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August 9, 2000
We met the day I replaced her.
I was sitting at my newly assigned desk after hours, still psyched out of my mind to be an art assistant at Vision magazine, when she ran in, startling me. She was a tall, gangly brunette, older than I was. Taking off her raincoat, she draped it across a chair, along with her leather handbag, as if she owned the place. She was wearing a V-neck ash-colored sweater and gray pants. There was a rip on the bottom of her pant leg, and her flats were caked with mud.
“Jane’s gone already?” she asked after my coworker.
“Left a half hour ago,” I said.
I couldn’t tell if she was a hotshot editor from upstairs or just a peon like me.
“Damn. She said she’d loan me twenty bucks.” Her eyes were red; she’d been crying. “Nobody fucking warned me the unemployment checks take six weeks to start. I have to get to Boston.” She was half talking to me, half mumbling to herself. Then she picked up the phone, dialed, and said, “Right, like Dad can check himself in. There’s a train at seven. Call me back here, at 555-1394. I’ll wait.” She hung up, then looked me up and down as if just noticing I was there. “You must be Rachel.”
I didn’t recognize her from anywhere. “I’m sorry . . .”
“I’m Elizabeth Mann.”
So this was the notorious hotheaded Elizabeth everyone couldn’t stop talking about all day! I’d been dying to meet her. Obviously the father she’d just mentioned was the famous Life photographer William Mann. Why couldn’t he check himself into a Boston hotel? Was it the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton? Jane said Elizabeth was launching her own career as a shutterbug with an upcoming solo exhibit. Aside from getting Cindy Sherman to sign her book Untitled Film Stills at Barnes & Noble, I’d never spoken to a famous female photographer before.
I stared up at Elizabeth. She had an oval face and a slender Roman nose, with limp, shoulder-length chestnut hair the same shade as mine. My hair was longer and feathered on the sides with Cleopatra bangs; hers was parted down the middle. She was plainer than I’d pictured. No makeup or color in her cheeks. She looked about my weight—size eight on a good day. Taller than me, even without heels.
“I bought your father’s book for my brother,” I blurted out. “It’s incredible.”
Oh no. How many were there? I felt stupid. “Blind Streets.”
“Everybody gets that one.” Her dark blue eyes seemed to take in everything. Weariest eyes I’d ever seen.
“Jane said you’re showing at a Soho gallery. What an achievement. That’s like my life’s dream. Congratulations.”
“They’re only doing it as a favor to Dad,” she said.
I was taken aback by her humility. Or was it bitterness? “I’m sure that’s not true.” When she didn’t say anything else, I added, “Well, it’s great to meet you. An honor.” Maybe she’d critique my work. Or help me figure out how to get my prints into a gallery. “Please call me Ricky.”
“Rachel’s a fine name. Biblical.” She sat down in Jane’s chair. “Why ruin it?”
What business of hers was my nickname?
I wanted to know why she’d really wound up leaving Vision, the most prestigious magazine resurrection in Condé Nast history. Elizabeth’s abrupt defection on Friday had thrown the top brass into a tizzy, according to Jane, leading Elizabeth to pick my résumé out of the slush pile and offer me up as a last-minute replacement. Had she been fired? It would be shortsighted of her to give up such a cool gig. Yet I admired her independence. I bet she was a true artist, sick of being a subservient assistant. She couldn’t be swayed by materialistic limitations or masthead hierarchies.
Or was there a man in the picture?
“Change your mind and want your old job back?” I joked. I prayed she didn’t. How could I compete with her pedigree?
“Nope. Now it belongs to little twenty-four-year-old Rachel Solomon in her new designer suit,” she said, distracted, drumming her fingers on the desk, watching the phone.
How did she know my age? From my résumé? I wondered if Elizabeth had spoken to Jane, my mousy coworker, about me. Now I felt paranoid, trying to remember everything I’d spilled about fighting with my crazy intrusive family and the sick love triangles I was constantly dissecting with my shrink.
“So how old are you?” I wanted to know.
