord.”
© Copyright Gwen Jones 2016 All Rights Reserved