A woman copes with tragedy and the banalities of New York life in Listfield's deeply personal sixth novel. Based on the real-life disappearance of Listfield's husband, the novel revolves around Sarah Larkin, an art lover who actually enjoys her job as an editor at a glossy women's mag. Her alcoholic sculptor husband, Todd, though, is less than happy, and flees the disintegrating marriage, ostensibly to visit an old school friend in Florida. Sarah and their six-year-old daughter, Eliza, await his return, but a phone call from a Florida policeman signals trouble: Todd has been staying with a woman and has been reported as missing. Sarah's life then spreads out into several directions. Most immediate is the investigation into Todd's disappearance (suicide is one theory), with a skeptical cop, a kindly private eye and Todd's ex as its cross-purposed cast. Sarah also navigates infighting among the ambitious and sometimes reptilian magazine staff (who mostly feel like something out of a less ambitious novel) and meets a caring and handsome new love interest. Not all of these subplots work well together, but the through line-Sarah's and Eliza's attempt to find their new normal-does more than its share to carry the book. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Waiting to Surfaceby Emily Listfield
It takes just one phone call to change your life...
On a steamy August morning, Sarah Larkin drops her six-year-old daughter, Eliza, off at camp and heads to her office, where she works as an editor of a women's magazine. Sitting at her desk testing a $450 face cream, she is just rubbing it into her forearm when the phone rings.
It takes just one phone call to change your life...
On a steamy August morning, Sarah Larkin drops her six-year-old daughter, Eliza, off at camp and heads to her office, where she works as an editor of a women's magazine. Sitting at her desk testing a $450 face cream, she is just rubbing it into her forearm when the phone rings.
Detective Ronald Brook, speaking softly and deliberately, tells Sarah that her husband has vanished. A keening sound escapes from Sarah's throat as the detective lays out the few facts he knows.
A noted sculptor, Todd Larkin went swimming at midnight off the coast of Florida and hasn't returned. He was staying with a woman. He was drinking. He left behind his keys, wallet, cell phone, and his return airline ticket. They also found two drawings and pieces of a sculpture. But there is no trace of him or his body. The coast guard has been scouring the shoreline, but no one has seen a thing.
Has Todd run off to start a new life or is he dead? Could it have been an accident, suicide, or homicide? Immediately, Sarah's life spins into a world of uncer-tainty, hope, and fear as she grapples with the mystery of his disappearance.
As Sarah tries to discover what happened to the man she thought she knew better than anyone, she is forced to confront the love and resentments, the hopes and disappointments of her marriage. And through it all, she must find a way to help her young daughter deal with the crisis while meeting the demands of the high-powered magazine world.
Based on the author's own experiences, Waiting to Surface is a beautiful and haunting story about coming to terms with loss, learning to live in a world withoutanswers, and discovering the ability to treasure love once again.
Former Selfmagazine editor and novelist Listfield (Acts of Love) draws from personal experience in this story of a woman whose husband vanishes off Florida's coast. Mother of a small daughter, magazine editor Sarah has a less than happy marriage to Todd, an underappreciated artist whose alcoholism has destroyed the couple's previous contentedness. Todd, formerly a devoted, caring father to six-year-old Eliza, takes off for Florida to help a friend remodel a house. When Sarah receives word that her husband is missing, numerous questions follow. Readers interested in either a step-by-step police procedural or an insider's view of the magazine world may want to keep searching. Listfield tries to offer both here but achieves neither. Sarah's nightmarish plight is intriguing, as is her struggle to come to terms with her loss, but readers may wish for more depth. The narrative seems padded and is often marred by weak character development. An optional purchase for public libraries. [The author's own artist husband vanished in 1999.-Ed.]
"In this compulsively readable novel, Listfield creates a compelling portrait of grief and resilience. This is a story that will stay with you." Lisa Tucker, author of Once Upon a Day and The Song Reader
"Emily Listfield has written a suspenseful and poignant novel that beautifully captures the complexity of a marriage and the troubling uncertainties of life. Waiting to Surface haunted me long after I read its last page." Leslie Schnur, author of Late Night Talking and The Dog Walker
"Heartbreaking...In muted prose, Listfield movingly takes us through Sarah's day-to-day grief, coupled with her hard-headed determination to figure out what happened to Todd. She juggles her sense of loss, her job and raising a daughter who blames her for her missing dad with the antics of her younger colleagues and her own investigation into her husband's fate."
"Listfield spins a tale of supreme loss into one of gutsy, grace-filled redemption."
"A well thought out story about wife-husband relationships, mother-daughter relationships...and perhaps most of all living with uncertainty."
St. Petersburg Times
"Listfield deftly balances multiple plots."
- Atria Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
It is possible, after all, for someone to vanish off the face of the earth.
Sarah Larkin took the hand of her six-year-old daughter, Eliza, as they waited for the traffic light to change on the corner of Fourteenth Street and First Avenue. At 8:00 a.m., the air was already thick and tufted with smog, the streets littered with the detritus of a summer that boasted record levels of heat and rain. Eliza's hand was cool and dry, her long fingers not quite closing around her mother's, primed to slither free as soon as possible. Sarah noticed that she had removed the Band-Aid from her right forefinger where a splinter had grown infected. She had a habit of denying illness, cuts, anxious to erase any evidence of vulnerability. All summer, Sarah had watched her closely, subtly poking for soft spots or internal bleeding. It had been three months since she and Todd had separated, three months since they had sat Eliza down at the dining room table early one afternoon, her blond head tilted to the floor as they spoke slowly, carefully, words they had meant to rehearse but couldn't quite bring themselves to. The weight of knowing that they were about to change their daughter's life, and their helplessness to stop it, caused them both to pause, look at each other, look away, start again. "Daddy and I have something to tell you," Sarah finally said. "You know that we both love you very much." Eliza arched, instantly suspicious. All through the spring she had listened to the yelling, the door-slamming, hiding in her room while she hummed softly to herself as if the repetitive nursery tunes could drum out the sounds of disintegration. "Daddy is going to move into his studio," Sarah continued. Before she could go any further, Eliza ducked to the floor and covered her head with her hands, protecting herself from incoming news. "We are still a family, we will always be a family," Sarah said.