“I’m a twenty-nine-year-old spinster,” Elizabeth said with a smirk.
What a weird, sexist term. Though she was dressed kind of like an old maid, in earth tones and baggy fabric. Or she was so antichic she was chic, in that WASPy “I have a life, I can’t be bothered with frills” kind of way. I feared I was trying too hard, coming off like a suburban wannabe.
“What was it like, being at the relaunch of such a famous old rag?” I asked.
“Fashion people are inane and tawdry.” She reached over to finger the sleeve of my blouse. “Is this silk? Where’d you get it?”
“Saks.” I stopped before divulging that my mom had it sent from the branch in Highland Park, along with the pumps and a stash of Givenchy panty hose: $14 each, ten pairs. That was the paradox of planet Solomon. I couldn’t afford a taxi from my Village apartment share to the real Saks, but I had $140 worth of my mother’s fancy hosiery. “I heard you grew up in the Village. Lucky you. My folks are originally from New York,” I said. “I was switched at birth. I should have grown up here.”
“Nothing wrong with being a Midwest doctor’s daughter,” she said. “Wish I had two older brothers.”
“I have two younger brothers,” I corrected. This must have been the reason Jane had asked me so many questions all day. I bet Jane was Elizabeth’s lunch date and spy, gathering a dossier on the new girl who’d taken Elizabeth’s desk. “What else have you heard about me?”
“Jewish photojournalism grad who thinks she’s the next Diane Arbus.”
Ouch. Nothing like reducing my religion, degree, art, and naked ambition to a cultural stereotype. Well, better to resemble Arbus than one of her subjects. If I shot Elizabeth, I’d give her bangs to shorten her long face, put blush on her cheeks to highlight her decent bone structure, and pencil in the gap in her left eyebrow. Then again, my well-groomed childhood girlfriends aspired to be dental hygienists, nurses, or brides. I longed to be a bitter screwed-up urbanite showing candids at a chic Soho gallery, just like Elizabeth.
“You don’t have any siblings?” I asked.
“I have an older sister I’m trying to reach right now.” With that she picked the phone, dialed, and left another message. “It’s me. I have to catch this damn train to get him in by ten. I’ll wait five more minutes.”
Get him in where? I gathered that Elizabeth had come back here because she was broke with nowhere else to go. She looked even lonelier than I was. I’d taken out some cash to split a bag of Jamaican weed with my best friend and roommate, Nicky, but that could wait since our stash wasn’t depleted yet. Ten bucks would be enough for the subway home and the dinner I planned to eat by myself at Dojo. I handed Elizabeth twenty-five dollars, five more than Jane was going to give her.
Without looking at me, she stashed it in her pocket. “I’ll pay you back next Thursday.”
“That’s right,” Elizabeth said. “You’re a rich girl.”
“The job pays three hundred a week before taxes,” I said. I didn’t want her to know my father was helping with my rent.
“Oh, yeah, Jane said you’re playing suffering artist.”
This chick sure had balls. But I’d detested the fakers in Jewburbia who’d fawn, “Hello, gorgeous” and “That’s so fabulous” to my face, then trash me behind my back. Even when it stung, I preferred raw honesty.
“Well, for a little hamster, Jane sure has a big mouth,” I said, pulling a pack of Marlboros from my purse and lighting one, getting lipstick on the filter, slowly sucking in.
“Little hamster.” Elizabeth chuckled. Her whole face softened when she laughed, making me feel as if I’d won a prize. She stole a piece of Juicy Fruit from Jane’s desk drawer, then reached over to the ashtray and put out my cigarette, the way my brother Ben did.
“I can’t believe the daughter of an oncologist is a smoker,” she said.
Were there any details I hadn’t told Jane? I had to stop giving everything away.
“Jane’s not so bad,” Elizabeth said. “Her father’s a drunk, like mine. She thinks that’s why we keep screwing the wrong men. Not that I go in for all that Freudian garbage.” She paused, obviously assuming I did.
What? Her famous father was a drunk?
