Read an Excerpt
The Opposite of Me A Novel
By Sarah Pekkanen
Washington Square Press Copyright © 2010 Sarah Pekkanen
All right reserved.
AS I PULLED OPEN the heavy glass door of Richards, Dunne & Krantz and walked down the long hallway toward the executive offices, I noticed a light was on up ahead.
Lights were never on this early. I quickened my step.
The light was on in my office, I realized as I drew closer. I'd gone home around 4:00 A.M. to snatch a catnap and a shower, but I'd locked my office door. I'd checked it twice. Now someone was in there.
I broke into a run, my mind spinning in panic: Had I left my storyboard out in plain view? Could someone be sabotaging the advertising campaign I'd spent weeks agonizing over, the campaign my entire future hinged on?
I burst into my office just as the intruder reached for something on my desk.
“Lindsey! You scared me half out of my wits!” my assistant, Donna, scolded as she paused in the act of putting a steaming container of coffee on my desk.
“God, I'm sorry,” I said, mentally smacking myself. If I ever ended up computer dating—which, truth be told, it was probably going to come down to one of these days—I'd have to check the ever-popular “paranoid freak” box when I listed my personality traits. I'd better buy a barricade to hold back the bachelors of New York.
“I didn't expect anyone else in this early,” I told Donna as my breathing slowed to normal. Note to self: Must remember to join a gym if a twenty-yard dash leaves me winded. Best not to think about how often I'll actually use the gym if I've been reminding myself to join one for the past two years.
“It's a big day,” Donna said, handing me the coffee.
“You're amazing.” I closed my gritty eyes as I took a sip and felt the liquid miracle flood my veins. “I really needed this. I didn't get much sleep.”
“You didn't eat breakfast either, did you?” Donna asked, hands on her hips. She stood there, all of five feet tall, looking like a rosy-cheeked, doily-knitting grandma. One who wouldn't hesitate to get up off her rocking chair and reach for her sawed-off shotgun if someone crossed her.
“I'll have a big lunch,” I hedged, avoiding Donna's eyes.
Even after five years, I still hadn't gotten used to having an assistant, let alone one who was three decades older than me but earned a third of my salary. Donna and I both knew she wore the pants in our relationship, but the secret to our happiness was that we pretended otherwise. Kind of like my parents—Mom always deferred to Dad's authority, after she mercilessly browbeat him into taking her point of view.
“I'm going to check in with the caterers now,” Donna said. “Should I hold your calls this morning?”
“Please,” I said. “Unless it's an emergency. Or Walt from Creative—he's freaking out about the font size on the dummy ad and I need to calm him down. Or Matt. I want to do another run-through with him this morning. And let's see, who else, who else . . . Oh, anyone from Gloss Cosmetics, of course.
“Oh, God, they're going to be here in”—I looked at my watch and the breath froze in my lungs—“two hours.”
“Hold on just a minute, missy,” Donna ordered in a voice that could only be described as trouser-wearing. She bustled to her desk and returned with a blueberry muffin in a little paper bag and two Advil.
“I knew you wouldn't eat, so I got extra. And you're getting a headache again, aren't you?” she asked.
“It's not so bad,” I lied, holding out my hand for the Advil and hoping Donna wouldn't notice I'd bitten off all my fingernails. Again.
When Donna finally shut my door, I sank into my big leather chair and took another long, grateful sip of coffee. The early-morning sunlight streamed in through the windows behind me, glinting off the golden Clio Award on my desk. I ran a finger over it for luck, just like I did on every presentation day.
Then I stroked it a second time. Because this wasn't an ordinary presentation day. So much more was riding on today than winning another multimillion-dollar account. If I nailed my pitch and added Gloss Cosmetics to our roster of clients . . . I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn't finish the thought; I didn't want to jinx myself.
I leapt up and walked across the room to look at my pictures of my babies, another one of my superstitious rituals on big days. One of my walls was covered with simple but expensive black frames, each showcasing a different magazine ad: a dad in a red apron barbecuing hot dogs; a preppy couple sinking their bare toes into their new carpet; a young executive reclining in her first-class airline seat. Blissfully reclining.
I smiled, remembering that campaign. It had taken me two weeks and three focus groups to decide on the word blissful instead of peaceful. Yet my whole campaign was almost torpedoed at the last minute because the model I'd chosen had the exact same hairstyle as the airline owner's ex-wife, who'd convinced him that true love didn't require a prenup. If I hadn't spotted a five-dollar tub of hair gel in the makeup artist's case and begged the client for thirty more seconds, our agency would've lost a $2 million account on account of a chin-length bob. Clients were notoriously fickle, and the rule of thumb was, the richer the client, the crazier.
