For example, her child doesn't steal ten-thousand-dollar leather coats from photo shoots. Nor does he require a constant, fresh supply of a soda that is no longer in production. He doesn't curse at Julia, pronounce her name "Einstein" with a thick layer of disdainful irony, or incessantly poke at her with his index finger while reciting odd variations on childlike rhymes like a psych patient on day pass. With a mortgage looming and three years out of the business, however, Julia knows she has no choice but to make Mary's comeback a success. Even if it kills her.
Which, at this pace, is a possibility. But if there is one thing Julia has learned from her time off from the office, it's that sheer determination can solve almost everything. After all, if she can get through suburban living with its uncontrolled clutter and playground politics, how hard can it be to resuscitate the career of an aging, desperate has-been? And get over the fact that her husband is a better stay-at-home mom than Julia ever was?
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About the Author
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Piece of WorkA Novel
By Laura Zigman
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Laura Zigman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn a day just like any other day, Julia Einstein-onetime big-time publicist turned full-time stay-at-home mom-was standing in the kitchen, trying to figure out what she was going to make for dinner that would require the least amount of time and energy. She hated thinking about dinner: what they should have, what they shouldn't have, what kind of takeout she could get that she could disguise as homemade, what excuse she would give Peter when he got home to explain why, yet again, it was six-thirty and she was still staring into the refrigerator without a clue. Meal preparation was her least favorite part of her "job," and for almost four years she'd done almost anything-except going to the gym-to avoid it.
It was around ten-thirty that bright April morning and, as usual, Julia was allowing herself to be bossed around by a three-year-old. She liked to think of it as a choice since it gave her the option of maintaining a shred of dignity in the face of frequent humiliation and subjugation. Toddlers, she remembered hearing someone say, were like big tyrants of tiny countries, and judging from the way Leo had her running around most of the time, she couldn't have agreed more. He wasn't half as bad as most three-year-olds she knew-monstrous little beastswho could have sprung up whole from the pages of a Maurice Sendak picture book-though Julia wouldn't have cared if he were. She loved him more than life itself and couldn't think of anything she'd rather do after spending ten years getting pecked to death by celebrity clients than cater to his every whim. Demanding, insatiably needy, and all ego and id, he was still by far the best boss she'd ever had.
It was while she was happily catering to several of those very whims simultaneously, "multitasking" as she heard it was now called in the actual "workplace"-getting him a small bowl of white cheddar Cheez-Its, flipping the channels with the remote to see if Little Bear or Arthur or something besides that annoyingly cloying Caillou was on any of the public television stations that came with their one-hundred-dollar-a-month extended cable package, and finding his once-white now-gray and shredded baby blanket-that Peter suddenly appeared in the living room out of nowhere. He was wearing a spotless navy wool suit, a crisp white shirt, and a boring red tie. Not a hair was out of place on his handsome blond head, and had he not been holding a near-empty bottle of Heineken, she might not have thought twice about what he was doing home in the middle of the day.
"Who died?" she said, remote in hand and several white cheddar Cheez-Its in mouth. Like any normal Jew, Julia assumed unexpected events and behaviors were signs of death or disaster.
"No one died." He laughed, or tried to, anyway.
"Then what are you doing here?"
"I live here." He forced a smile and took a swig.
"I know you do, but you don't usually live here before dinnertime." Which, by the way, she'd completely forgotten about. "Not to mention drink."
"Well, today's a special day." Another forced smile, another swig.
Julia swallowed her Cheez-Its, put the remote down, and led him gently by the arm to the kitchen. Then she stared into his face, hoping he wasn't going to announce that he was leaving her for another mother who had a job and didn't wear elasticized pants.
"Why is today a special day, Peter?"
He finished what was left of his beer, put the bottle down on the counter, and braced himself with both hands on the kitchen island. Then he looked up at her and forced his biggest smile yet.
"Because today I got fired."
Julia tried to grasp the full meaning of the words but she couldn't. Peter had never failed at anything since she'd known him.
"I don't know. They said something about restructuring my department but I stopped listening when they started talking about my 'package.' Two months of pay, a year of medical coverage, plus the use of an executive placement office to help me find another job."
She shook her head. "Who else got fired?"
"It was just you?"
"It was just me." He picked up the empty Heineken bottle and started picking the label off. "I guess that makes me special."