“I bet you left a trail of broken hearts in the heartlands,” she said.
Wait, she screwed idiots too?
“I met that cute staff writer Peter Heller at lunch today. What’s his story?” I asked, betting Elizabeth would spill the real deal about everyone around here.
“So Heller found you already.” She seemed amused.
“He asked to see my work.”
“That means he wants to fuck you.”
“He said I had a good eye.”
“Means he wants to fuck you soon,” she said.
She’d trashed him too fast; I sensed a subtext. “Did you ever go out with him?”
She shook her head. “Let’s see what you showed him.”
I hesitated, feeling a little intimidated.
“You ask the opinion of the office Lothario, but not me?” she challenged.
I didn’t want her to think I was one of those annoying girly girls who only lit up when a penis walked into the room. Reaching under the desk, I pulled out the grad school portfolio I carried with me everywhere and turned to the last photo. It was a close-up of an innocent-looking girl in an NYU T-shirt, afternoon light falling across her face, the Delancey Street sign in the background. I’d caught the girl locking eyes with a six-foot male Marilyn Monroe impersonator just as Marilyn winked at her. My parents had met on Delancey Street.
“It’s called ‘Culture Shock,’ ” I explained. “You don’t like it?”
“Downtown street scenes.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “How original.”
“Hey, I just gave you twenty-five bucks. Can’t you fake it?” I asked. “Look at the student’s expression when she sees Marilyn.” I pointed. “It’s like she’s not sure if the two of them are allies or archrivals or doppelgängers.”
“You learn all that crap at NYU?”
“If you think so highly of NYU, why did you recommend they hire me?”
“I hate entitled Upper East Side Ivy League snobs nailing the coveted positions here. Wanted to discover a humble hayseed. Wish I grew up in Illinois.”
“You can have it.”
She impatiently paged through my portfolio, making me nervous. She turned back to the final shot of Marilyn and the student. “This one isn’t terrible,” she finally declared.
She almost liked me.
“Could be timely. Don’t NYU classes start next week? You have an eight by ten?”
“Sure.” Wired about my new gig, I couldn’t sleep last night. So I got stoned and printed ten in my bathroom at four A.M. I pulled a smaller version from the side pocket.
“Drop it off with the photo editor at the Post.” She jotted down the editor’s name and address on a piece of scrap paper. “Say Elizabeth Mann thought this might be timely, since NYU’s term is about to start.”
“Really? Are you sure? I hear they started using digital.”
“Not a contact sheet?”
“Just leave the print.” She turned it around. “Write your name and address on the back.”
When the phone rang, Elizabeth picked up. “Finally. Thank God. Yeah, meet me at Penn Station. I know, but he won’t go to the hospital unless we take him. . . .”
Oh, it wasn’t a hotel, it was a hospital. I wondered if my father or brother Ben could help diagnose the problem over the phone, or prescribe something. Trying not to eavesdrop, I wrote my info neatly on the back of the photograph. “Listen, thanks so much for your help with . . . ,” I started to say. But when I looked up she was gone.
Two days later, Ruth Lott, the New York Post’s photo editor, called to say they were using my photograph to illustrate a story on the overflow of out-of-town NYU students this term.
“Oh my God! Where’s Elizabeth’s number?” I asked Jane as I rushed through the company Rolodex.
“Congratulations on selling your first picture,” said Jane.
Had she been listening in on my phone conversation with the Post editor?
“I can’t believe they’re buying it. I just wanted to tell Elizabeth . . .”
“She already knows,” Jane said. “You get two hundred fifty dollars for the cover of Friday’s arts section. You can pick up early copies at the office at eleven P.M. Thursday night.”
I looked at her, confused.
“The editor’s a protégée of William Mann’s,” she explained.
So I had only made my first sale because of dropping the Mann name. Was this Elizabeth’s way of paying me back? “Wow. I really owe her big-time.”
“You might regret saying that,” said Jane.
Excerpted from Overexposed by Susan Shapiro.
Copyright © 2010 by Susan Shapiro.
Published in August 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.