Todd and Sarah sat in silence while Eliza crouched at their feet. They hadn't planned this conversation, they hadn't planned any of it. They had been pushing and pulling, picking over their ten-year marriage for months when, after a particularly bitter argument, Todd stormed off to his studio twelve blocks away and never quite managed to return. The first day apart stretched into a second and then a third until what had started out as a spontaneous act came to seem inevitable. Neither had truly wanted to end it, but they had been at an impasse for so long that their tolerance of each other was worn away; everything had become an irritant. Nevertheless, beneath it all the fights about his drinking and lack of financial responsibility, her excessive expectations and constant nagging each still hoped that the other would give way, give in, that they would somehow find a way back to each other. They were still tied by the sticky net of habit and remorse. They had not figured out how to do this yet.
Eventually they coaxed Eliza up off the floor, and the three of them played a game of Parcheesi, clinging to the vestiges of familiarity, though it was as if they were suspended in space, with no ground beneath them. Sarah left Todd and Eliza alone as they were setting up another game, giving them time to knit back together in whatever way they might find, while she wandered the fifth floor of Bergdorf 's aimlessly, wondering when she could go home, what home would be now. That night Sarah placed a photograph in Eliza's room of Todd holding her in the hospital a few hours after she was born, his head bent to hers, their eyes closed, a smile, beatific and peaceful, curling his lips. It looked, even now, like the simplest kind of joy. She wondered, as she dusted it and placed it carefully amid the origami Todd used to make with Eliza every morning as they ate breakfast, how it happens, how you go from that instant to this, unable to alter course even as you saw it unfold before you unwanted, the small incremental steps of marital crime and then the larger ones, the zigzag rents of a failing union when physical attraction outlasts common sense.
Eliza let go of her mother's hand on the northeast corner of Fourteenth Street and stepped around a broken beer bottle, her toes with their chipped pink glittery nail polish hanging over her blue jelly sandals.
"Daddy said he'd send me seashells," she said, her voice tinged with accusation and neediness, one of the new sounds of the summer. She did not look her mother in the eye.
"They'll come," Sarah said. She wondered if Eliza could sense the doubt lurking beneath the reassurance. Todd had gone to Florida eleven days earlier to help an old college friend in the final stages of remodeling his house. He had only told Sarah of the trip two nights before he left, and though her first response was resentment at his freedom, at his willingness to leave his daughter at such a crucial juncture she had twisted the information around until she saw its potential. Perhaps the absence, the tangible miles between them, would make him appreciate all that he was in danger of losing: his family, the very life they had until recently taken for granted. Perhaps, she thought, it would make him decide, finally, to change. She still couldn't believe that love, at least for a child, wouldn't win out in the end. "He'll be back on Monday," she told Eliza. "That's just three days away."
Sarah pulled open the heavy door of the Y where Eliza was attending day camp. They waited for the elevator and stood crammed in with other parents and children as it lurched unsteadily to the third floor, where the halls were lined with the garish primary colors of rainy-day art projects. As soon as the doors opened, Eliza ran out, her long legs, knobby and thin, splaying like broken wings. She had Todd's body, all lankiness and limbs. Sarah watched her enter room 303 without looking back. She had never been a clinging child. Like her father, she was stoic, independent, stubborn. Eliza would wander out of playgrounds, out of sight; she would follow any stranger, certain she could fend for herself. They had to watch her carefully. Today, she was crackling with anticipation for the outing to Coney Island. Todd had taken her there last summer, and she still savored the memory of the crammed and swirling kiddie park, its dragon roller coaster and teacup whirligig. He had also taken her on a ride called Dante's Inferno, which had given her nightmares for a month, though she now flatly denied any such thing.
Eliza scanned the room and spotted her best friend, Jane. The two huddled in the corner, whispering the multitude of secrets that had accumulated overnight, their eyes wide with complicity and delight.
"Comparing notes on lingerie, no doubt." Sarah turned to see Lucy, Jane's mother and one of Sarah's oldest friends, leaning against the wall. "I did, by the way, tell Jane that the new rule is panties have to stay on during play dates." Sarah rolled her eyes. "Don't set the bar too high."
For months, the girls had been sneaking into any available bathroom to show each other their underwear. Last week, Sarah had heard them in Eliza's bedroom. "Move your leg, I can't see," Jane had said.
"Do you have time to go out for coffee?" Lucy asked.
"I can't. I have a story meeting at nine." Sarah looked over at Lucy in her day-off outfit of Sevens jeans, Juicy T-shirt, and Pumas. "I want your deal," she said, thinking of the three-day workweek she had negotiated at the PR firm she had helped found five years ago, but more than that, her marriage, stable, predictable, without sparks but without melodrama, her general contract to have an easier, if less vaunted life.
Lucy smiled, ignoring the wistful edge in her friend's voice. The two made tentative plans to take the kids swimming the following day and headed out. Sarah hailed a taxi and sat back as it crawled slowly uptown in spurts and pauses past tenements to the midtown crush of people wading into office buildings, Starbucks in hand.
Even at this hour, the city seemed covered in mildew. She played with the ashtray on the car door, flipping it up and down. Whenever Eliza went on day trips at school or camp, Sarah pulsed with a low-level maternal anxiety until she knew her daughter had returned, safe, unharmed. She pictured the rickety rides, the clusters of aimless restless teenagers looking for amusement, for action, for anything to distract them from the bleakness of their lives, the beach littered with glass, the ocean that Eliza did not know how to navigate and yet had absolutely no fear of. She imagined Eliza separated from the group, lost, vulnerable.