The one I was meeting today owned half of Manhattan.
I grabbed the mock-up of the magazine ad my creative team had put together for Gloss and scanned it for the millionth time, searching for nonexistent flaws. I'd spent three solid weeks agonizing over every detail of this campaign, which I'd get maybe ten minutes to present in our conference room in— I looked at my watch and my heart skipped a beat.
Unlike other ad shops, it was the culture of my agency to blur the division between the creative work and the business side of our accounts. If you wanted to succeed at Richards, Dunne & Krantz, you had to be able to do both. Of course, that also meant all the responsibility for this presentation was mine alone.
The worst part, the part that gnawed at my stomach and jolted me awake at 3:00 A.M. on nights when I managed to fall asleep, was that all my work, all those marathon stale-pizza weekend sessions and midnight conference calls, might be for nothing. If the owner of Gloss rejected my ads—if something as simple as the perfume I was wearing or a splashy adjective in my copy rubbed him the wrong way—hundreds of thousands of dollars in commission for our agency would slip through my fingers like smoke. Once a Japanese tycoon who owned a chain of luxury hotels sat through a brilliant, two-months-in-the-making campaign presentation our agency's president had personally overseen—I'm talking about the kind of creative vision that would've won awards, the kinds of commercials everyone would've buzzed about—and dismissed it with a grunt, which his assistant cheerfully translated as “He doesn't like blue.” That was it; no chance to tweak the color of the ad copy, just a group of stunned advertising execs with the now-useless skill of saying, “Konnichi-wa!” being herded like sheep to the exit.
I gulped another Advil from the secret stash inside my desk drawer, the one Donna didn't know about, and massaged the knot in my neck with one hand while I stared at the mock-up ad my team had created for Gloss.
After Gloss Cosmetics had approached our agency last month, hinting that they might jump from their current agency, our agency's president—a forty-two-year-old marketing genius named Mason, who always wore red Converse sneakers, even with his tuxedo—called our top five creative teams into his office.
“Gloss wants to kick some Cover Girl ass,” Mason had said, swigging from a bottle of Lipton iced tea (they were a client) and tapping his Bic pen (ditto) against the top of his oak conference table. Mason was so loyal to our clients that he once walked out of a four-star restaurant because the chef wouldn't substitute Kraft ranch for champagne-truffle dressing.
“Gloss's strategy is accessible glamour,” Mason had continued. “Forget the Park Avenue princesses; we're going after schoolteachers and factory girls and receptionists.” His eyes had roved around the table so he could impale each of us with his stare, and I swear he hadn't blinked for close to two minutes. Mason reminded me of an alien, with his bald, lightbulb-shaped head and hooded eyes, and when he went into his blinkless trances I was convinced he was downloading data from his mother ship. My assistant, Donna, was certain he just needed a little more vitamin C; she kept badgering him to go after the Minute Maid account.
“What was the recall score of Gloss's last commercial?” someone at the other end of the table had asked. It was Slutty Cheryl, boobs spilling out of her tight white shirt as she stretched to reach a Lipton from the stack in the middle of the conference table.
“Can I get that for you?” Matt, our assistant art director, had offered in a voice that sounded innocent if you didn't know him well.
Matt was my best friend at the office. My only real friend, actually; this place made a sadists' convention seem cozy and nurturing.
“I can reach it,” Cheryl had said bravely, tossing back her long chestnut hair and straining away as Matt shot me a wink. You'd think that after a few hundred meetings she'd have figured out an easier way to wet her whistle, but there she was, week after week, doing her best imitation of a Hooters girl angling for a tip. By the purest of coincidences, she always got thirsty right when she asked a question, so all eyes were on her.
“Cover Girl's last commercial, the one with Queen Latifah, hit a thirty recall, and Gloss's latest scored a twelve,” Mason had said without consulting any notes. He had a photographic memory, which was one reason why our clients put up with the sneakers.
I could see why Gloss was testing the waters at other agencies. Twelve wasn't good.
The recall score is one of the most effective tools in advertising's arsenal. It basically tells what percentage of people who watched your commercial actually remembered it. Cheryl, who's a creative director like me, once oversaw a dog food commercial that scored a forty-one. She ordered dozens of balloons emblazoned with “Forty-One” and blanketed the office with them. Subtlety, like loose-fitting turtlenecks, isn't in her repertoire. And I swear I'm not just saying that because I've never scored higher than a forty (but just for the record, I've hit that number three times. It's an agency record).
