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We lived in Brooklyn on the sixth floor of a building that looked like something out of a fairy tale. It had red pointed towers, with a slate spiral staircase running up the outside, and a balcony—a breezeway, the super called it—with an ornate, black, wrought-iron railing. It ran the length of the building, past everyone’s front door, like the terrace on each floor of a motel. Our breezeway looked out at the corniced tops of the brownstones across the way, out at the Statue of Liberty and down at the metal garbage cans and fire hydrants on the sidewalk, which was cracked and cleaving from the deep roots of old maple trees.
I worked in that building most days, writing musician interviews, travel stories, trend pieces, stories about New York, whatever I could scrounge up. From my back bedroom office, I looked down at the soft tops of the trees in the courtyard. The only noise, besides the incredible racket of the Tuesday morning recycling truck and the occasional car alarm, was the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, whose hum was so constant it sounded like a rushing river. Or so I liked to think.
There were better ways to make a living. But there were worse ways, too. I could be covered in yellow paint, working in the dip room of a pencil factory, like my mother had when she was young, or sitting inside the little emergency booth in the Holland Tunnel, watching the cars go by (which had to be one of the worst jobs ever), or working in a fluorescent-lit office with no windows, like my husband did most nights as a reporter at a newspaper.
I imagined the newsroom was especially depressing after nine p.m. So most afternoons, tocheer him up, I packed Martin his dinner in a plastic shopping bag. Rice and beans or pasta with homemade sauce. A piece of fruit and a few cookies. Each night, he returned the Tupperware, one of the small rituals of marriage no one ever tells you about.
We were still newlyweds. Only two years before, Martin had taken me to the top of New York, to Rockefeller Center, to the Rainbow Room, on the pretense we were celebrating the fourth anniversary of our first date, and with the glow of the city lights like votive can- dles flickering below us, with the big band playing “Stardust” in the background, he had proposed to me. He offered me a ring that his mother—a goldsmith—had forged. It had two thick braids of gold and a round ruby that changed from stoplight red to rose-petal pink as my hand shook that night and I hesitantly answered, “Yes.”
I fingered the ring now whenever I was nervous, whenever I had trouble with an interview subject, whenever I had trouble writing a sentence. These days, I was trying to get my pen in the door of the women’s magazines—cash cows with stories that paid double what my rock star interviews paid. One of my former professors from graduate school encouraged me to write a pitch to one of her old friends at Cosmopolitan that autumn, just as the leaves in our courtyard were starting to turn from green to taxicab gold.
As a preteen I had read Cosmo, which I lifted from my sister Paula’s coffee table and snuck into the bathroom. It was in Cosmo’s pages that I had learned what a clitoris was, what a rubber was, how to one day give a good blowjob, but most important, I read a description of a simultaneous orgasm. Cosmo said it was like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. I was well acquainted with the Tilt-a-Whirl. There was a Bruce Springsteen song, a favorite of mine that mentioned it. “You know that Tilt-a-Whirl down on the south beach drag, I got on it last night and my shirt got caught.”
After writing an introductory letter that mentioned the Cosmo Tilt-a-Whirl orgasm story and dropping my professor’s name, I was invited to the magazine office to look at “The Book”—the legendary sacred text of women’s magazine publishing.
I learned that the Book was actually two books, two thick binders filled with story ideas that Cosmo had kept for years. Some ideas were typewritten brainstorms from editors, but most were pages ripped out of other women’s magazines, with “Let’s do something like this” scribbled at the top. I read each one carefully, trying to find the story that would inspire me.
It wasn’t easy.
These stories had all been written before, and then written again, and again, and again, and again, and once again, over the years. I had read them all as a kid, as a preteen, and again as a teenager, and then again in my early twenties, until I had stopped reading Cosmo altogether. It was like going back to a bad soap opera after a decade and finding the same characters and plotlines.
They were all relationship stories: stories about Meeting Mr. Right, Keeping Mr. Right, Blowing Mr. Right, with an occasional orgasm story thrown in for color. The women’s magazines were notorious for farming out any real, hard news stories—prostitution, drugs, domestic abuse—to their male writers. Women writers were left to catfight over the same old stories in the relationship ghetto.
After two hours of flipping, the only story that I could see myself actually writing was one called “Working the Night Shift.” Not just a Love piece or a Fuck piece, but about women who worked the night shift: strippers, waitresses, cops, and nurses.
I alerted the perky editorial assistant that I had found a winner. And she led me, assignment in hand, to meet Myra, her boss. I poked a head into her office. From behind a large wooden desk she waved her long, skinny, wrinkled arm. “Come in,” the arm said. “And make it snappy.”
Myra’s office was spacious, with a view of midtown Manhattan, and a separate, smaller desk supporting her old-fashioned manual typewriter. I wasn’t sure if she still used it or if it was just for show.
Myra scared me like my math teacher in fifth grade had scared me. Miss Bertha was ancient and crumbly, with bug eyes and wrinkles, the first hard woman I had ever known. Myra made Bertha look like a cherub. I nodded and tried to smile as Myra barked out commands about my chosen assignment.