The cab inched through Times Square, its lights blinking like an all-night club after the guests had gone, and pulled up in front of the gray steel canopy of the new Compton Media Holdings building. Sarah walked through the heavy glass doors and stepped carefully down the sloped marble entrance, a design that had quickly become hated by editors who, on rainy days, had to navigate its treacherously slick surface in spindly heels. She swiped her ID card through the turnstile and waited by the bank of elevators in a cluster of long-legged women. At five feet five, curvy but slim (at least by normal standards), Sarah despite her Prada mules, white Chaiken skirt, and wavy shoulder-length hair carefully streaked to the exact blond as Eliza's still felt as if she were trying a little too hard to pass as one of them. When she had first started at Compton Media one year ago, the unabashed way the other women scanned her up and down, then promptly dismissed her, had been terrifying.Years of working at home as a freelance journalist had left her with a closet stocked almost entirely from the Gap save for a few rather low-cut dresses cleavage was one of her better assets to wear to openings. She had rushed out that first weekend and bought an entire wardrobe, trying to accomplish in forty-eight hours what other women had spent years accumulating but without the bone-deep knowledge of how to put it together that came readily to just a few all, it seemed, located in this building.
At thirty-six, Sarah found herself in a breathless game of catch-up. It hadn't always been this way. In a city mad for money, she had never particularly cared about it. It wasn't a consideration weighed and then discarded the dangers of marrying an artist, of pursuing her own freelance career, of doing what they thought mattered regardless of remuneration. It simply never occurred to her that there was a decision to be made. From the moment she first stepped into Todd's studio, she was seduced by his passion, his commitment, most of all by the art itself, surprisingly delicate abstract wall sculptures, evidence of a searching tenderness belied by his six-foot-four-inch frame. At a time when bombast was rampant in the art world "art by the pound," he called it Todd's work spoke of a world of emotion finely honed by intellect. She had never met anyone who cared so deeply about what he did or found the process itself so exciting. There was, too, his shaggy preppy-meets-artist handsome looks, the dizzying lurch just seeing him brought to her heart, her gut. Even now, after everything, she sat up straighter when he walked into the room.
When they met, Todd's ambition and talent were just beginning to cut laserlike through a small but crucial segment of the art world. His career flourished there were solo shows in important SoHo galleries, sales to museums and top collectors, favorable write-ups in The New York Times, and photos in top fashion magazines there had been every promise made. In recent years, though, the art market had taken a downturn. That, combined with benign mismanagement by his gallery dealer and an almost predictable midcareer floundering, sent Todd's once smooth and enviable ride into a decided lull. Only one piece from his last solo show had sold. The rest were returned to his studio in an embarrassing truckload on a rainy Friday afternoon ten months after Eliza was born.
At first, Sarah presumed Todd would lick his wounds after a flurry of early success, it was his first real disappointment and then go back to his studio with a vengeance. But he became immobilized, unable to finish a single sculpture. It set off nascent doubts that had been kept in check by sales and good reviews. A year passed, two, and still he could not make a move, commit to a new direction. The essential confidence that had bordered on bravado when they first met was gone. He crumpled up drawings, began pieces only to abandon them, convinced that they were mediocre or worse. Sarah wrote down the names of career counselors, therapists, art consultants, and sometimes he called to set up an appointment, but he never went. The lists sat abandoned, collecting dust, until Sarah, knots in her stomach, gave up and threw them out.
It was Todd's energy, his commitment that had so attracted her, and she felt tricked, not by the failure, but by his response to it, the way he was stubbornly, senselessly procrastinating himself out of a career. They had a daughter to think of now. When money from the last of his art sales ran out, he went back to doing the high-end carpentry he had supported himself with during his early years in New York. He built a recording studio for a major record label, an intricate library bookcase for a socialite with too much money at too young an age, and the reception area of a French cosmetics firm. Fiercely proud, this kind of work dented him more than he could say. Exhausted and depressed by the physical labor, he still went to his studio almost every evening and on weekends, waiting for inspiration that seemed forever just out of reach.
And while he waited, he drank.
Alone in his studio, playing an ever-changing selection of music at top volume, sitting at his desk, charcoal in hand, he drank until, by the time he came home, he was cut off from Sarah, from the world itself by the scrim of alcohol.
The drinking itself wasn't new, but the frequency, the amount, the very nature of it had changed. During their early years together, when every moment in the studio was filled with a sense of exhilaration, Todd would sometimes drink beer all afternoon while he worked, forgetting to eat, forgetting everything but his sculptures. When he came home, Sarah could tell in an instant by the slightly cockeyed look in his eye and the surfeit of loopy affection he showered on her, but it seemed celebratory, due to an excess of exuberance rather than a need to dull the senses. She was not worried about it yet, she would not let herself be. Success made it easy to excuse so much. If Todd, never at ease in big groups, occasionally drank too much at openings and stood in a corner, his conversation benevolent but increasingly obtuse, everyone else was indulgent as well. He was so intriguing, so talented, it was all just part of the package.
But as he brooded about the show that didn't sell and his own inability to make art, Todd's drinking began to escalate until it was an unavoidable presence in their lives. There were still nights when, inebriated, he came through the front door filled with good intentions, with love, for Eliza, for Sarah, but his timing would be off and he would miss the natural rhythm of discourse, taking him further and further away from them. Reading the disappointment in Sarah's eyes, his temperament would change and he would blame her for souring the general mood. They would avoid each other then, taking turns playing with Eliza until she went to bed, lessening the need to talk.
Gradually, the silence gave way to arguments.
Sarah never doubted Todd's talent even when he remained paralyzed by this unexpected change in fortune sometimes she thought she believed in it more than he did, which only added to her frustration. But she lay awake suddenly obsessed by what they didn't have, not the designer clothes or weekends in St. Barts, but any semblance of security, and she looked back in awe at her former oblivious self. Todd refused to plan more than one week ahead or feel any responsibility toward a future he could not imagine. "You do enough worrying for both of us," he said, irritated. Sarah, fixated on their lack of a safety net, was further irked by his ease at falling asleep.