“I want five creative teams on this,” Mason had said. “Have the campaigns ready for me three weeks from today. The best two will present to Gloss.”
As everyone stood up to leave, Mason had walked over to me while Cheryl took her time gathering her things and pretended not to eavesdrop.
“I need this account,” he'd said, his pale blue eyes latching onto mine.
“Is the budget that big?” I'd asked.
“No, they're cheap fucks,” he'd said cheerfully. “Name the last three clients we signed.”
“Home health care plans, orthopedic mattresses, and adult protection pads,” I'd rattled off.
“Diapers,” he'd corrected. “Ugly trend. We're becoming the incontinent old farts' agency. We need the eighteen to thirty-five demographic. Get me this account, Lindsey.” His voice had dropped, and Cheryl had stopped shuffling papers. She and I had both leaned in closer to Mason.
“I don't have to tell you what it would do for you,” Mason had said. “Think about the timing. We're presenting to Gloss right around the time of the vote. You bring in this one on top of everything else you've done . . .” His voice had trailed off.
I knew what Mason was implying. It wasn't a secret that our agency was about to decide on a new VP creative director. The VP title meant a salary hike and all the sweet side dishes that went along with it: a six-figure bonus, a fat 401(k) plan, and car service to the airport. It meant I'd be able to buy my sunny little one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, which was about to go co-op. It meant first-class flights and obscene expense accounts.
It meant success, the only thing that had really ever mattered to me.
“I'm on it,” I'd said, scurrying out of the office and diving into the world of Gloss Cosmetics.
Now I was surfacing for the first time in three weeks.
I gulped more coffee and finished scanning my ad. Something as simple as a typo could mean professional death for me, but our ad was clean. This ad was my 3:00 A.M. baby, born from the unholy alliance of too much caffeine, an entire bag of potato chips (but eaten in small handfuls, with the bag primly sealed up and put back in my pantry between handfuls), and my old reliable bedmate insomnia. Gloss wanted to steal a chunk of Cover Girl's market, but they didn't want to pay for celebrity models like Halle Berry and Keri Russell. I was giving them the best of both worlds.
Mason loved it; now I just needed to perfect my pitch to the owner and CEO of Gloss. I glanced at my watch again. Ninety-six minutes until their limo was due to pull up in front of our building. I'd be downstairs in seventy-six, waiting to greet them.
I pressed the intercom button. “Donna? Have the caterers arrived yet?”
“Don't you think I would've told you if they hadn't?” she snapped. She hates it when I second-guess her. “They bought red Concord grapes, though.”
“Shit!” I leapt up so quickly I knocked my coffee to the floor. I grabbed a handful of napkins from my top drawer and swabbed it up. “I'll run out to the deli right now—”
“Relax,” Donna said. “I already did. Green seedless grapes are in our freezer. They'll be ready in plenty of time.”
Red grapes instead of green. It's the simple things that can annihilate a career.
“Thank you,” I breathed as my heart slowed its violent thudding. I reached for one more Advil and promised myself with all the sincerity of a street junkie that it would be my last hit. At least until lunchtime.
I couldn't be too prepared. Cheryl and I had won the two chances to present our Gloss campaigns, and she was a wild card. Many of her campaigns were uninspired, but when she nailed it, she was spectacular. I was dying to sneak a peek at her storyboard, but I knew she was guarding it like a hostage. As I was mine.
Cheryl was thirty-three, four years older than me, and she worked hard. But I worked harder. I lived, breathed, and slept my job. Seriously; if I weren't so chastened by Donna's disapproving huffs when she noticed the imprint of my head on my couch cushion, I'd barely have any reason to go home at night. Even though I'd lived in New York for seven years—ever since Richards, Dunne & Krantz came recruiting at my grad school at Northwestern and made me an offer—I'd only made one real friend in the city: Matt. My job didn't leave time for anyone or anything else.
“Lindsey?” Donna's head poked into my office. “It's your mom on the phone. She said she's at the hospital.”
I snatched up the phone. Could something have happened to Dad? I knew retiring from the federal government wouldn't be good for him; he'd immediately begun waging a vicious gardening war with our next-door neighbor, Mr. Simpson. When I was home for Thanksgiving—two years ago; last year I'd missed the holiday because I had to throw together a last-minute campaign for a resort in Saint Lucia that was suffering a reservations lull—I'd had to physically stop Dad from climbing a ladder and sawing off all the branches of Simpson's trees at the exact point where they crossed over our property line.
“Oh, honey, you'll never believe it.” Mom sighed deeply. “I bought a subscription to O magazine last month, remember?”