"You are special, Peter," she said, hugging him. "You're really, really special." They both laughed a little but Julia could have kicked herself for pointing out that he was the sole recipient of the company pink slip. He rested his chin on her shoulder and for a minute they were quiet. When they stopped hugging they were quiet again.
"So how do you feel?" she asked finally. It was a stupid question, she knew, the kind local newscasters ask people when their house is on fire and they've just lost everything, but somehow it was the only thing she could think to say that made sense.
He shrugged, then sighed. "Actually, I feel pretty good."
"I do. I feel"-he looked up at the ceiling as if the perfect word to describe what it felt like to be him at that exact moment in time was hanging from an invisible little string-"free."
She knew that people who experience traumatic loss go through distinct stages-Denial, Anger, and Grief were three she could recall-and now she wondered if Delusional Positivity was another. Even if it wasn't, she knew whatever phase he was in she was going to have to support him one hundred percent.
"I mean, maybe it's a good thing. Maybe it's for the best and I'll find a better job."
Julia couldn't imagine Peter finding a better job than the one he'd already had-he'd been a management consultant for one of the most prestigious management consulting firms in the world, with great pay and benefits-and though the whole concept of seeing how bad things that happened to good people sometimes ended up being good things that weren't so bad was completely alien to her, she was glad he could see the situation that way.
"So how do you feel?" he asked.
She was too stunned to know how she felt, but she knew how she didn't feel-free. But before she could come up with something hopeful and optimistic and completely false to say, she saw her parents' faces suddenly materialize at the back door.
"Shit," she said.
Peter, who just thought she was expressing her feelings about the situation, since he'd had his back to the door and didn't see her parents, moved toward Julia and put his arms around her to comfort her. "Don't worry. It'll be okay."
"No." She shook her head and extracted herself from his embrace and the misunderstanding and went to the door. Tuesday was Costco Day and Julia had forgotten that her parents-Len and Phyllis Einstein, who lived one town over in New Rochelle and had an uncannily bad sense of timing-often stopped by her house in Larchmont to share their bounty-toilet paper, cashews, salmon fillets as big as clown shoes-on their way home. Living ten minutes away from them was a blessing-the free babysitting, the holidays they got to celebrate together, the grandparent-grandchild love affair that blossomed the minute Leo was born-but sometimes she could do without the bulk food drops.
Her mother came in first, holding a giant rotisserie chicken showcased in a clear poultry-shaped plastic take-out container, and then her father came in carrying a four-pound bunch of bananas which Julia knew her mother would split in two to share since who in the world could eat four pounds of bananas before they went bad. They'd obviously seen Peter through the door because now their eyes were as big as saucers and they didn't say anything about the food.
"What's wrong?" her mother asked, still clutching the chicken.
"Nothing," Julia and Peter said in unison.
"Is somebody sick?" her father said, looking straight at Peter. "Are your folks okay?"
He nodded. "Yes, they're fine."
"We should send them an Easter card, by the way," her father said, turning toward her mother.
"I don't remember signing it."
"I forged your signature."
An awkward moment of silence passed during which Julia relieved her mother of the chicken and her father of the bananas.
"So what are you doing home in the middle of the day?" her mother finally asked, unable to hold in the Anxiety of Not Knowing any longer.
Julia looked at Peter and for a split second she knew they were thinking the same thing, that they should make something up to spare themselves the third degree. But a second later she knew they were thinking the same thing again: Just get it over with.
"Peter lost his job," Julia said, instinctually taking on the role of Official Mouthpiece and using as passive a phrasing as possible to clarify that this was something that had happened to Peter, not something he'd done to himself.
Once a publicist, always a publicist.
Her mother, never one for subtlety, put both hands up to her cheeks. "Oy."
"It's okay," Julia said, spinning the facts. "We'll be okay."
"What do you mean it's okay? He has another job already?"
"No, but he will." She spoke slowly while raising her eyebrows up and down, as if signaling a child who didn't know any better to stop staring at whoever they weren't supposed to be staring at.
"A lot of layoffs at the firm?" her father asked.
"Yes," Julia said before Peter could tell them the truth and make things worse for himself. "A lot of layoffs."
"How many?" he asked.
"How many?" She shrugged. "The whole office."
Peter stared at her. "Julia?"
"What do you mean the whole office?" her father said.
