The Big Day, November 27, 10:45 A.M.
The news hits Your Wedding fifteen minutes before Lucky is scheduled to go up to the thirty-third floor for her big meeting. She hears a buzz outside her office in the labyrinth of cubicles inhabited by junior editors who have been suddenly flooded with calls and texts from their friends across town at Princess Bride and its very glossy, high-end offshoot, Tulle: the magazines folded exactly ten minutes ago, and the staff has forty-eight hours to remove themselves from the premises.
Then, Jeff’s urgent text: “Come up ASAP.” The meeting, originally scheduled for eleven, is pushed up to 10:45.
In disbelief at the confluence of events, Lucky shoots one last glance at herself in her closet mirror. Her heart hammers as she squares her shoulders and stands straight-backed in her black wool jacket and pencil skirt, egretlike in the four-and-a-half-inch Jimmy Choos she’d found on one magical trip to a consignment shop. She swings her hair one final time, watching it settle into its shiny shape. Then she peers both ways out of her office door—she can’t let Grace, the editor in chief, see her.
All clear. She makes a dash for the twenty-seventh-floor elevators.
* * *
“What incredible timing!” Jeff says. “Princess and Tulle go down, and Your Wedding marries a brand-new editor—it must be destiny!”
With a jaunty skip, he enfolds her in his arms and pumps her hand. The publisher of Your Wedding, genial, friendly Jeff wears tight jeans and a cowboy-style shirt with snaps. He prides himself on a flat stomach and quite presentable, gym-buffed pecs. As he’d explained to Lucky, his divorce proceedings require him to be a lean, mean machine.
Nelson Media’s corporate offices face downtown, toward the skyline at the southern tip of the island, where the World Trade Center towers once stood. By the windows stand Mike and Dave Mann, the brothers who rose to power in the company a decade ago, with a combination of intimidating weirdness and a genius for the bottom line that astounded even their cost-cutting superiors. Completely bald, stoop-shouldered, with pale wispy mustaches, Mike and Dave preside over a vast roster of magazines, everything from boating to bridal, by wielding their seemingly supernatural ability to add and multiply and divide and subtract hundreds of digits in their heads, with never a mistake. Lucky can’t tell them apart, and she’s never wanted to.
Now each Mann holds his BlackBerry in his hand like a sacred talisman and moves the dial with his thumb. One or both cracks his knuckles whenever he’s pleased, and knuckles are snapping and crackling now.
“Lucky girl,” Jeff murmurs, still clasping her hand. She likes the feel of his big, dry palm. “We can’t have asked for anything better. Princess dead, millions in advertising—millions—heading our way even as we speak.”
The Men’s thumbs move more excitedly. Dry coughing, or maybe chuckling, provides a soundtrack. They’ve barely looked at Lucky. Still, even with the skeletal late November skyline in the background, the office feels warm as if a hidden source of heat, for the inner circle only, has now opened to embrace her.
Nadia Milosovici, aka the Axe Lady, the company’s bass-voiced HR autocrat, who reaches no higher than the clavicles of even her shortest coworkers, enters with a bottle of Dom Perignon and stands at militaristic attention. Her presence in the corridors of any Nelson Media magazine signals big trouble for anyone who depends on a paycheck.
The Men nod. Nadia Milosovici untwists the wire with a show of force. Her strong spatulate thumbs easily pop out the cork, and the champagne froths forth.
“A toast!” cries Jeff. “Leigh Quinn, no longer a bridesmaid, finally the bride.” He winks, a habit of his. The magazine’s sales staff affects this complicitous tic, implying a shared source of illicit mirth.
Lucky allows Jeff a thin smile. When she first came to interview for the wedding writer position at Your Wedding, Jeff had looked over her resume silently: copywriter, associate editor, senior writer. He’d finally queried with phony innocence, “All lateral moves. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride?”
She’d been stung, and had to think fast. “A magazine is about teamwork, isn’t it? On Grace Ralston’s staff I can help make a winning team.”
It was the perfect thing to say.
Nadia Milosovici hands champagne flutes around and pours smidgeons into each, though she gives a smidgeon more to Mike. Grace had always sworn that Nadia harbored a secret frenzied desire for Mike Mann. No one else could see it.
She also swore that wherever Nadia Milosovici stood, she could detect a paranormal cold spot.