“Ye-es,” I lied, wondering how this story could possibly end in a mad rush to the hospital to reattach Dad's forearm.
“So I bought the November issue and filled out the subscription card that comes inside,” Mom said, settling in for a cozy chat. “You know those little cards that are always falling out of magazines and making a mess on the floor? I don't know why they have to put so many of them in. I guess they think if you see enough of them you'll just go ahead and subscribe to the magazine.”
She paused thoughtfully. “But that's exactly what I did, though, so who am I to cast stones?”
“Mom.” I cradled the phone between my shoulder and ear and massaged my temples. “Is everything okay?”
Mom sighed. “I just got my first issue of O magazine today, and it's the November issue! Which, of course, I've already read.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper: “And so has your father, but you didn't hear it from me. That means I get only eleven issues and I've paid for twelve.”
“Lindsey?” It was Donna again. “Matt's here. Should I send him in?”
“Please,” I said, covering the mouthpiece.
Mom was still talking. “. . . almost like they're trying to trick you because they say ?Save fourteen dollars off the cover price' but if you end up with two of the same issue and you paid for them both, you're really only saving ten forty-five with tax—Dad sat right down with a paper and pencil and did the math—and—”
“Mom,” I cut in. “Are you at the hospital?”
“Yes,” Mom said.
“Um, Mom?” I said. “Why are you at the hospital?”
“I'm visiting Mrs. Magruder. Remember, she had a hip replacement? She won't be able to manage stairs for six weeks. Last time I was here I noticed the waiting room only had copies of Golf Magazine and Highlights and I thought, No sense in me having two copies of O magazine. Maybe someone else can enjoy it. And there's a recipe for low-fat cheesecake with whipped cream—the secret is applesauce, of all things—”
“Mom, I'll take care of it.” I cut her off just before the pressure in my head began boiling and shrieking like a teapot. “I'll call Oprah's office directly.”
Matt stepped into my office, one eyebrow raised. He was wearing a black blazer, which looked good with his curly dark hair. I'd have to tell him black was his color, I thought absently.
“Thank you, honey,” Mom said, sounding the tiniest bit disappointed that she couldn't milk it a bit longer. “It's so nice to have a daughter who knows the right people.”
“Tell Stedman we should go fly-fishing again sometime,” Matt stage-whispered as I made a gun out of my thumb and index finger and shot him in the chest.
“By the way, did you hear about Alex?” Mom asked.
I should've known it would be impossible for us to end our conversation without a mention of my twin sister. If she compliments me, Mom has to say something nice about Alex. Sometimes I wonder if Alex and I are as competitive as we are because Mom is so scrupulously fair in the way she treats us. Probably, I thought, feeling comforted that I could reliably blame my personal failings on my parents.
I sighed and squinted at my watch: fifty-eight minutes.
“Oprah,” Matt croaked, rolling around on my office floor and clutching his chest. “Rally your angel network. I'm seeing . . . a . . . white . . . light.”
“The TV station is expanding Alex's segments!” Mom said. “Now she'll be on Wednesdays and Fridays instead of just Fridays. Isn't that wonderful?”
When people learn I have a twin, the first thing they ask is whether we're identical. Unless, of course, they see Alex and me together, in which case their brows furrow and their eyes squint and you can almost see their brains clog with confusion as they stutter, “Twins? But . . . but . . . you look nothing alike.”
Alex and I are about as unidentical as it's possible to be. I've always thought I look like a child's drawing of a person: straight brown lines for the hair and eyebrows, eyes and nose and mouth and ears generally in the right places and in the right numbers. Nothing special; just something to pin on the refrigerator door before it's covered by grocery lists and report cards and forgotten. Whereas Alex . . . Well, there's no other word for it: she's flat-out gorgeous. Stunning. Breathtaking. Dazzling. Apparently there are a few other words for it after all.
She started modeling in high school after a talent scout approached her at a mall, and though she never made it big in New York because she's only five foot six, she gets a steady stream of jobs in our hometown of Bethesda, in suburban Washington, D.C. A few years ago, she got a part-time job for the NBC affiliate covering celebrity gossip (or “entertainment,” as she loftily calls it). For three minutes a week—six now that her appearances are being doubled—she's on camera, bantering with the movie review guys and interviewing stars who are shooting the latest political thriller film in D.C.