"They shut down the whole New York office," she said. "You know, downsizing."
"Uhm, Julia?" Peter tried again.
They both ignored him.
"What kind of firm shuts down their New York office?" her father continued. "Wouldn't they shut down one of their smaller offices? Like a branch office? Doesn't your firm have a branch office in Chicago?" He tried to look over Julia's head directly at Peter now, but Julia moved to block his view.
"They don't call them branch offices anymore," her mother said.
"What do they call them then?"
Her father shrugged, unimpressed, then waved her mother away with his hand as if he didn't care what she thought even though they all knew he did.
"What makes you such an expert on Peter's business anyway?" her mother said.
"I never said I was an expert. But I think I know somethingabout his business."
"How could you know about his business? You were an accountant."
"An accountant deals with business."
"An accountant deals with money."
"Money is business."
Julia could tell the situation was getting out of hand like a hostile news conference, and she knew if she didn't put a stop to it soon, her parents would eat her and Peter-and then each other-alive.
"Anyway," she said, interrupting another round of bickering that was about to erupt. "Like I said, we'll be fine."
Her mother made a face. "Well, you're very cavalier."
"I'm not cavalier. I'm trying to be optimistic."
"Being optimistic so soon seems cavalier," she said, shaking her head again. "But maybe it's just me."
Whenever her mother said Maybe it's just me it really meant Maybe it's just you, which was her way of not saying that she was right and Julia was wrong and which always made Julia go a little crazy.
"Can't you ever just pretend to be positive?" Julia said, trying to look above her father's head directly at her mother, but he was blocking her view.
"It's okay, Julia. Really," Peter said.
"Don't you see," Julia went on, pointing to Peter, "that he's in an incredibly fragile emotional state?"
"I'm not in a fragile emotional state," Peter said.
"Yes, you are," she said, patting his cheek.
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are," she said again, her voice rising. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. I mean, I certainly would be if I were the only person in my entire office to get fired!"
Her parents looked stricken. So did Peter. Julia bit her upper lip with her lower teeth and wished Leo would come in already and make a few demands to distract them all.
"Look, I know this is a stressful time for everyone," Peter said, spreading his arms like wings and putting them over her parents' shoulders, "but we're going to get through this."
Her parents nodded and Julia looked at the chicken and the bananas on the counter. She wondered if, for as long as she lived, those two foods would forever remind her of the day, the moment, the strange instant when life as she and Peter had known it suddenly ground to a halt. But her childhood was filled with moments such as this-when negativity would flood the room and no one could breathe-and she couldn't think of anything she had stopped eating because of it.
She touched the domed top of the chicken container with her finger, and, as usual after she lost her temper with her mother, she felt like a big baby. Her parents had grown up in the Depression and had lost a child. It wasn't their fault that fear and worry and concern were almost all they knew.
"Do you want to stay for lunch?" she said, wishing she could make it up to them and hoping, actually, that they would stay.
"Lunch?" her mother said. "It's ten-thirty in the morning. We'll say hello to Leo and then we'll leave."
"The last thing you need to worry about at a time like this," her father said, patting Peter on the arm and kissing Julia on the head, "is us."
It was still light out when Julia and Peter and Leo went to bed that night. They'd turned the clocks ahead only the week before and already the days were longer. Or maybe after the strange day they had, sitting around the living room in shock for most of the afternoon and early evening, it just felt that way.
"Can you imagine living in Norway or Sweden or Alaska during the summer?" Julia said, staring up at the ceiling as the dusk finally fell. "How can you fall asleep if it never gets dark?"
"Imagine living there during the winter," Peter said. "How can you get up if it never gets light?"
Lying on top of the covers with Leo between them, Julia wondered out loud what it would be like the next morning when they woke up and Peter didn't go to work.
"It'll be nice," he said. "We'll go out for pancakes. Then we can spend the rest of the day together and do something fun."
Ever since they'd first met, Peter was always talking about having fun-fun things they could do and fun places they could go-and even though back then they almost never went anywhere except each other's apartments, she had never had more fun in her whole life. She closed her eyes and her mind reeled back to the night they first met: when she told Peter what she did, he told her he wanted to see where she worked since he didn't know anything about entertainment public relations.
Excerpted from Piece of Work by Laura Zigman Copyright © 2006 by Laura Zigman. Excerpted by permission.
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