Enjoying himself now, Jeff continues. “On this occasion I’m taking you out of the chorus and making you a star.”
“Bridesmaid. Chorus girl. Gee, Jeff, make up your mind.”
“Hey! To Lucky Quinn.”
“Luck of the Irish,” says Mike in his scratchy voice. Nadia Milosovici laughs heartily, and Dave laughs his dry cough of a laugh, as if his brother had said something clever.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, carefully polite.
It had all been hard work, not luck. She’s grounded in the day-to-day.
As editor in chief she’ll be seeing a lot more of these two conjoined weirdos—she’ll have to tolerate regular concerts of knuckle-cracking. The amazing job she’s landed comes with this fine print attached to it, but she’s already figured it in.
A few days ago, when Jeff told her the Men had approved her promotion, her first, bizarrely inappropriate thought had been: I can’t wait to tell Grace. Her boss. Now ex-boss. It’s hardly her dream situation, the way she would have liked her ascendancy to be—this is the real fine print. The fact is, not only is Grace her ex-boss, but she’s also her best friend. Ex–best friend.
The changes have left Lucky nearly breathless. Please, God, let me breathe, let me hang on!
And as of today, with Princess folded, the pressure is on. She’s now going head to head with Chic Bride and Winnie Whitcomb Weddings, the three of them fighting their way to the top of a treacherous mountain of tulle.
Downstairs, Grace is probably looking all over for her, dying to crow over Princess Bride, asking Felice or Sara or Vicki where Lucky had gotten to—under any circumstances annoyed not to know Lucky’s whereabouts, but especially today! It’s a very special day. Grace has a reputation for being tough, but Lucky knows her soft spots. One is she hates to be alone. The other is she loves to gloat.
Lucky is the last in a long line of Grace’s right-hand women, her OBFF—office best friends forever—except they were never forever enough for Grace, always abandoning her for tedious, inexplicable reasons like motherhood or marriage. Then Grace would set out to find her next consiglieri. For Grace’s purposes you had to be profoundly uninterested in personal glory while committing your life to facilitating hers. You had to be willing to subsume your own ideas in hers even when you knew yours were better. What resulted was the comfort of being in Grace’s favor—as well as boredom and claustrophobia. And worse, her own silent resentment at devoting herself entirely to polishing Grace’s image to a fine sheen.
Now personal glory is rumbling toward Lucky like a runaway Seventh Avenue 1 subway train.
As she steps forward to shake hands with the Men, Lucky forces thoughts of Grace out of her mind. Today is her victory. Hard work has brought her good luck. The best ever.
The Big Day, 11:30 A.M.
Grace Ralston, long-time editor in chief of Your Wedding and one of the most respected names in the bridal industry, is composing a condolence note on scrap paper to Sandy Billstein, editor in chief—well, ex–editor in chief—of Princess Bride and Tulle, owned by Pridette Publishers. The news has spread like a raging fire. Good God! Princess Bride is dead! And so is Tulle, that snobby little offshoot with which Sandy Billstein, with her horrible down-market taste, should never have been entrusted!
Well, it’s out to pasture for Billstein. Grace will never again have to see her at the bridal collections sitting in her unearned front-row seat, raising her periscope neck to survey the room, turning it full circle, then pulling it back in.
Billstein is nearly Grace’s age, and there’s no magazine in this woman’s town that’ll touch her with a hundred-foot pole. She’d weaseled her way into the business only because she was friends with the sister of the wife of a CEO in Pridette corporate—this has been a source of outrage for Grace for a good ten years now.
Making all this even better is that Billstein has been circulating the nastiest kind of rumors about Grace. Grace’s little mole over at PB has kept her abreast of Billstein’s prophesies of Grace’s date with the chopping block.
Ha, ha! Look whose head is rolling now!
Picking up her Montblanc fountain pen, Grace very, very carefully copies her note onto a precious leaf of her Mrs. John L. Strong personal stationery. She’s been hoarding the card stock ever since that formidable Upper East Side bastion of stationery closed its doors, shredded by the recession—but if this occasion doesn’t warrant the best, Grace doesn’t know what does.
What terrible news! I can’t imagine how it must feel to have been at the helm of not one but TWO magazines shuttered by Pridette. The main thing is not to take it personally. I’m sure it had nothing to do with you.
For you, dear, this is the loss of a life’s passion, but I know you’ll find another path as time goes on. And who knows—it may be something more suitable! After all, it was just a bit of luck that got you where you were, wasn’t it?
