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It was Malcolm's idea that I apply for the job at the Lucy Fiamma Literary Agency. Without his prompting, it never would have occurred to me. Which was peculiar, he pointed out, not only because I was about to become unemployed, but because of my almost fanatic love of books and anything to do with them. And it was true; I was a passionate reader, able to devour whole tomes in a single sitting. My unquenchable appetite for books was something I'd developed very early in my life. It seems a cliche now to say that books were a welcome escape from reality, but in my case this was the truth. It wasn't that I had a miserable or neglected childhood, but it was unstable. My single, hippie mother could never stay in one place ("place" being defined as various communelike encampments) for very long. She was on a relentless quest for enlightenment and never found it, unsurprisingly, outside of herself. Not that this stopped her from searching, or from dragging me with her. I had little in the way of continuity in my schooling and next to no contact with kids my own age. What friends I did make I soon had to abandon when my mother decided that a Buddhist retreat in Arizona was spiritually superior to an organic foods cooperative in Oregon, or that an artists' colony in California was morally preferable to a Wiccan enclave in New Mexico. My mother seldom had a man in her life to tie her down, and that included my father, whoever he was or might have become. My mother claimed she never even learned his name on the one night they spent together.
Books were the one constant in all this flux and I turned to reading whenever I wanted to be rooted and still. I loved my mother fiercely but never shared her enthusiasm for perpetual change. Nor did I fully trust the revolving groups of people (almost always women) she surrounded herself with. My mother chose to search for her truths in people and places, but I preferred to search for them in books.
But reading was only part of the thrill that a book represented. I got a dizzy pleasure from the weight and feel of a new book in my hand, a sensual delight from the smell and crispness of the pages. I loved the smoothness and bright colors of their jackets. For me, a stacked, unread pyramid of books was one of the sexiest architectural designs there was. Because what I loved most about books was their promise, the anticipation of what lay between the covers, waiting to be found.
Malcolm knew my passion very well. We met, after all, in the aisles of Blue Moon Books, the bookstore where I worked. I was immediately and embarrassingly attracted to him. He was extremely good looking--tall and tan with chiseled jaw and cheekbones- but there was something else about him that made me weak-kneed and fluttery and willing to drop all pretense of professionalism just to talk to him. He was a writer, I learned, which explained the depth of my instant crush on him. Malcolm was looking for a reference book that would help him get his novel published, so I pulled out several guides to literary agents and small publishers and went through every one of them with him, desperate to keep talking to him, about books, about his writing, and, not least, about whether or not he'd consider having coffee with me next door when I got my break.
"How is it you know so much about books?" Malcolm asked me when, to my trembling delight, he took me up on my offer. "Are you a writer?"
"Oh no," I told him, attempting to flip my hair in a sexy gesture without dragging it through my coffee. "That's not my thing at all."
"Really?" he said, nonplussed, raising one blond eyebrow. "Not even screenplays? Or poetry?"
"No, no," I said, giving him what I hoped was a beguiling half-smile, "I don't write at all. I can write, of course, if I have to. Like letters, and, um, I wrote papers in college, naturally, but, anything else, you know . . ."
It was a valid question. We were living near San Francisco, a city that seemed to contain, among many other things, a plethora of writers. To be more specific, I lived in Petaluma- the wrist-wrestling capital of the country- and Malcolm lived a little farther south, in Novato. For my mother, Petaluma had been at least three stops ago, but I'd come of age after we'd landed there and had just stayed. Despite the lack of panache our cities had, both Malcolm and I considered ourselves "Bay Area" denizens, although Petaluma, especially, was pretty far removed from the San Francisco Bay. Still, there were plenty of aspiring writers dotting my landscape. The ones I met came into Blue Moon, located in an otherwise bland strip mall in Corte Madera, searching for books on how to get into print and were usually doing something else to pay the rent. That "something" was often food service. Such was the case with Malcolm, as he went on to tell me, who waited tables in a high-end Marin County restaurant while he crafted his novel.
I was simply a book lover, I told Malcolm. I had no aspirations to write one myself. I was happy in my job as manager of Blue Moon Books, where I had unlimited access to the stuff of my addiction. I even liked Elise, the owner of the store, who paid me more than she could afford in order to keep me afloat and had always been more like a mentor and friend than a boss. Because I quickly developed a good sense of which books would sell well in the store, having read most of them, Elise had even put me in charge of buying for Blue Moon, a responsibility I truly enjoyed. I'd already been working at the bookstore for four years when I met Malcolm, but the job still felt as new and fresh as if I'd just started.
"It's like being a kid in a candy store," I told him.
Malcolm must have found this charming because, when we'd finished all the coffee we could hold and I reluctantly informed him that I'd have to get back to work, he asked if I'd like to continue our discussion over dinner. I couldn't believe my luck. The good-looking, confident guys never gravitated to me, especially not the guys who had Malcolm's level of sex appeal. It wasn't that I was unattractive myself. Although, like every woman, I found aspects of my face and body that are too long, short, wide, or narrow, I knew that I couldn't really complain. I'd even done some modeling, which had helped pay for college. So it wasn't my looks that turned off the self-assured, handsome men and drew in the socially insecure, less-than-anatomically-perfect, and vaguely desperate ones. There was something else about me, although I'd never been able to figure out what, that repelled men like Malcolm.
I'd complained about this to Elise on more than one occasion, most often after being hit on by dentally challenged musicians or would-be philosophers with marginal hygiene who'd wander into Blue Moon.
"You're easy to talk to, honey," Elise told me, after she finished laughing at my tales of woe. "And you don't have a bit of snobbishness about you."
"So that makes me a target?" I asked her.
