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When you got it, flaunt it
They say the truth will set you free. They never explain that with an insouciant thwack, the truth will shove you out into the cold, dark forest of self-awareness, to be pursued by the hungry wolverines of doubt and loathing. They never mention that part. And when it happens, you can only hope that somewhere in the woods you will find a bar that's still open.
Luckily, at six-thirty on a Friday in Manhattan, all the bars are open. Mike sat at one of them with her heels against the brass foot rail and sipped slowly and deliberately at a double Jameson neat. She stared into the glass after every sip and willed the alcohol to seep into her veins. She'd been drinking for too many years to rush foolishly into intoxication as though there weren't a long evening ahead. She had all the time in the world and an open tab.
The Town Drunk was a filthy cesspit in the Meatpacking District with a splintering bar and perpetually sticky floors. The jukebox played Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan and sometimes the Charlie Daniels Band. A few long-forgotten bras were tacked around the mirror behind the bar, mementos of the nights when young professional women got a little too amusing and lived out their sad Coyote Ugly fantasies on the bar top. Mike had never been one of these women; Mike was a regular.
"Guy at the jukebox is tryin' to work up the nerve," the bartender said quietly as he wiped up the bar in front of her.
Mike glanced into the mirror briefly and caught the outline of someone feeding the jukebox and trying to stare at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Good tip, Jimmy," she said.
"Don't worry." He chuckled. "I don't think he's gonna get there." Still smiling to himself, he moved down the bar to take an order.
Mike briefly mustered the energy to hope that Jimmy was right. She didn't have the reserves tonight to turn someone down politely, to make the obligatory six or seven sentences of conversation before excusing herself to pull out her cell phone or go for a smoke. And she didn't even smoke.
She was constantly having to turn men down, as though sometime in her early adolescence an evil fairy had come through Mike's window while she was sleeping and sprayed her down with some irresistible pheromone that she'd never be able to rinse off. Or maybe it was her utterly effortless and stunning beauty. One of the two. She didn't wear makeup. She cut her long, dark hair maybe twice a year. Fingernails, to Mike, were not for painting but for snapping open beer cans and taking off her stainless Swiss Army watch. Except it's hard to cover up a face that screams to be a portrait and legs that go on for miles. It's hard not to be noticed when you're nearly six feet tall and built like Elle Macpherson, but then, to each of us her challenges.
Mike hoped that Gunther would get there soon. They mostly left her alone when Gunther was around.
The door swung open with a shock of fading daylight, and as he frequently did when she thought of him, Gunther appeared. Like many Australians, Gunther entered a room larger than life, with the carefree warmth and goodwill of an entire continent blowing in behind him. How a ship of minor convicts and British undesirables spawned a nation of the world's most cheerful and gregarious individuals, we may never know. But nowhere is this more evident than in New York City, where the indigenous multitudes hurtle down crowded sidewalks just trying not to touch anyone. Gunther was Mike's equilibrium, a balance for her gruff pessimism, her best friend. And the only man to whom she wasn't related who'd never tried to sleep with her.
Gunther squinted when he saw Mike sitting at the bar, and consulted his watch. "Christ, Mikey, am I late?"
She smiled for a moment at the sight of his enormous, lanky form hoisting itself onto the adjacent barstool and tapping lightly on the bar with a smile at Jimmy to indicate he'd have the usual, which was a Guinness. Gunther always arrived first, as a rule. As the New York bureau chief for an Australian wire service, a title he considered perhaps too lofty as there was no bureau beneath him, Gunther worked from home, and occasionally from the Drunk, filing stories by phone to copy-takers in Sydney who would unfailingly get them somehow wrong. But the hours were terrific.
"No," she said slowly, "no, I'm early."
"Fess up." He smiled and sucked the foam from his beer. "You chuckin' a sickie?"
It had taken years for Mike to comprehend the variety of Gunther's vernacular, but she was now able to understand that he was asking whether she'd played hooky.
"Try again," she said. "Worse. Much worse."
"Hang on," Gunther insisted. He tipped his glass back and within four seconds drained the whole thing, slamming it down on the bar in triumph when he was done. "'Nother one, Jimmy," he requested with a grin and turned back to Mike. "Okay," he said. "Now I'm ready."