She signs her huge, swirling G, blots it and addresses the envelope. Off on its merry way!
Marching purposefully toward the twenty-seventh-floor elevators, she gets a Marie Antoinette vintage image of Billstein’s head on a pike, chignon coming loose.
Jeff has called her upstairs earlier than scheduled. He and the Men will want to celebrate and powwow. New lay of the land, new strategy. Multiple images of Billstein’s head dance across Grace’s mind like sugarplum fairies.
As she shoots up to the thirty-third floor, she pats down her springy brunette curls and fixes her cat’s-eye specs on the tip of her nose. Once on the floor she passes short, squat Nadia Milosovici, queen of cost cutting and layoffs, and sidesteps an icy draft. Grace has been noticing this creature lurking around a great deal—corporate calls her out of her dungeon in HR whenever a magazine is losing money to terrorize the staff. Grace isn’t worried, though; neither the Men nor Jeff have said anything to her.
Breezing into the big office, Grace says, “Well, guys, what amazing news, eh? We’ll really clean up now.” She smiles.
“Well, Grace!” says Jeff heartily.
Nadia Milosovici eases her round wooliness into the office, clicking the door shut behind her. And then Grace knows.
But her brain won’t take it in—instead it focuses on the woman’s sweater, covered with nightmarish blackish-purple flowers that have no correlation to anything that actually grows on earth.
Grace looks at Jeff until he drops his gaze. Mike and Dave stare at the wall. Only Nadia Milosovici stares Grace down.
Grace will never, ever address this woman. As far as she is concerned, this woman does not exist. “Jeff, dear, I see that you’ve brought me here for a reason that I hadn’t anticipated.”
“Have a seat, Grace.”
“I’ll stand, thank you very much.”
“All right. I have to tell you…” He blushes beneath his perpetual salon tan. A miserable silence saturates the room.
When he squares his shoulders, she understands that a prepared speech, containing something oozingly repulsive about how sad it is to be “parting ways,” is on its way.
“So,” she says briskly. “Let’s get started. Have I been invited here to learn that we must part ways?” She thinks she’s made her voice sound cool, even amused, but fears she was unnaturally loud.
“Well”—Jeff clears his throat—“let me be clear. Grace, it has been an honor to work with you. They don’t make ’em like you anymore, right, guys?”
The Men make a sound like dry lizard claws scratching on rock.
“Anymore? Yes, I suppose I am the older model,” she says lightly.
“We need to replace you, Grace.” He’s finally spit it out.
Her cool shatters like Waterford crystal, and heat floods her chest and rises up her neck and into her face. “Replace me? That you can never do, Jeffrey Wilson. No one knows this magazine or the market or the advertisers the way I do. I’m the head of the club, for God’s sake! No, Jeff, I am not replaceable. But go ahead. Do you want someone younger? Someone cheaper? Sure, they’re a dime a dozen. And things are getting tough. So, bring on the interns! But if you think some child can replace me, you have your head up your … Jeff, you cannot, cannot, cannot, use me up and toss me out. I will not, you cannot…”
Nadia Milosovici presses a button next to the door.
Calm, she tells herself. “Mike, Dave, have a seat. I’m almost done here.”
The Men always respond to a commanding female voice. They sidle over to the chairs and stand clutching the chair backs.
“Fife meenutes.” Nadia Milosovici’s basso profundo starts the countdown to the drop of the blade. She lets in a security guard, a slender, terrified Somalian no older than eighteen, dressed in a dusty blue uniform.
Grace walks to the window, takes off her specs and rubs the spot between her eyebrows. She vividly pictures her note to Billstein already wending its way through the U.S. mail, and decides to jump. Steady there, she tells herself, now a deep, yogic breath. Deliberately she draws the breath up from her abdomen into her chest and lets it out ve-e-e-ry slowly.
She fits her glasses back on and turns. Regarding Jeff over the rims, she waits until he cringes.
“Jeff, my love, let’s talk sense. I am the magazine’s most valuable asset. Mike, Dave, I’ve worked at Nelson for twenty-five years, since way before your time, and you’ve seen the magazine imitated, you’ve seen them all grab on to our coattails. We’ve grown the industry into the billions of dollars. We built it. We are bridal. And now with Billstein gone, we can get Winnie out of the way, and corner the entire thing! Bridal will be all ours!”