It wasn't simply financial concerns that had made her give up her freelance career. At some point she reluctantly accepted that she would never win a Pulitzer prize for her journalism, never get the really juicy assignments. She had started out with the ambition of being a cultural reporter, but because she had little interest in celebrities, that became an ever more porous goal as stardom increasingly trumped artistic achievement as a salable topic. As magazines slashed their budgets and a greater number of stories were written in-house, she was forced to stray further from her initial intent. She began to take any and every story she could get.
Occasionally, she had an assignment that, though far from her intended purview, seemed to matter the week spent with ICU nurses in a brain unit at NYU, the almost accidental reporting on the shady background of one of the city's most socially prominent Episcopalian ministers but those pieces were bought with hours, weeks, months spent writing about various iterations of obsessive love, the scientific breakthrough behind the latest mascara, or women who donated their eggs only to want them back. She had grown tired of the endless proposals she had to write and her inability to turn down any assignment, no matter how insipid, because she feared another would not come. When it became clear, at least to her, that one of them would have to get a regular job with health insurance, paid vacations, a 401(k), she was the natural choice. Todd, after all, was perfectly willing to continue the financial high-wire act that left her obsessively looking down, estimating the fall.
It took Sarah five months of pestering the only simpatico person she knew in the human resources department at Compton Media, but eventually she got a six-week job filling in for a senior editor on maternity leave at Flair. When the other woman decided not to come back, Sarah was given the title of articles editor, a salary higher than she could have hoped for, and an office at least near the corner. She quickly found that she liked thinking about an entire issue of a magazine rather than just her particular segment of it and enjoyed the editing itself, matching ideas and writers, moving copy about like puzzle pieces until its structure was seamless. After years of working alone in a room, she found the brainstorming meetings that others vociferously complained about a welcome relief. The perks, too, were still novel enough the expense account lunches, the movie screenings, the ability to get virtually anyone on the phone when you mentioned Compton Media, the overflowing baskets of free beauty products to delight her, though she learned to hide her childish pleasure. There were times when she read a particularly good profile or essay somewhere and was struck by a longing to write again. She missed the satisfaction she got on the few occasions when, alone at her computer, she thought she had nailed it. But for the first time in years she did not have to worry about money, and that relief outweighed all else. Overall, she was having more fun, at least on most days, than it was acceptable to admit in the jaded halls of Compton Media.
All the years of being on the outskirts of the magazine world had served her well; she knew more than most about how an article was constructed and worried less about conventional constrictions. She found herself energized by the realization that she was actually good at this. It didn't hurt that the founder and chairman of the company, Leon Compton, a short, hunched-over man with a penchant for faded sports shirts buttoned to the neck, a stutter that some suspected was activated at will to confound his listeners, and $2.4 billion, had bought a few key pieces of Todd's work in years past. Sarah, who found her ambition kicking in like a muscle she hadn't known existed, had judiciously dropped this bit of information in a single conversation during her first week, knowing it would spread like a virus.
She got off on the fourth floor and headed through the heavy glass doors, past the main receptionist engrossed in a guide to landing a husband after thirty-five. She walked down the long hallway, past executive editor Pat Nolan's office. The lights were on, but the door was closed, a combination that always inspired paranoia in the ranks.
She unlocked her office door, glanced to see if her message light was on (though really, she reminded herself, what could have happened between the time she dropped Eliza off and now; they hadn't even gotten on the bus yet). Sarah willed the image of drunken drivers, overturned yellow buses out of her mind and turned her computer on. While it booted up, she went into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. The shelves above the sink were lined with glass vases in every imaginable shape, rectangular, fluted, round, hexagonal. All day, flowers arrived from cosmetics companies, from designers, from hopeful beaus and recalcitrant husbands. It was a world of women being courted and apologized to, professionally, personally.
She took the coffee back to her office and scrolled through her e-mails to see if Rena Berman, the insomniac editor in chief, had fired off any of her four a.m. missives. Sometimes they were composed of a single word (last week, it was "resilience") and sometimes of long rambling ideas for stories that Sarah spent hours trying to parse, only to discover Rena had forgotten she had even sent the e-mail. She was just reading a company-wide release about the promotion of a publisher to vice president when Paige Daniels walked in and plopped down on the gray tweed chair opposite Sarah's desk.
At thirty-two, Paige was four years younger than Sarah but had worked at Compton Media since graduating from Brown, moving up from her first job as the assistant to a legendary editor who used watercolors to paint the exact shade of lipstick she wanted for a photo shoot and would then have Paige search through every product line available often one hundred, two hundred tubes to find one that matched, to her current position as beauty director. (In a world where mastheads were studied with the fine-eyed appreciation of cryptologists, "director" was a coveted title, though there was little discernible difference from "editor" in actual responsibility.) With her impossibly long legs, shapely body, and scrupulously ironed shoulder-length white blond hair, Paige had a confidence in her own voluptuousness that was rare in a building of women who had starved the softness from their bones. Sarah, who had lived in Manhattan her entire life save for a four-year exodus to college in Boston, was always slightly envious of women like Paige, who had come from a small town in Pennsylvania and was free to completely reinvent herself here. The most expensive creams, powders, perfumes, and lotions in the world spilled from her drawers, leaned up against her computer, sat in heaps on her floor. More arrived hourly from manufacturers hoping for an editorial mention, the glossy shopping bags intricately tied with satin ribbons, often containing Frette robes, Prada makeup cases, Hermès scarves. Her office was much visited by her colleagues, covetous of the free products as much as of her window, the only one on the floor that actually opened, where they could stick their heads out and smoke in relative peace.