I know, I know, I hear you asking what she looks like. Everyone wants to know what she looks like. Alex is a redhead, but not one of those Ronald McDonald—haired ones with freckles that look splattered on by Jackson Pollock. Her long hair is a glossy, dark red, and depending on the light, it has hints of gold and caramel and chocolate. She can never walk a city block without some woman begging her for the name of her colorist. It's natural, of course. Her skin defies the redhead's law of pigmentation by tanning smoothly and easily, her almond-shaped eyes are a shade precisely between blue and green, and her nose is straight and unremarkable, the way all good, obedient little noses should be. My father can still fit into the pants he wore in high school; Alex got his metabolism. My mother hails from a long line of sturdy midwestern corn farmers; I got hers. But no bitterness here.
“I'll call Alex later and congratulate her,” I told Mom.
“Oh, and she booked the photographer for the wedding,” Mom said, winding up for another lengthy tangential chat. Alex's upcoming wedding could keep our phone lines humming for hours.
“I've got to run,” I cut her off. “Big morning. I'm going after a new account and the clients are flying in from Aspen this morning.”
“Aspen?” Mom said. “Are they skiers?”
“The really rich people don't go to Aspen to ski,” I told her. “They go to hang out with other rich people. My clients have the mansion next door to Tom Cruise's.”
“Are they movie stars?” Mom squealed. The woman does love her People magazine. And so does Dad, though he'd never admit it.
“Even better,” I said. “They're billionaires.”
I hung up and took a bite of blueberry muffin, but it tasted like dust in my mouth. It wasn't the muffin's fault; it was the unpleasant thought tugging at me like an itch. I'd told Mom about my presentation so the message would get back to Alex: You're prettier, but don't ever forget that I'm more successful. Don't get me wrong; I love my sister—she can be generous and outspoken and funny—but no one can push my buttons like Alex. Around her, I light up like a skyscraper's elevator control panel at rush hour. We're complete opposites, always have been. It's like our DNA held a meeting in the womb and divvied up the goods: I'll trade you my sex appeal strands for a double dose of organizational skills, my genes must've said. Deal, Alex's genes answered, and if you'll just sign this form relinquishing any claim to long legs, you can have my work ethic, too.
If Alex and I weren't related, we'd have absolutely nothing in common. The thing about Alex is that she doesn't just grab the spotlight, she wrestles it to the ground and straddles it and pins its hands to the floor so it has no chance of escaping. And it isn't even her fault; the spotlight wants to be dominated by her. The spotlight screams “Uncle!” the second it sees her. People are dazzled by Alex. Men send her so many drinks it's a wonder she isn't in AA; women give her quick appraising looks and memorize her outfit, vowing to buy it because if it looks even half as good on them . . . ; even cranky babies stop crying and give her gummy smiles when they see her behind them in the grocery store line.
If Alex weren't my sister, I probably wouldn't be nearly so driven. But I learned long ago that it's easy to get lost and overlooked when someone like Alex is around. In a way, she has made me who I am today.
I pushed away my muffin and glanced over at Matt. He was sprawled on my couch, one leg hooked over the armrest, half-asleep. How he always managed to stay calm amid the chaos and frenzy of our agency was a mystery. I'd have to ask him for his secret. When I had time, which I didn't right now, since I was due downstairs in forty-four minutes. Mason was letting me greet the clients, since I was presenting first, and Cheryl would get to walk them to their car afterward.
“Can we do one more run-through?” I begged.
“We did twelve yesterday,” Matt reminded me, yawning. He opened one sleepy-looking brown eye and peered up at me.
“You're right, you're right,” I said, lining up the pencils on my desk at a perfect right angle to my stapler. “I don't want to sound overrehearsed.”
“Knock it off, OCD girl,” Matt said, pulling himself up off the couch and stealing a bite of my muffin. “Mmm. How can you not be eating this?”
“I had a bowl of Advil for breakfast,” I told him. “High in fiber.”
“You're beyond help,” he said. “What time is the party tonight?”
“Seven-thirty,” I said. “Is Pam coming?”
Pam was Matt's new girlfriend. I hadn't met her yet, but I was dying to.
“Yep,” he said.
Tonight was our office holiday party.
Tonight was also the night the name of the new VP creative director would be announced.
“Nervous?” Matt asked me.
“Of course not,” I lied.
“Step away from the Advil,” Matt ordered me, slapping my hand as it instinctively went for my desk drawer. “Let's get your storyboards into the conference room. You know you're gonna kick ass, Madam Vice President.”
And just like that, the cold knot of anxiety in my stomach loosened the tiniest bit. Like I said, Matt was my only real friend at the office.
© 2010 Sarah Pekkanen
Excerpted from The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Pekkanen. Excerpted by permission.
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