The only sound is one knuckle cracking. Then silence.
“Time eez up.”
Jeff is suddenly furious. “I will determine that,” he tells Nadia Milosovici. He faces Grace. “Gracie, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures … and honestly, we are so…”
“Nefer say sorry when terminating.”
The Men, emboldened by the voice of doom, step up to flank Jeff. Jeff meets Grace’s gaze and it is almost loverlike, a shared history passing between them. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s over.
He explains she must leave immediately with just a few of her personal belongings—company policy. Her boxes will be packed and shipped ASAP. Her computer has been disabled—nothing personal, company policy.
She stares at him. “Jeff, dear, I have all the magazine’s secrets right up here.” She taps her forehead.
“Sorry, sorry. My bad. Of course. Look, I feel terrible, Grace. Just awful.” His eyes moisten.
Nadia Milosovici makes a furious guttural sound.
“Severance package,” a scratchy voice prods Jeff.
“Right!” Relief written all over his face, Jeff assumes his corporate tone and tells her she will be called in a few days to discuss the package. A very generous one, commensurate with her years of service at the magazine and the high esteem in which the company holds her. She gathers from this there will be extras thrown in.
“Don’t call me, call my lawyer,” she says crisply. “Or rather, she’ll call you. But please, don’t call me, Jeff. You and I are kaput.”
She turns slowly as if to leave, then whirls back around, catching him start to relax. “Who is it?”
He gulps. Coughs. “We cast a wide net, naturally.”
“Naturally. And what did you catch?”
“Nut your beezness.” Nadia Milosovici looks smug.
But Grace knows. She can tell by the way Jeff stuffs his hands in his jeans pockets and rocks back on his cowboy boot heels. By the way his tense knuckles press through the denim.
“Now Gracie, look…”
Lucky. Her favorite, her protégé. Whose sneaky skinny behind Grace saved and who has apparently been drooling and slavering to sink her teeth into Grace’s neck.
She holds up her hand. “Lucky Quinn! Yes, indeed! A terrific girl. Best in bridal, as we say. I should know—I hired her and taught her everything.”
Over her specs, she watches him squirm. “Lucky’s who I would have picked to replace me, too. Smart move, guys.”
They’re all nodding as if she’s giving them a genuine compliment.
“Thank you, Grace,” Jeff simpers. “You were always a real trouper. Always had the magazine’s best interests at heart.”
She almost tells them all to get the hell out of her office, then remembers she’s in their office. Drawing herself up, she says, “Good luck, Jeff. Mike, Dave. You will so need it.”
As for Lucky, just let Grace find her now.
* * *
Grace is returned to the twenty-seventh floor by the Somalian. She tries to bend him toward Lucky’s office, but he hews to course. The entire vast area of cubicles is deserted, emptied out in the face of a tornado, Lucky spirited out of Grace’s wrathful path by Nadia Milosovici’s hired guns.
In her office Grace furiously digs glossy shopping bags out of a large file drawer—relics of fashion and beauty events, once overflowing with swag. She’d always kept the bags for something—and now, what do you know?—here she is, filling them up with shoes. She curses herself for the mountains she’s let accumulate. Everyone says a shoe pile is a clear sign that you’ve let yourself go at the office, the equivalent of socking on weight after marriage. She’d known it, and yet she’d let her guard down. She digs out the extra pairs of pantyhose that are crushed behind old files and a veritable drugstore of Advil, Klonopin, Tylenol, some old Xanax from years ago, not to mention lipsticks in pinkish tones pointing out the fact that she’s well past pink.
She wonders just how long Jeff and Lucky have been looking her right in the eye and lying. Jeff’s the usual type of charming sociopath who ends up being publisher. Believe these guys at your own risk, Grace had told Lucky on a regular basis. And Lucky! Don’t even go there, she tells herself.
No one knows better than Grace that the magazine’s numbers have been sliding. Chic Bride has been nipping at her heels for months now, as has Winnie Whitcomb Weddings. And all of this had been happening even before the economy crashed. The only thing that had saved her was that Princess Bride was doing even worse. The sad truth is that, though she’d racked her brains, she hadn’t known what to do.