Paige groaned and took a sip of her latte. She was rarely in at this hour, but the monthly story meeting in Rena's office was a command performance. This morning she had on skintight jeans, emerald green Manolos, and a top that, to the untrained eye, looked suspiciously like lingerie.
"How'd it go last night?" Sarah asked. Since being dumped by Ethan, a Waspy divorcé she had been seeing for the past nine months, Paige had been dating with a vengeance, finding partners online, through friends, in clubs, even dog-walking, though she did not in fact have a dog. Last night was, by her count, her fifth blind date in two weeks.
"He was wearing a Winnie the Pooh tie."
"I always wondered who bought those."
"With Tigger. And he had Tourette's."
"He twitched nonstop. I kept thinking he was going to start barking in the restaurant. Which, by the way, was such a dive no one would have noticed." "Look at it this way, any date that doesn't involve cartoon characters can now be considered a success."
Paige leaned forward, her perfectly glossed lips parted. "Do you think I should call Ethan?"
"I could tell him I didn't mean it when I said his ex-wife was a sex¬less prude."
Sarah frowned. There had been some variation of this call, don't call conversation every day since the breakup. "No."
Paige sighed and took a delicate sip of her latte. "When are you going to start dating?" she asked.
Sarah looked away nervously, unwilling to admit out loud what she barely acknowledged to herself, that she hoped her marriage could somehow be resurrected. "It's funny," she said. "When you're married, dating looks good. You know, going out to dinner with someone who's actually interested in what you have to say."
"Clearly you haven't been out there." Paige shifted in her seat and brushed a tiny speck of lint off of her jeans. "Did I tell you about the guy from JP Morgan I went out with last week? Before I could finish my first glass of wine he told me his previous girlfriend was an ex-lesbian single mother he was interested in converting but she could only come using 'mechanical devices.' Since when did that become acceptable date conversation?" She rolled her eyes, stopped. "Every time I come home from one of these nights, it makes me hate Ethan more for leaving me in this position." She looked up. "Maybe I could just e-mail him."
Sarah ignored this. "Let's go. It's time for the meeting."
"Are you going to talk to Rena about Splash?" Paige asked as the two women rose. Splash had started as an idea they'd had over drinks at the local Howard Johnson's, a bar in favor for its sense of irony for two or three weeks last spring. Like all ambitious editors, they believed that the most fulfillment would come from creating their own magazine. After throwing around various possible target groups, from working women in their thirties to suburban moms looking for their own shopping magazine, they kept coming back to young women in their early twenties. They were both drawn to those wide-open few years just after college when there is still time to define yourself, your future, when so much is an open-ended question. Sarah often wondered, had she been just a little savvier, a little more confident, if she would have made different choices. An only child, she had longed for an older sister to take her by the hand, to whisper insider know-how more useful than sappy maternal aphorisms on men, on clothes, on attitude.
Splash was to be a guidebook to life (with hefty sprinklings of stars, style, shopping, and sex), for that time when every decision from how to throw a dinner party to whether to switch jobs seems laden with possibility, before parenthood, mortgages, marriages gone awry took their toll. Just thinking about it evinced a certain lightness. On closer study, they were pleased to discover that no one was truly addressing this audience. In an admittedly overcrowded marketplace, there actually seemed to be an opening. They had thrown together a few rough ideas and had been looking for an opportunity to mention it to Rena.
"I tried the other day," Sarah said. "She didn't seem to want to hear it. Let's see how the temperature is today."
On their way out, Sarah turned to her assistant, Maude, who had silently arrived to take her place. "I'll be in Rena's office." Maude, who knew exactly where Sarah would be, nodded patiently. It was a maternal tic, this need to be placed, to be reachable at every moment. Sarah wondered if every mother felt it and just did a better job of concealment or if she was simply more nervous than others.
They walked down the hall toward Rena's enormous corner office, passing the impeccably neat desk of her assistant, an unflappable Englishwoman in her midsixties with gray hair and a penchant for dirndl skirts who had outlasted three regimes.
Rena's office was lined on two sides with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Sixth Avenue. Behind her desk was a discreet door that led to a private bathroom all editors in chief had them, part of a corporate policy of maintaining their mystique. In an industry that was increasingly bottom-line oriented, Compton Media still prided itself on its outsized personalities and outsized perks. There was much speculation that when the next generation took over, this would vanish in a flurry of P&Ls, but there was no evidence of that yet. The plush sage velvet couches and chairs, more suited to a certain type of Park Avenue living room, were already occupied by editors clutching green tea, skim milk lattes, and large bottles of Fiji water. The women of Compton Media were nothing if not well-hydrated. On the far wall, there was a huge white board for mini color photocopies of the issue in progress as well as the alluring if increasingly mysterious clippings that Rena exhumed from her battered handbag each morning. The women were making self-conscious chitchat about last night's movies, this month's magazines, new trainers, crash diets, and a coveted hairstylist who commuted in from LA on a schedule that matched no one's needs but his own lately they had all been getting haircuts when they didn't need them and mournfully forgoing them when they did. While they spoke, they stole surreptitious glances at Rena, who was finishing up a phone call at her desk, trying to gauge her mood.
