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There was so much more security at the Sears Tower than there used to be. Of course, the last time she'd been to the indoor observation deck on the highest floor, she was a freshman in high school. She and her girlfriend had locked arms and whispered about the upcoming dance, more concerned with scoring some Boone's Farm wine than the panorama. She was distracted today, too. She had a purpose. She filed out of the elevator behind a group of gum cracking, giggling kids, a few backpackers from Australia and two Japanese tourists gripping guide books like life preservers. She held the tiny object in her right hand, not wanting to lose it in her purse. If she could just get a second, just one second alone, hopefully she would be done with it. A guide stood outside the elevator. She was a young black woman, wearing braided chains around her neck and skintight hot pants below her Sears Tower uniform shirt. She looked as if any minute she might grab a microphone and audition for American Idol. "This way," the guide trilled, drawing out the last word.
The observation deck took up the entire top level of the Sears Tower, and was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. In the center were giant exhibits, touting the history of Chicago.
The groups scattered. She glanced over her shoulder at the guide and followed the Japanese tourists to the right. It was nearly the end of the workday, but because it was summer, the sunlight blazed inside from the west windows.
She wandered around the deck, from window to window. She pretended to be absorbed by the view of the Loop from the east, sight of Soldier Field from the south. But as she looped around again, she looked more closely this time, not at the vista of the city laid out before her, but at the center of the room. She hoped there was some access away from the observation deck other than just the elevator.
Finally, she saw what she was looking for -- next to a display featuring Chicago architecture was a tall silver door with the sign reading Stairs. Emergency Use Only. But there was an alarm on the door that would sound if she opened it. She chewed at her bottom lip. She didn't want to scare anyone. She just had to get rid of it.
The door was behind a rope, but that barrier would be easy to get around. She leaned against a nearby window and waited.
The pop star guide passed by at one point. "Enjoying yourself ?" the guide asked.
"Oh. Yes." She swung around and slipped a quarter in a telescope. She focused it in the direction of her Gold Coast apartment, wondering idly if she'd turned off her straightening iron this morning. The guide moved away.
She kept checking her watch. The observation deck would soon close. She tried not to tap her foot nervously. Now that she was here, she wanted desperately to do this. But would she get the chance? A better question -- could she pull it off?
Finally, about fifteen minutes later, two workers clad in navy blue coveralls and carrying toolboxes undid the rope that stood in front of the stairwell door. One selected a key from his tool belt and put it in the alarm box. The other rehooked the rope behind him. The door swung open, and they moved through it. As soon as it started to shut, she leaped over the rope and caught the door with her hand. She stood there a moment, frozen, hoping the guide wouldn't come back. When she was sure the workers were gone, she slipped inside.
The door closed, and she blinked to let her eyes adjust. The stairway was dimly lit except for red exit signs, all pointing downward. But she went the other way. She went up.
As she stepped through the doorway and onto the roof of the Sears Tower, the wind whipped violently, nearly knocking her over. She caught the door before it slammed and wedged her purse in the frame so it wouldn't lock behind her. Her hair was whisked straight back from her face. Her black skirt, newly purchased from a boutique on Damen Avenue, flapped against her legs. It was adorable and expensive and wholly inappropriate for the task at hand.
She was now in the middle of the flat roof, flanked by two giant antennas. She avoided them and cautiously made her way toward the edge. She clenched her fist tighter around the object in her right hand. She felt as if any minute the wind might whip her off the building.
The roof was gravelly and painted white. It made her feel even less sure of her footing. Still clasping the little object, she inched closer to the side.
Over the rooftop, she could see Lake Michigan glittering blue. She could see the cars on Lake Shore Drive whizzing past that blue. Her breathing became more shallow as she neared the edge. Only a few feet now. A gust swooped around her, seemed to push her sideways.
"Oh, God. Oh, God," she said, but the wind was too loud to hear herself.
She froze then. Do it, she told herself. You're so close. But she couldn't make herself walk any farther. She stood for a few moments until a burst of wind nearly picked her off her feet. Shaking, she hitched up her new skirt slightly, dropped to her knees and began to crawl. The graveled surface cut into her skin, made her knees sting with pain. The skin on her right knuckles scratched as she crawled on her fist.