Jeff bumped Grace off because he had to do something—he has to show the Men that he’s being proactive. Fresh blood! New ideas! Everyone’s peeing in their pants because of the economy—who’ll live, who’ll die—and large, important lambs are everywhere being sacrificed on the altar of profits. He gave her job to Lucky because she’s eager and hungry and she’ll cost bupkus, so they’ll see some instant savings. But in the long run? What will Lucky actually do?
You get what you pay for—that much she knows.
Everything that goes around comes around. People recite this as a consolation mantra whenever the axe falls. But Grace’s experience has taught her not that history is long and bends toward justice but that life in business is nasty, brutish, and short. Look at its embodiment: Nadia Milosovici.
She yanks out a drawer filled with her stash of reading glasses. Winged, sequined, rhinestoned, neon-hued—her trademark. She sweeps them into a bag.
In a whirlwind she pulls framed photos off the wall—dozens of her cats, Pookie and Pie, and her daughter Isla from the edenic time before Isla’s epiphany that Grace was a moron.
Grace stops to catch her breath, hands on her hips. She’d made the whole damn office into her boudoir. Right down to curtains on the windows! What had she been thinking?
It will take her all week to clear this stuff out. No. She picks up the shopping bags—six of them—and her large D & G tote bag and heads for the door. As she hands the Somalian her bags, she thinks, in a moment of lucidity, poor kid, traveled all the way from his miserable war-torn country to do this.
The elevator door opens and out walks Desmarie, the lobby security guard that Grace cheerfully greets every day of her working life. She’s seen Desmarie lord it over the Somalian before, and at the sight of his boss lady, he puts down the bags and scuttles off. Desmarie’s enormous hips roll inexorably toward her.
Following Desmarie is Nadia Milosovici’s underling from Guillotine Central, the Harpy—no one knows her real name—a walking nightmare with a receding hairline and an indefinably bad smell and prominent moles on her chin upon which a garden of curling coarse hairs flourishes.
They have been ordered to escort Grace from the building. Company policy, nothing personal. Twenty-five years on the job and she’ll be taken out like a criminal.
As the elevator begins its twenty-seven-floor descent, the modest corn muffin Grace had for breakfast threatens to pop back up. Worse, the Harpy’s odor wafts toward her, and Grace flashes to those times when she’s had to meet with the woman over tedious problems with health insurance that were never resolved in Grace’s favor.
She made Grace think of bad breath, ancient menstrual periods, Lipton’s tea bags. And always, a ghoulish delight taken in such things as preexisting conditions. Grace presses her hand over her mouth.
The Harpy announces that Nadia Milosovici has approved Grace’s use of her regular company car one last time. Grace starts humming along with “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which is pumping into the elevator. Desmarie stares intently at the red electronic numbers flowing by. When it stops at fourteen and then again at eight, she watches Grace nervously as if she might pull a Patty Hearst and blast her way to freedom.
“It’s all right, Desmarie,” Grace says, suddenly weary. “I’m the same person I was when I came to work this morning.”
But is she? She doesn’t feel like the same person.
They pass through the lobby, adorned with the same awful fake tree the building management hauls out every year. It is ancient, maybe two thousand years old or so. Grace had repeatedly begged them to throw it out and replace it with simple tasteful real wreaths. But no. At least she’ll never have to see or worry about the tree’s ugly plastic needles again, which at the moment seem to be actually menacing her.
As she’s perp-walked to the curb, the Harpy looks as if she’d like to dance a jig. In another burst of rage, Grace considers ripping the woman’s head off, then sighs deeply. This sort of thing—seeing the mighty fall—has got to be the high point of the woman’s life, and even now the wretch is freezing—forgot her coat in her excitement. And she’s probably never even been laid. Grace will have mercy.
“You take care of yourself,” says Desmarie, clearly relieved she can now roll back inside. “You’re a nice lady.”
“You, too. You’re just lovely. And thank you.”
And what exactly is Grace thanking her for?
Grace glares at the Harpy, who’s turning corpselike in the cold.
No. More. Company. Car. It’s awful, she won’t be able to cope. Again, panic grips her lower gut. She’s going to need the bathroom, pronto.
And Sandy Billstein, thrown out across town on the very same day! That incompetent, tasteless hag! Oh, God!
Don’t freak out, she commands herself. You’re too old to be a mean girl, although it’s hard to believe you’re ever too old for that. Getting canned has nothing to do with quality—Grace is good, Billstein is terrible. It’s about numbers. And now they’re both on the street. It’s rotten, miserable luck to be thrown out on the very same day because people will lump them together. Two long-time bridal editors, twins in misfortune, bite the dust before lunch on November 27, 2009.