Beneath the sotto voce chatter, the room was permeated by a sense of anxiety and false cheer. Flair was in trouble. Newsstand sales, the barometer of a magazine's popularity, though not necessarily its profitability, were slipping. There was desperation in the air, a blend of edgy hope and futility, as they tried anything to stanch the flow of readers to other titles bigger promises on the cover, fewer clothes on the models. Every theory on what made a cover sell was considered: Speak directly to readers, avoid the color green, half-smiles on models are better than full smiles, add more cover lines, have fewer cover lines but make them bigger. Much money was pouring out to researchers who tested story ideas, images, fonts. And nothing seemed to be working. Rumors swirled: Compton was going to close Flair, they were going to sell it to a French conglomerate, Rena was about to be fired, Rena was going to fire someone else to offer up a body, she was working on a secret redesign with a freelance staff in a different building, Compton was working on a secret redesign that Rena knew nothing about. People in the building had begun to avoid the fourth floor, as if the downward slide might be contagious. Sarah took a seat next to the empty chair at the far end of the room and caught Rena's eye. Rena flashed her a brief but unmistakable smile. In her midfifties, she looked more like a housewife from Greenwich than an editor in chief. With her fluctuating, though never quite thin, weight, her long hair only occasionally blown out, she was one of the few women, if not the only one, in the building to wear flat shoes and makeup only for television appearances and public speeches. A Bronx girl who was the first in her family to go to college, she had lasted for twenty years in this most image-conscious of companies through the force of her will. She had, along with intelligence and an abundance of drive which she tried, not always successfully, to keep hidden the natural charms of a born saleswoman. While others of similar background quickly picked up the mannerisms of more thoroughbred women, Rena made her immigrant, Orthodox childhood an anecdote, part of her lore. Only some-times did it border on shtick. Rena, with her glittery excitable eyes and poker face, was above all convincing. It was her great talent, this ability to inspire, and paired with a survivor's willingness to turn on a dime, it had gotten her far.
Rena had been given the top job at Flair two years ago as a consolation prize when she didn't get the position she truly wanted, and campaigned just a little too hard and too publicly for (visible signs of effort were considered gauche except perhaps on the sales side), editorial director of all the company's magazines. That amorphous job (the previous holder had been a painter who spent most of his days ripping up images and generally terrorizing editors in a thick German accent) had gone to William Rowling, an enigmatic, foppish Englishman with good hair and better suits, a perfectly dressed Buddhist much in demand at dinner parties. He also happened to be twenty years younger than Rena and possessed an uncanny ability to know which book, artist, rap group was going to hit big before anyone else did, a talent Rena had once possessed, and later could fake, but was most recently slipping through her fingers no matter how much MTV she forced herself to watch. She had tried once, a year ago, to make a benefit of her experience, as she referred to it. She had convinced the company to do a onetime issue of a magazine geared to women over forty. But they put no money into it, printed it on the cheapest paper, and unceremoniously let it die. "The problem," Rena told Sarah, "was that the men who run this company don't want to fuck that woman. She reminds them of their wives." She was disappointed, but by 5:00 a.m. the next day, she had moved on, a woman with a plan, always a plan.
Rena's flaw was that for all her intelligence, she was too easily led astray by her own impulses. In Sarah's first week, she had asked her to edit a five-part package on death. Even Sarah, newly minted, knew that this was not a good idea for a magazine dedicated to self-improvement, thinner thighs in ten minutes a day, less stress in your work life, and the eccentric eating habits of celebrities.
Rena hung up the phone and, smiling like a den mother, settled in the large empty armchair. "How is everybody?" she asked. She was warm, welcoming, Jewish. It was only the editors who didn't need mothers, the editors who felt like grown-ups, who were able to maintain a healthy distance. Sarah was particularly susceptible to her.
After the murmur of polite replies died down, Rena leaned forward and paused. "The body," she said finally, her eyes lit from behind, taken with herself, with her latest conviction.
Everyone nodded silently, waiting.
"The woman's body," Rena added, smiling as if she had discovered DNA. "An entire issue devoted solely to the body."
The editors remained quiet. The purpose of the magazine every month was the betterment of the body, but surely Rena meant something different, something more.
"I want a life-sized poster of an anatomically correct body to fold out of the well," she said, referring to the ad-free center of the book. "I don't mean Maxim, silicone, airbrushed. I mean a real woman's body."
At the words real woman the editors cringed.
"What kind of bikini wax are we talking?" Caitlin, the style director, asked. "Brazilian? Landing strip? Au naturel? Oh, please, not that," she said, kidding and yet not.
Real women, or RWs, were the necessary bane of editors' existence. The magazine had a policy of making all RWs being considered for stories (How Exercise Saved My Life; I Discovered I Had Breast Cancer on My Honeymoon: One Doctor's Story) send in Polaroids of themselves their looks as important a component in deciding who to use as their experience. Caitlin, who'd gone to Chapin and Princeton and considered having three dermatologists one for complexion, one for injectables, one for mole checks every woman's basic necessity, had a particularly rough time with RWs. Then again, the real women in her life were decidedly different from the women Rena was referring to. Caitlin was a rising star in the inner circle of young socialites who had recently usurped their mothers as the most photographed at parties. Many of them had taken jobs at PR firms, or launched their own lines of resort clothes, handbags, or insanely overpriced children's wear. Caitlin was one of the rare members of her tribe who had started out as an intern (her father played poker with Leon Compton) but had stuck it out and risen in record time. She had an enviable wardrobe, glossy chestnut hair, perfectly arched eyebrows that she had shaped by a Ukrainian woman every ten days, and impeccable manners that made her overriding ambition more palatable. Sarah, who had gone to Manhattan private schools as well, but second-tier ones, and had been at the lower end of the economic spectrum even there while comfortable, her family most decidedly did not winter in Palm Beach had been written off by Caitlin within her first week.
"Think of the service we would be doing for women," Rena continued, "to see a naked woman who actually looks like them. What is the national average, five-four, a hundred fifty-three pounds? Imagine it, life-size."
"Do we have to?" Caitlin muttered beneath her breath.
The editors glanced surreptitiously at Pat Nolan, the executive editor. Few of them liked or trusted her, but they hoped she at least would offer up a word of caution. Pat, dressed in a trademark razor-sharp Dolce suit, was a woman in her mid thirties (some said forties, but no one truly knew) married to a much older man who had made a killing in drugstore cosmetics. She had the impeccable manner that only childless women can truly achieve and a vaguely sour look on her angular, suspiciously unlined face that she tried to hide whenever anyone was looking. Her eyes cased the room, a cipher's smile on her slightly parted lips, and remained silent.