"That makes one of us," she returned.
"One's all we need then," he assured her. "Hit me."
Mike took a deep breath and sighed. "Brian Bentley was fired this morning." She listened to the words hanging in the air and felt like she'd tuned in to Lost midseason. Nothing made sense.
"Still waiting for the bad news." Gunther suppressed a smile.
"I was fired this afternoon." It was the first time she'd said so, and it sounded like someone else was talking. Since this morning, everything had felt like a day out of someone else's life. Someone who was vulnerable to things like humiliation and termination of employment. Someone who wasn't a winner like Mike.
It had all happened so fast.
One minute she'd been standing in the slim kitchenette of A. S. Logan Advertising, stirring Splenda into a mug that said "Nancy" in rainbow letters and thinking, nearly simultaneously, that she had no idea who Nancy was and that Splenda sounded like the name of a Vegas stripper. "Splenda's really working the pole tonight." "How does Splenda always bring in the big bucks?" She'd been pitching a paper towel account all morning and her mind was meandering, trying to keep from thinking anymore about toughness and absorbency.
"'Scuse me, Mike." Brenda from Research pushed past her, smelling strongly of something sweet and cheap. Brenda stole perfume samples from the cosmetics accounts and gave unsolicited lectures on the evils of coffee and had no sense of humor.
"Coffee break?" Mike asked her.
"Ha, ha, no," Brenda answered with a pinched expression that was probably intended to be a smile. "I have a peach in the fridge."
The women in her office didn't like Mike, she knew, but she reasoned that was their prerogative since she had next to no use for them. They were mysterious creatures she was obligated to see in the bathroom, and when she did they spoke in code words like "mascara" and "diaphragm" and "kick pleat." They trafficked in frivolous, clubhouse gossip and they pushed up their breasts and tucked hair behind their ears and dared her to pick through the minefield of their conversation. Mike had tried and failed to explain to her female coworkers that if they had to ask, they probably did look fat. That she absolutely did mind their pumping breast milk while discussing copy points. That crying was the lowest, most reprehensible form of game-ending, reprimand-defeating manipulation. They never seemed to take it the right way.
Men made sense. Men went after what they wanted and said what they meant, and usually what they meant was work or sex. Either way she always knew how to answer. But the women were impenetrable. So Mike always dried her hands and tightened her ponytail and fled as quickly as possible. Behind her back, she knew, they called her names. But everyone, everyone, acknowledged that she was one of the best copywriters around. It was the reason she'd been promoted so fast. It was the reason Brian Bentley had taken notice of her during her first year at the agency, and the reason he'd seen her up through the ranks at lightning speed. She'd landed her first television campaign at twenty-eight. She was a superstar.
All that was to be respected in Mike only seemed to make Brenda resent her more. It was Brenda who had started rumors about Mike sleeping with Brian, long before it had actually happened. And it was Brenda who now took immeasurable delight in delivering the bad news. From behind the refrigerator door where she rummaged for her produce, Brenda asked, "Are you hiding?"
"Clearly not well enough," Mike muttered. There was no reason to bother with false courtesy. There had been an unfortunate incident at an office birthday party during which Mike had failed to mention the lipstick on Brenda's teeth and she'd never been forgiven. They both knew where they stood.
"Oh-ho, as if I were your biggest worry. I don't blame you," Brenda answered and she suppressed a giggle behind the egg tray. "I think I would hide too."
"Yeah, well . . . have a day, Brenda." Mike turned to go.
"Did you wear denim to your pitch?"
Mike looked down at her badly beaten jeans and engineer boots. Creatives at A. S. Logan could generally wear whatever they liked, a fact that was probably deeply disturbing to Brenda.
"Turns out, the client wasn't there for a fashion show," Mike returned. "And by the way, I think it's great how you get all dressed up to sit in the cafeteria and read The Rules on your lunch break."
"Just seems like a shame that you'll be leaving such a disheveled impression. Today of all days."
"Maybe it's this dangerous, mind-altering coffee I'm drinking, Brenda, but I have no idea what you're talking about." Mike was going to give her thirty seconds, and then she was going to walk away.