As taxis swish by on the slushy street, she imagines getting used to those unprepossessing interiors again—the driver mug shots, the bulletproof partitions, the sticky floors. Well, but who does she think she is? She will take the subway, just the way everyone else in New York does, even the mayor, or so he says. Ride New York City public transit and get back in touch with her roots.
Except that her roots are planted firmly in her Upper West Side classic seven, a vast complex that seems to keep expanding, the way the universe does, according to a theory explained to her by a man, a friend of a friend, whose voice had been saturated with envy as she allowed him a tour. She’d dated him for about two minutes.
Grace isn’t among the super wealthy, but she’s very, very comfortable, as her mother had put it. Comfortable enough to attract a certain kind of man, who, it may be said delicately, suffers from financial embarrassments and views Grace as a crutch. Who needs this? Instead of marriage, Grace has devoted herself to weddings. Meeting women as they emerge from the dark tunnel of singledom and guiding them down the rose-petal-covered aisle into doubledom has given her so much joy.
Standing in the cold, waiting for her car, she can’t bear it, just can’t. But there it is: Lucky! The protégé who is closer to her than her own daughter, the two of them a team, pulling issue after issue of the magazine out of a hat, out of their asses. She no longer has to watch her language.
On her toes she cranes her neck, looking up Seventh Avenue for the black town car. But of course traffic is backed up for blocks. She thinks of Pookie and Pie, waiting for her at home, and sniffles. They don’t care if she’s been replaced; they will love her anyway.
So all you can count on in life are your cats?
They will love her as long as Isabel brings them their lemongrass-roasted quail from Zabar’s. At the moment, though, it isn’t even clear to Grace if she should employ a housekeeper now that she isn’t working. But of course that’s ridiculous. This is no time for Grace to be alone.
She squeezes her eyes tightly shut. At work, from the moment she walks in to the moment she leaves, she’s enveloped in a tsunami of activity—problems to be solved, situations to be mastered, people to boss. She loves her magazine in a way that Jeff and the Men can never know. Her love is like a secret, all-consuming passion.
A taxi approaches, the driver obviously thinking he’s got a fare—an older, no, an attractive woman of a certain age, well dressed, expensive shopping bags slung over her arms—but as she shoos him impatiently away he takes off with a vengeance and sprays her with icy slush. A chunk hits her under the chin and leaks down beneath her scarf, under her cashmere sweater and into her cleavage. Christ.
Tears flood her eyes and freeze on her face. Her life has flown by, just the way she’d always heard older people so irritatingly say. Now she feels her heart shattering like old ice.
She spots her town car and waves wildly; it inches up to the curb, the slush parting like dirty ruffles. Her lovely driver, Abdul, rushes around to help with the bags, and she tries to muffle a sob but can’t.
“Abdul,” she weeps, releasing the bags. “I’ve been”—she starts to say replaced—and starts sobbing in earnest. “I’ve been fired.”
Abdul’s face crumples, and he puts his arms around her. They stand there as the yellow taxis slosh by.
The Big Day, Four P.M.
First things first. Lucky must write to Grace before another moment goes by. She takes out of her desk drawer the monogrammed Mrs. John L. Strong stationery that Grace gave her for her birthday. The only stationery Grace ever uses. And then she pulls over a piece of scrap paper.
“Dear Grace: I am so sorry.… This is so awful … It isn’t that I don’t adore and respect you, it’s simply that Jeff offered me the job … they had to do something…” She scratches it all out. “Dear Grace: You are my role model and my mentor. You are a great magazine lady and a great woman. I’m not in your league AT ALL.”
She knows Grace so well, she can just imagine the conversation:
“How dare you, Lucky!”
“Grace, I can’t tell you how awful I feel…”
“How awful you feel! You lied to my face for a month and you took my job!”
“I do feel awful—it’s just that I want the job so much, more than I’ve ever wanted anything. I know you understand, Grace. This is the truth. I love you, but I want your job, too! I feel awful … awful.”
“So now you want me to feel sorry for you because you feel bad that you took my job? Oh, please!”