"But what would the service be?" Lila, the news editor, asked. At thirty-eight, she was a natural beauty just beginning to look tired even when she wasn't. Compton Media was divided into two types of women: those like Lila who were supporting artistic husbands and those with oversize diamonds given to them by their investment banking fiancés. The former never looked as good as the latter. Perhaps it was because they couldn't afford the regular blowouts and the Botox, but Sarah suspected it was something else, something deeper, the weariness that comes from worrying about doctors' fees, braces, college bills, an innate lack of confidence in the future that the others had no reason to share. Lila's husband, a Cuban painter of vivid voluptuous women in various states of undress, had never had a single show. When Sarah first started at Flair, she wanted to distinguish herself from Lila and the others like her. Todd's work, after all, had been written about in every major art publication, bought by the Metropolitan Museum. She still clung to that thought, as if it made all that she had gone through with him love but other things too worthwhile, justifiable.
"What better service is there than an honest exploration of the female body?" Rena countered.
Lila nodded. "We could give facts for each part, the best foods to preserve sight, stuff like that."
"Did you know that women who apply lipstick more than once a day have a considerably lower risk of oral cancer?" Paige remarked.
"Who did that study, Revlon?" Janine, the research director, asked in her wry, nasal voice.
"We could follow with stories on health, nutrition, psychology," Sarah suggested, "keying them in to the poster."
"I am going on record in favor of airbrushing, full-body makeup, and serious self-tanning cream," Paige said. "Make a note."
Rena laughed indulgently, Paige was the frilly girl she'd never been.
The meeting continued, gaining momentum, as the editors gradually lost touch with their own reservations and ideas snowballed. Within the bubble of Rena's office anything seemed possible she was still able to cast a spell.
Forty-five minutes later the women filed out, armed with assignments on how to make this work.
Rena motioned to Sarah to stay and the others took note, wondering what it might mean to the ever-changing balance of power and prestige. Pat stood in the doorway for a moment, glancing back suspiciously. She had been foisted on Rena five months ago by William Rowling in an attempt to steady her, and the two women maintained a barely hidden disdain for each other, Pat, with her by-the-numbers approach to editing, who, it was rumored, focus-grouped where to have lunch, and Rena, with her tenacious belief that a good editor went strictly on impulse. The degree of their dislike was unusual even in this building, where editors planted disparaging stories about each other in the press and then air-kissed over lunch. Sarah shifted her feet uncomfortably until Pat reluctantly turned her back and left.
"So," Rena asked, focusing her attention on Sarah. "How are you? Are you sleeping?"
The two women shared the same form of insomnia, falling asleep easily but rising frequently in the middle of the night, their blood, their brains crackling. Somehow Rena had fallen under the assumption that Sarah worked as hard as she did during these black holes of restlessness and Sarah did nothing to belie it. She did not tell Rena that at three a.m. she was obsessing about the quagmire of her marriage or about the fact that her jeans were harder to zip than they were two months ago, not next month's cover lines.
"How is Eliza?" Rena asked. The mother of two children, both in high school, she had been following Sarah's marital dilemmas closely. She had married young the first time, better the second time, to a man not quite as ambitious as she, a man who hadn't grown up in the Bronx and wasn't as hungry. She had, she told Sarah, spent tens of thousands of dollars in therapy to learn that nice men weren't necessarily as ambitious, and not to fault him, never to fault him.
"She's fine," Sarah answered. She fidgeted uncomfortably. If the general unreliability of men was taken as a given in women's magazines, the reasons behind the shredding of her own marriage remained something Sarah could just barely admit to herself, and never in public. There was a long silence. Sarah didn't know quite what she was doing here but sensed that Rena was looking for a sign whose side are you on, Pat's or mine?
"I was thinking," Sarah began nervously. "I know you tried that other launch last year. But Paige and I have been studying the newsstand and we both believe there truly is a hole. Since Mademoiselle closed, no one has really captured that early-twenties reader."
"She's reading celebrity or shopping magazines now."
"Yes. But what if you combined those elements with service geared just to her life stage," Sarah said, using a term that she had heard bandied about since she started at Compton.
Rena listened intently, giving away nothing, sniffing, considering what she could use.
Finally, she replied, "It's an interesting idea. But now is not the time."
Sarah suspected Compton would never give Rena money to explore anything at all, much less a new launch, until Flair's newsstand figures went up.
Ten minutes later she was back at her desk, the door ajar, trying to concentrate on a story about the multitude of errors in the federal government's food pyramid. She looked at her watch. The bus would have reached Coney Island by now, the children would be lining up for rides or playing helter-skelter on the beach. Restless, Sarah turned to her in-box where Paige had left a jar of $450 face cream made from marine life harvested once every two years off the Mediterranean coast. "Try it out for me," her note said. "I'm not vouching for it; it's made in Spain, a country not exactly noted for its skin care products." Sarah opened it and dipped her forefinger into the silky white cream. She was just rubbing it into her forearm when the phone rang.
It was 11:18. Sarah got the last bit of cream off of her fingers and picked up on the second ring.
"This is Detective Ronald Brook with the Loudon Beach Police Department." The man spoke with a professional calm tinged with a small-town southern accent. There was, in the way he paused, a certain tentativeness. It was too soon to tell whether it was natural or studied, born of a natural desire to delay the imparting of bad news or condescension.
Loudon Beach, Sarah knew, was in Florida.
Before more words could come out of his mouth, she became aware of a keening sound sputtering from her chest. Whatever this man needed to say, she knew that she didn't want to hear it; her hands were pressed against time, against a future she did not want to enter.
Once, years before, the New York City police called to tell her that Todd was in the Beth Israel emergency room. He had been hit by a car while riding his bicycle on St. Marks Place. He was tall, muscular, strong. He had broken his fall with his face, leaving behind a gaping wound beneath his right eye and a mosaic of gravel in his chin. His blood alcohol was three times the legal limit.