This wasn’t just a first-name story, with made-up, half-fictional friends divulging exaggerated tales of love and lust, she told me. This was about real people working real jobs divulging exaggerated tales of love and lust.
If the quotes weren’t quite right, she said, I should make them up.
“Make them up?”
“Yes,” she said. “Didn’t they teach you that in journalism school?”
Finding women who worked the night shift would be easy enough. The trick was to find women who would talk about their sex lives. I cast the net wide, asking all my friends to search their address books for potential victims.
My nurse friend, Pam Marla, found me a woman named Karen who worked overnights at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, tending to the overdoses and the legions of lonely people who all suffered from a similar ailment—foreign objects lodged in terrible places. There were shampoo bottles, candles, Orangina bottles, Chinese metal love balls, bananas, and lightbulbs. There was the occasional vegetable. “I was gardening and fell over and this cucumber . . .” the story went.
“Gardening naked?” she’d ask.
There was the couple that came in one night: he with a lacerated penis and she with a concussion. It seems that while he was doing the dishes, she decided to show her gratitude and practice what she’d read in the pages of Cosmo. While on her knees, in the act, she suffered an epileptic seizure. Her mouth clamped down, jaws freezing shut. So he hit her with the first thing he could grab, a dirty frying pan.
Maybe it was the atmosphere of St. Vincent’s emergency room rubbing off, but Karen was very frank about her own sex life, which gave my Cosmo story the bite it needed. “Sleeping together is a big part of a relationship,” Karen told me. “So we make the time. He’s a big morning person, and I’m a big night person, so we do it at all times of the day now.” St. Vincent’s Catholic public relations department would have a collective coronary over that quote.
I interviewed a go-go dancer from a club in Manhattan. A cop who worked the graveyard shift. I found a night editor at CNN through an old girlfriend of Martin’s, Linda. She put me in touch with a thirty-one-year-old single editor friend, who told me that working the lobster shift spelled doom for a dating life, but that on her commute home she got to see sunrises that most people missed out on.
I called the San Diego Zoo and tracked down the overnight zookeeper; an overnight waitress in a twenty-four-hour diner in Jersey. My friend Laura, a fellow writer who’d gone to graduate school with me, had a single friend who worked computers at night down on Wall Street and agreed to talk to me over the phone.
“Her name is Julie,” Laura said. “Julie Stepanek.”
So I dialed Julie’s number and was surprised when a young girl answered, a young girl with a stuffed-up nose. “Can I speak to Julie?” I asked.
“This is Julie,” she said, all brightness and cheer.
“Oh hi. This is Helene, Laura’s friend.”
“Oh hi!” she said, even more brightly.
“You sounded like a little kid.”
“I’m little,” she said, “but unfortunately I’m not a kid. I’m an old lady. Thirty.”
“Me, too,” I said, cringing a little. I told her about my story, about where it would be published, and she immediately went into detail about life with her boyfriend, Jimmy.
“We both grew up in St. Louis, but we moved to New York so he could go to graduate school. I’m supporting him,” she said. “Barely.” Then Julie laughed. She had a great laugh, deep but light at the same time, full of personality, like the ones that stand out sometimes over all the others on a sitcom laugh track.
I sort of knew her boyfriend, Jimmy. He had been in my writing program, which was how Laura had met Julie. To get her to open up some more, I told her about my St. Vincent’s nurse and how working nights had really affected her and her boyfriend’s love life. “Crazy hours and all,” I said.
“Oh, we hardly sleep together anymore anyway,” Julie said, not the least bit embarrassed. “We sleep separately. We get a better night’s sleep that way.”
“One night we had a fight coming home from a party. It was this incredibly stupid fight about which was bigger, St. Louis or Minneapolis.” She laughed again. I liked it when she laughed. I wanted to keep her on the line, just to hear her laugh. “We fought all night about it, about which was bigger, and got so mad at each other we wound up sleeping in separate beds. I went on the futon and he slept in our bed, which was always too soft for my back anyway. And since then, we haven’t slept in the same bed.” She paused. I wasn’t sure what I should say.
“Jimmy’s a really light sleeper anyway,” she said, jumping right in again. “He hates anyone touching him while he’s asleep. And he hates being naked.” She laughed again.
They’d been together for nearly a decade, twice as long as Martin and me. Is this what all relationships came to? Separate beds and infrequent sex? Platonic friendship by your thirties? We’d only been married a year, but it seemed to me that sleeping together was the best part of the deal. Sex? Spooning? Holding one another come morning? Wasn’t this why we were together? Why people mated in the first place? To have and to hold. That’s what the vows said.
I didn’t want to know Julie’s answers to those questions, really, but I wanted her to keep talking. So I steered the conversation away from her boyfriend in very un-Cosmo-like fashion. “So why do you work on Wall Street at night? Isn’t trading over by then?”