* * *
She can’t write to Grace now. It’s too complicated. She can justify what she did if she thinks about her goals—but she can’t if she thinks about their friendship. She puts her pen down. This is not the moment for an emotional firestorm. Jeff is going to call her to the conference room at any moment, and she needs to be on top of her game, not sitting here with tears streaking her makeup.
She holds her round mirror up and away and pats her cheek with a tissue. At least her hair looks good; long, fine, and straight—the ends were trimmed yesterday. And the length—just touching the clavicle—suits her longish face. The bangs work, too.
She likes her straight nose, almost too sharp but not quite, and her eyes’ subtle slant, which she extends just a little with liner. But she has a pale complexion, and Grace used to use her thumb to rub blush on Lucky’s cheeks. “Heavens, my girl, you just don’t pop without it!” she’d exclaimed, dabbing till she got it right. Now Lucky rubs blush in as Grace had taught her to. It gives her a better-defined look.
This is how other people see me, she thinks. Not beautiful—which, in this business, could be considered a black mark—but with other advantages: tall, a good five foot seven, and of course, thin. As Grace had explained, beauty is less the point than good hair, an elongated bone structure, and perfect posture. “You’re a bundle of great raw material,” she’d told Lucky.
Lucky smiles. Her lips shine and sting from a plumping lip gloss. But she does hate her teeth: a tiny chip in one front tooth, the other set back a little too far. She needs to get veneers, so she can smile without self-consciousness.
You can afford never to be self-conscious again, she tells herself. Anything that makes you uncomfortable, you can change.
Another good thing, although it might not seem good, is Lucky’s tendency to recede, to not take the spotlight. It gives her the advantage of appearing calm: critically important in a high-estrogen environment. This could, Grace had said, lend her a useful bit of charisma.
Charisma is one of Grace’s favorite words, as is presidential: having or being these things are necessary boss-style qualities. Presidential had made Lucky laugh, with its image of tall, broad-chested Ronald Reagan in a custom-tailored navy blue suit. But she’d understood. It meant you were above the fray, in charge and authoritative—a quality Grace herself comes by naturally.
Grace once said that Lucky had a great glare, and now Lucky checks it in the mirror. When she really focuses her eyes, they intensify and her cheekbones rise. Grace is right.
She’s still thinking of Grace in the present tense.
Sitting at her desk, Lucky listens to the staff crowd down the corridor to the conference room for Jeff’s announcement. There’s Felice, Sara, and Daphne—the senior editors—followed by Vicki, Morgan, and Courtney and a passel of interns. There’s Morgan’s high-pitched giggle, Courtney’s piercing “wait up!”, and Vicki’s breathy questioning tone—everything she says ends in a question mark. And yet, Lucky knows, Vicki is the brains of the bunch.
A heavy silence settles outside her door, and Lucky becomes aware of Grace’s empty office on the other side of her north-facing wall. It seems to be yawning right in her face. After hiring Lucky, Grace had almost immediately moved her out of her cubicle into the ultra-desirable space right next door. Now Lucky uneasily imagines the framed photos of Grace’s cats and her daughter, the closet filled with shoes, the oceanic files.
The staff usually notices everything, and they’ve undoubtedly been buzzing since this morning, when they were shepherded out to the street on a fake fire drill, allowing time for Grace to be hastily bundled out of the building. Grace’s absence from the office for the rest of the day had been as conspicuous as her presence on a normal day. You could never escape Grace, present or absent. Still, Jeff’s announcement will come as a real stunner. Grace Ralston has been editor in chief of Your Weddingfrom its founding twenty-five years ago. It’s known as the classic wedding magazine, serenely immune to the rest of the bridal pack on the newsstand in advertising and circulation. The bridal mothership. At least until the last few years, when their competitors threatened to choke them. She imagines a pond suffocating in its own lily pads.
Beautiful but deadly.
Lucky switches on her fluorescent light. Every day, as New York City sets its trajectory for winter, the sun sets earlier. In late December it’ll be pitch black by this time in the afternoon. The darkness beyond her window sets a striking contrast with the summery “wedding story” layout before her, about a couple who’d exchanged vows on a sylvan North Carolina mountaintop. The opening shot shows the bride and groom kissing on a wooden ramp leading over a pristine pond to a tiny rustic boathouse. Their merged reflection shimmers in the mirrorlike water.