After that, he wore a helmet.
After that, they had Eliza.
After that, Sarah waited.
"When was the last time you spoke with your husband?" the detective asked.
"He called from Florida on Sunday. Five days ago."
She had been standing in the kitchen when the phone rang just after 6:00 p.m. She leaned over the counter, her hands cupped around the receiver so that Eliza, sitting a few feet away, would not hear her words.
In the silence that festered between the detective and Sarah, she saw the gray-pebbled Formica that she had always hated, saw herself playing with crumbs left over from Eliza's lunch, pushing them around with her fingernail. "I'm terrible at this," Todd had said. "I don't blame her for being mad at me. I'd be mad at me, too."
"This" was the separation, fatherhood, this was the marsh they found themselves in, a man a thousand miles away, a child sulking at the dining room table, a husband and wife who could not be together and could not be apart. "She's six years old," Sarah replied. "You have to keep plugging away at it."
"I'm terrible at this," he repeated, beyond hearing.
There was, for a moment, only the damage they had done.
Sarah had tried calling him back in the following days but had only gotten his voice mail. Todd had a habit of forgetting to bring his cell phone charger when he went away and hadn't left a number where he could be reached. Mildly annoyed, she also knew that Todd had a tendency to go underground when faced with potential con¬flict. He always resurfaced.
Detective Brook cleared his throat.
Memory is an odd, stubborn thing, burning the inconsequential into the brain, refusing to record the stark, hard moments that change the very atoms of your being. Only the effect, the aftermath, is recalled.
Later, Sarah could not remember the precise words Detective Brook used, only his voice as he laid the few facts he had before her.
Your husband has not been seen since close to midnight on Sunday.
He was staying with a woman, Linda Granger.
They had a fight and he told her he was going to the beach.
He was very upset about your separation.
He was drinking.
He had stopped sleeping.
He left behind his keys, wallet, money, ID, cell phone, his return airline ticket, a cigarette lighter.
And two drawings: One said Lonely Head, Dead. The other said Drowned.
There were, too, pieces of a large copper sculpture he was working on titled Lightning Rod to Take to the Beach During a Thunderstorm.
We believe he may have committed suicide.
But, he paused, there is no trace. Of him. Of his body. There is nothing. He could, in fact, be anywhere, anywhere at all. "Do you have his passport?" the detective asked.
"He was going to build a house for a friend," Sarah protested. Surely he had this wrong, had everything wrong.
The detective waited. How many disbelieving wives had he come across in his twenty years on the force? "Do you know Linda Granger?" he asked finally.
She vaguely recalled the woman's name. Linda was an old college girlfriend Todd talked to now and then. Sarah thought he mentioned visiting her in Florida just before he and Sarah started dating. She had a shapeless sense-memory of her as a troubled woman, something about being married to a cop who hit her. "They haven't seen each other in years," she replied, but there was a question in her voice. It was not just the present or the future that was changing as she sat in her office talking to a stranger in Florida, but the past, the firmament she thought she had been standing on.
Fragments of questions poked like shards through her consciousness. "You said Todd disappeared on Sunday night. I don't understand. Why would you wait until Friday to call me?"
Detective Brook's voice grew defensive. "Miss Granger didn't call us until Thursday afternoon. It appears she and Todd had an argument and she asked him to leave. She thought he was off drinking someplace, brooding. She assumed he'd come back. His plane ticket is for this coming Monday. Of course, there is still a chance he'll return to pick it up."
"But you said he left his wallet with all of his money. She waited four days?" Sarah asked again in disbelief.
"We responded as soon as she called. Two detectives went to her house and examined the garage where he had set up a studio."
"He had set up a studio?"
"All of your husband's tools and belongings were neatly lined up. That type of organization is often a sign of suicide."
Sarah pictured Todd's studio in New York. His tools were always neatly lined up, cleaned, just so. Though he moved from Dortmund to the United States at eight years old when his mother married an American, he remained German in many ways. There were things she knew that this detective, that Linda, would never know. She knew that this was not a clue, that it was meaningless. If the police could be so mistaken about this, they could be mistaken about everything.
"I don't understand. Wouldn't a body wash up? I mean, how far out could he have swum?"
"It is very unusual," the detective admitted.
Sarah's mind spiraled as he continued to speak, his sentences circling back on each other, piling up theories and then piercing them with holes. The facts ended suddenly, a road disappearing without warning.
Not one person had spotted Todd after he left Linda's property.
There were no shoes found on the beach.
All the night before, the coast guard had scoured the shore by helicopter and seen nothing.
He could be holed up in one of a thousand cheap motels that line that strip of the Atlantic Ocean. He could be wandering in the nearby state park, lost in the encompassing illogic of a breakdown. He could have staged the whole thing and taken off for California, or Europe. He could be using a false name, a false identity, starting over someplace new. "Sometimes men do that. Especially at times like this. Miss Granger said he was very smart, certainly capable of it," Detective Brook said matter-of-factly.
A foggy ether invaded Sarah's head as she tried to absorb what he was saying. We are taught to believe that facts exist, that if we do not find an answer, it is because of an error on our part, a flaw in our reasoning, in our search. We are not taught that there are times when answers simply vanish.
A staccato sob broke from Sarah's gut.
Outside her open door, Maude sat quietly, pretending to be busy with expense reports. As Sarah raced out through the mazelike floor, there was a silence, an embarrassed pause as someone else's life spilled messy and chaotic into the air, changing the very ions.
Copywright © 2007 Emily Listfield
Meet the Author
Emily Listfield is a former magazine editor in chief and author of five novels, including the New York Times Notable It Was Gonna Be Like Paris and Waiting to Surface. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, Redbook, Self, Ladies' Home Journal, New York magazine, Parade, and many other publications. She lives in New York City with her daughter. Visit her website at www.emilylistfield.com.
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