The rim of the roof came nearer until at last she was there. Her body trembled as she peered over the edge. The cars on Franklin Avenue looked like shiny colored beetles, the people as teeny as gnats.
Balancing on her left hand, she lifted her right hand and, slowly unclenching her fist, dropped it.
My name is Billy. Not B-I-L-L-I-E, like Billie Holiday -- which would be a smooth-voiced, sensuous woman's name -- but B-I-L-L-Y, like a chubby little boy in a baseball uniform. Fact is my father wanted the boy in the uniform. He wanted boxers and brawlers and hunters. What he got was three daughters.
He gave us male names. (My mother claims to have been nearly comatose from the kind of potent childbirth drugs they don't use anymore.) He named us Dustin, Hadley and Billy. What he thought this would accomplish, I'm not certain. Possibly he hoped for some genetic, postpartum miracle, brought on by the names, which would produce male offspring overnight. It almost worked with my sisters. Dustin and Hadley are tall, lean women who run corporations during the week and marathons on the weekend. They drink scotch, and they own at least two sets of golf clubs each. They're the type to say to their respective husbands, "I don't care what the drapes look like, just don't spend more than ten thousand dollars."
I thought about Dustin and Hadley as I sat in a meeting for a new business pitch. Roslyn Jorno, my boss at the PR agency of Harper Frankwell, stood at the head of the conference table. Roslyn was a small woman who almost always dressed in dove-gray. She didn't look happy today, and we all knew that couldn't be good. Roslyn lived for her work (in fact, it was rumored that she actually lived at our offices on Michigan Avenue), so when she was unhappy, the rest of us were soon to be miserable, too.
"This isn't going to work, people," she said, pointing to a board behind her. On it was a list of suggested headlines we might obtain for our client, Grenier's Stud Finder, whose product used NASA-like technology to find wall studs. The headlines read: "Ladies Can Find Studs at Chicago Hardware Show," "Studs Aren't Hard To Come By Anymore," and "Find the Stud That's Right For You."
"‘Ladies can find studs'?" Roslyn said mockingly. I shot a glance at Alexa Villa seated next to me. Alexa, an annoyingly beautiful woman with dark hair and fair skin, had come up with that first headline.
"And ‘find the stud that's right for you'?" Roslyn said. "Are we selling sex or hardware?" She crossed her arms and stared pointedly at me.
Apparently, she didn't like my work so much either. I had to admit I'd written the other headlines.
"I believe that was Billy's," said Alexa Villa seated next to me.
"Elegant, people! I want elegant. Understand?" Roslyn always preached elegance, which killed me. We crafted publicity campaigns for everything from power tools to pharmaceutical drugs to local news shows, but none of those products or clients was particularly elegant. It wasn't as if we were pushing the symphony orchestra.
Even though I rarely saw them, I thought of my sisters then because I was sure Dustin and Hadley not only owned stud finders with laser technology but knew how to use them. Yet Dustin and Hadley were both the epitome of elegance, the kind of women whose angular frames looked stylish in jeans and a man's T-shirt while they wielded a power saw. I, on the other hand, would take off a limb if I tried to use a power saw. I wouldn't know a putter from a hockey stick, and the mere whiff of scotch makes me flinch.
"Elegant,"said Evan across the table. "Very interesting." As if he hadn't heard this thirty-three thousand times before. "You're absolutely right, Roz."
Since Evan had made vice president, he'd been calling Roslyn "Roz," something no one else had ever attempted, and, Evan being Evan, he got away with it. I couldn't help but grin when he turned his head and winked at me. Although I'd been married for two years, I had a little crush on Evan. Okay, more than a little. My friend Tess liked to call it the Everlasting Crush.
"Billy," Roslyn said, "you do know that most of our target demographic is male, right?"
I glared at Alexa, then cleared my throat, and sat taller. "Of course, but the point is to grab attention. And these headlines, if we could talk the press into them, would grab anyone's attention, male or female."
"Well, let's not alienate our male audience, okay?" I hated Roslyn's habit of speaking in questions. It made me want to do the same thing. It made me want to ask, Wouldn't it help all of us if you got laid?
"No problem," I said instead. I batted away the thought that it would probably help if I got laid once in a while.