Brenda gripped her cold peach tightly and stood up to say, "Oh, my goodness, do you not know yet?"
Mike had no time for this. She had twelve hours of work to get done in the next six. "Brenda," Mike said, "you're killing me."
Brenda carefully shut the fridge door. "Oh, that's right, you were in your pitch. Oliver just canned Brian."
Brenda smiled, because Mike looked like she'd been hit with a shovel.
"What are you talking about?" Mike managed.
"Mm-hmm. I guess he went to present to the Toreador distributors and they didn't like the campaign and Brian lost it. Word is he said some terrible things. It was lose the Toreador or lose Brian so . . . Tough break, I guess."
Mike stared with her mouth open.
Brenda moved past her toward the hallway. "P.S. Nancy really doesn't like other people using her mug."
Mike said nothing.
"Yeah?" Mike asked, without turning.
"Oliver's looking for you."
Mike listened to Brenda's heels clacking down the hallway. She wasn't going to take the word of the office gossip, knowing firsthand how often Brenda made things up just to amuse herself. She made her way quickly toward Brian's office, praying that she'd see his spiky gray head poking up above the back of his chair, see his expensive shoes up on the windowsill, and hear the familiar south London meter as he brayed into the phone. But there were two security guards in the office, cleaning out his desk, tossing Brian's Clio Awards into a cardboard box with framed photos of his wife and his beach house in Sag Harbor, acting as if there was no sacrilege in toppling an advertising legend in a single afternoon, all because a bunch of narrow-minded car distributors didn't know how to think outside the box.
It was then that Oliver found her, staring into Brian's office with a sort of conflicted fondness Mike didn't know she could muster for him. But she followed dutifully when Oliver motioned down the hall toward the corner office.
Oliver sank heavily into his chair before she was even in the room. "Shut the door," he told her and massaged his right temple. "Sit."
"I'd rather stand," she told him.
She wanted to resist for the sake of resistance, but she wanted information more. She sat across the desk from him and stared hard.
"I appreciate the death ray, but he brought this on himself," Oliver began.
"That's a matter of perspective," Mike said.
"No, Edwards," he continued wearily, "when you call the advertising manager of one of the nation's largest auto manufacturers a 'filthy cocksucking motherfucker' in front of a meeting of his distributors, it is no longer a matter of perspective."
She wasn't entirely surprised. Brian had said worse.
"He nearly cost this agency millions of dollars, Edwards, and you don't want to know how many jobs. There wasn't much of a choice to make."
"The campaign he gave them was perfect—"
"Edwards," he interrupted her. "It's over. He's gone. Quit fighting for him."
She wasn't fighting for him, she wanted to explain. She was fighting alongside him. You could give Brian twenty-four hours and a dry-erase board and he could come up with a way to sell kitten-fur tea cozies to every member of PETA. He had plucked Mike from career infancy and built his own beautiful advertising monster and in return she gave him loyalty and utter confidence. And yes, one time, one, single time she'd drunk enough to forget her better judgment and she'd slept with him. Just one time. Every day since she'd wished she hadn't.
"Look, Edwards," Oliver said, "we have a problem." She knew what the problem was. "We've had this conversation before. You're a damn good writer." She knew. "Which makes it all the more difficult for me to do what I have to do now." He sighed and Mike waited. "I've been reassigning Bentley's accounts . . . Nobody wants you on their team, Edwards. You don't play well with others."
"I'm not going into it—"
"Is this about the tampons? Because—"
"It's about a lot of things, although while we're on the subject it was probably inappropriate to refer to the consumers as 'bleeders' in front of the client."
"It slipped out."
"Edwards. You're icy with your coworkers and you argue with everyone. And unfortunately, you no longer have a champion in this office."
"I didn't realize I needed one." It was a lie, but she said it anyway.
"There's no room here anymore for the way Bentley did business. The reign of terror is coming to a close." He shook his head. "I've gotta let you go, Edwards." Oliver looked almost embarrassed. Almost. "You backed the wrong horse. I'm sorry."
"Believe me," she said slowly, "I bet I'm sorrier."
"Can I give you a piece of advice, Mike? Wherever you land next, try to act more like a . . . person."
From the Trade Paperback edition.