"Not at all," Elise said. "These people- these guys- feel that they can trust you, open up to you. Hell, everyone opens up to you. That's how you can sell books that people didn't even know they wanted to read!"
"That's all well and good," I said, "but why can't a great-looking, successful guy open up to me, too?"
"Don't you worry, honey," Elise had assured me, "it will happen."
And, with Malcolm, it finally had.
It didn't take long for the two of us to become an item and for me to give Malcolm his own key to my apartment, which was where we ended up spending most of our time together. It was there, on the queen-size bed that took up the lion's share of my small studio, that we compared the notes of our days, where we shared our bodies and our dreams. Malcolm's dreams involved getting published and making it big as a novelist. My dreams mostly involved him. I wanted him to succeed as a writer as much as he did, and I was more than willing to support him in every way I could. If my social life was a bit limited (Malcolm made up most of it and Blue Moon accounted for the rest) I didn't mind. While I wasn't exactly a loner, I'd always been able to entertain myself. Reading a good book, after all, was still my idea of a great time. I suppose that somewhere in the depths of my consciousness I knew that I wasn't really making enough money at Blue Moon and that, much as I enjoyed working there, it wasn't turning into what one might consider a career. And I was going to need a career eventually. Although we didn't discuss it that often, Malcolm and I were planning to get married at some point in the future and one of us was going to need to make some decent money.
Otherwise, though, I was content with my life. There was no reason for me to change anything. That is, until Elise told me that she was closing Blue Moon and that I'd have to find another job.
I wanted to believe that Elise would find a way to keep the store open, and so, even as she began liquidating, I held on in a state of denial for several weeks. That denial might have carried me all the way to the unemployment line had Malcolm not come up with a plan.
I came home from work one evening, in what had become my usual dazed do-nothing state, and found a want ad circled in red and taped to the bathroom mirror. I went to brush my teeth and peeled it off, watching my own curious expression reflected behind it. There was barely any text to the ad.
"ADMIN ASST WANTED," the ad began, "FOR BUSY, SUCCESSFUL LITERARY AGENCY."
I didn't like the first line. The dreaded "administrative assistant" title was just a glorified term for slave. Still, the rest of the ad was very intriguing:
CANDIDATE MUST BE SMART, DETAIL AND MULTI-TASK ORIENTED. PREVIOUS PUBLISHING EXPERIENCE VERY HELPFUL. LOVE OF BOOKS A MUST. FAX RESUME ATTN: CRAIG AT LUCY FIAMMA LITERARY AGENCY.
Under the ad, Malcolm had scrawled, A--This is the perfect job for you! xxx, M.
Malcolm was right. I had all the bases covered on this one, I thought. By the time he arrived home from his dinner shift that night, I'd added Blue Moon to my old resume and printed out a copy. I faxed my resume from the bookstore the next day and, within a few hours, there was a message for me from someone named Anna requesting that I call to make an appointment for an interview.
"Lucy and Craig would like to meet you," the tired voice said. "Please give us a call so we can set up a time."
When I called back, Anna gave me complicated directions to the office in the same listless tone. In the background, I could hear what sounded like an entire bank of ringing phones.
Elise was encouraging, if not exactly enthusiastic, when I asked for a morning off to go to the interview.
"Well, well. Lucy Fiamma," she said. "That's the big time, isn't it? Of course, you know I'll help you in any way I can." A whisper of a frown crossed her features. "Just be careful, dear," she said, and walked away before I could ask her what she meant.
Malcolm, on the other hand, was thrilled to hear that I'd landed an interview. He was so excited that he took me to dinner at Postrio, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the city that was way out of our normal budget.
"You know I don't have the job yet," I said as we toasted with glasses of Chianti.
"Oh, you'll nail it, baby," Malcolm said. "I have no doubt."
Preparing for my interview turned out to be a nightmare. It took a full hour in front of the mirror to come up with an outfit I didn't even like. I'd settled for a blue dress, the most conservative of the three in my closet, and the only one that covered the tattoo- the small but vivid angel wings on the top of my right breast. I'd gotten the tattoo when I was seventeen and angry at my mother, so after downing a few shots of vodka supplied by my bad-girl friends of the moment, I'd allowed myself to be talked into being poked by an inky needle. Getting that tattoo was the only overtly rebellious act I committed in my tame teenage years and I regretted it almost immediately. My mother couldn't have cared less, for one thing, which completely undermined my purpose in getting it in the first place. I hated the way it looked for another thing and always ended up trying to cover it. Every time I looked at those wings I couldn't believe I'd been stupid enough to brand my own flesh.
Malcolm, however, thought my tattoo was cute- "Angel's wings," he called it--and made a point of kissing it whenever possible. "It's so conveniently located," he always said with a smile. But because we were usually in a state of undress when he delivered these kisses, I was usually focused on things other than my ill-advised tattoo.
My hair was another problem. Up or down? Barrette or free-flowing? At the best of times, I didn't know what to do with my wild mass of curls. It was a difficult color- mostly red, but with enough gold to allow me to classify it as titian when I was being both generous and literary about my appearance- and it fell halfway down my back. In the end, I twisted it into a librarian-type bun at the back of my head and hoped it didn't make me look too severe.
Makeup was an issue as well. I didn't wear much to begin with since, unlike many redheads, I had a smooth, almost olive, complexion, with eyelashes and brows that were dark enough not to need mascara. I searched through my pitiful supply of shadows and decided that none of them really matched the hazel of my eyes, the red of my hair, and the blue of my dress. I'd have to go bare, I thought, but made a vow to go shopping for both cosmetics and clothes if I got the job.
From the Hardcover edition.