"And Billy," Roslyn said, "you realize this campaign is important for a number of reasons, right?"
If it were possible, I would have crawled under the table. Lately, Roslyn had been making ominous threats (always posed as queries, of course) that not only might I miss the VP promotion I'd been waiting for since the Mesozoic Era, but I might be demoted (or worse) if my productivity didn't improve.
And now this loosely veiled threat in front of the team let everyone know my ass was on the line. I saw Alexa suppressing a grin. Evan, God love him, looked miserable for me. The rest of the group shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Should I quit now? I wanted to. I desperately wanted to. But the truth was I'd been putting out my feelers for months and the industry was in a lockdown. No one was hiring.
"I understand completely," I said. With the last shred of dignity I had in my body, I looked right at her. There was a painful silence during which Roslyn and I stared at each other. No one muttered a word. William, the guy to my right, shuffled some papers. Alexa cleared her throat.
In my mind, a montage of photos from my career at Harper Frankwell flashed before me -- first as an eager intern rising quickly to assistant and then account exec and so on. It seemed I was a natural at the job, and I adored it. I loved writing press releases, creatively shading words and drawing out sentences to make our clients appear more worldly or accomplished or cutting edge. I loved pitching those clients to the press, subtly hounding producers and editors until the victorious moment when they caved and agreed to cover us. It seemed right to everyone, including myself, that I was heading straight for a vice presidency. I'd been told by Jack Varner, my old boss, that it was a formality, merely a matter of months. But then Jack found God, or something approximating God, and followed that deity to California where he was now training to become an instructor of Bikram yoga. In came Roslyn and out went my thoughts of professional glory.
In the boardroom now, Roslyn and I still stared at each other. I could feel a bead of sweat collect under the waistband of my pants. I could feel the glances that the team members shot from one of us to the other.
Finally, Roslyn dropped her eyes to the pad of paper in front of her. She crossed something out, probably my future, and called the meeting to an end.
Evan waited for me outside the doorway.
"Don't worry about it," he said as we walked down the hall. He gave me a thump on the arm worthy of a linebacker.
In the PR world, which is populated by so many women and gay men, Evan was the token straight guy. The token straight guy who happened to have thick yellow-blond hair, mint-green eyes and dimples that creased his cheeks when he smiled. The linebacker pats were for the best, I knew. I couldn't be tempted by someone who thought of me only as buddy material.
"Seriously, don't listen to her bullshit," Evan said. "Just do your normal stellar job, and maybe this will be the campaign that gets you the VP."
"Right," I said. I prayed he was correct. I prayed that Roslyn's threats were really just tough love maneuvers designed to motivate me.
We reached Evan's office, the one he got when he was named VP. The wall behind his desk was covered with an eclectic combination of Renee Magritte prints, Notre Dame football posters and framed handbills from the band, Hello Dave.
"It's been a long time since I've seen those guys." I pointed to a Hello Dave poster announcing a show at the Aragon.
Before Chris and I got married, Evan and I used to see Hello Dave together. We would drink way too much and dance until way too late. The music made my heart thump with happiness; it made my body feel light and free. The music seemed to separate me from myself in the most wonderful way. It made me bold enough to bat my eyes and drop some not so subtle hints, hoping Evan would make a pass. He never did. The next morning, we'd huddle around the pretzel tin in the company kitchen, deconstructing the set list, the people we'd run into, the women who'd given Evan their numbers. But then, I met Chris and my crush on Evan disappeared. Eventually, I stopped attending Hello Dave shows.
"They've got a gig this Saturday," Evan said, sounding excited. "Yeah, it's at Park West. You've got to come."
"Maybe." But I knew I wouldn't go. My crush had returned sometime in the past year -- residing back in my subconscious -- and thinking about Hello Dave reminded me how hot and bothered Evan could make me. No need to torture myself, and besides, Chris and I were supposed to have dinner with my mother in Barrington.
"Oh, c'mon. For old time's sake." He smiled, and those dimples pleated his smooth golden skin.
"Who're you bringing?"
"A new one?"
"Yep,and she's hot. God, you should see her. You wouldn't frickin' believe how hot this girl is." This was how Evan talked to me -- again, like a fellow linebacker.
Strangely, many people in my life seemed to think I was a man, or asexual in some way.END