Wedding stories are central to the magazine—real-life dramas of dreams come true. As the wedding writer, Lucky had gathered brides’ stories from all over the country, choosing the most beautiful and inspiring, interviewing the bride and arranging the wedding photos with the text into a complete and perfect whole. Wedding writers face particular challenges: envy being one of them, especially if the writer happens to be single as Lucky is, cynicism being another. Who are all these smug people, thinking life is just one great big happily ever after? Does anyone truly believe in fairy tales anymore?
Yes. Weddings insist on being fairy-tale moments, when the princess’s future shimmers before her.
“Masochist!” Grace would say, when Lucky admitted she liked writing the stories.
“Come on, Grace, what about you? You love wedding stories.”
Grace would laugh. “I do! The best ones give me a good cry. A refreshing catharsis. Weddings assure us that all’s right with the world.”
Lucky does like writing the wedding stories, but there’s something that she doesn’t admit to anyone. Often, it hurts. Other people’s happiness as daily fare doesn’t go down easily when you aren’t happy yourself, when your own love life has been a puzzling series of blunders. Other people seem to be able to attend a work conference or a relative’s wedding or take the red-eye from Los Angeles, and discover the love of their life in the seat next to them. Or high-school sweethearts unexpectedly reconnect. Worlds shift. Cosmic strings are pulled. This always stuns her. In the wedding writer’s world, the universe makes sense.
Lucky’s personal world doesn’t. When it comes to love, her childhood nickname has long since taken on a painful irony. If it wasn’t for bad luck, Grace would chuckle, Lucky’d have no luck at all. “But don’t worry,” she’d add. “I’m betting your fortune lies in work.” And weddings have become Lucky’s happily ever after, her path toward future happiness. But at the helm of Your Wedding, she’ll be more prime minister than princess.
The one time she came close to marrying, everything had fallen to pieces with lightning speed. After that she’d gone back to Russell, the very married man whom she’d see when he swept into town on business and treated her to a weekend in his hotel suite. Flowers, breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bed. Love notes. Sex that left her in a glow of well-being for days. The miracle of intermittent reinforcement was that the less often she saw him, the more exciting and novel the sex got.
But ever since she’d started working at Your Wedding, Russell had either stopped coming to New York or he’d found someone else. Grace is the only one she’d ever told about Russell. “Does he wear his wedding ring to bed with you?” she’d asked coldly.
He’d always quickly slipped it off. Lucky doesn’t care; she still misses him.
* * *
But wait. Her spirits lift as she realizes she can make Vicki the new wedding writer. Vicki, the quickest study of all the assistants, was always well organized and uncomplaining. Of course, as one of the two fashion assistants, Vicki “belongs” to Sara, but in Lucky’s lean regime, two will be one too many. She’ll pluck Vicki out of the fashion closet and shine a spotlight on her. Excellent!
How incredible to have power! Before, it had all been Grace—with Lucky as sounding board, devil’s advocate, adviser, theatrical prop, and a thousand other things. Sometimes Grace would keep her in her office for hours, going over layouts, gossiping, speculating, with Lucky itching to get back to the work piling up on her desk. If Grace wasn’t hungry, Lucky didn’t eat; if Grace didn’t have to pee, Lucky had to wait. She belonged to Grace.
And even though Lucky had seen that Grace couldn’t stop Your Wedding’s decline, she couldn’t say anything. Grace had hired her to help bring newsstand sales back up, but then she hadn’t really wanted to change anything.
Now it’s Lucky’s ball game. After Jeff’s announcement, she will invite the senior editors—Sara, Felice, and Daphne—to join her at the front of the room to create a positive, forward-looking image. Someone will shoot photos, and she’ll use one in her editor’s column in her first issue.
In the very near future, there’ll be another change. She’ll be closing the door on the era of Daphne Barnette as Wedding Registry editor. Grace had adored Daphne, considering her an amusing mad hatter. She’d laughed till tears ran down her face the day that PETA waited outside to throw a bucket of red paint over Daphne’s luxurious J. Mendel fur.
Lucky doesn’t find her so amusing. She turns off advertisers by imperiously criticizing their new fine china lines. She feuds with photographers because only she knows how to arrange her tabletops to exquisite perfection. They always got it wrong.
Before hiring Lucky, Grace had arranged for her to meet with Daphne because she enjoyed Daphne’s pronouncements on prospective editors’ suitability or lack thereof. Lucky will not forget, ever, when Grace escorted her to Daphne’s office, decorated in full gilt and chintz, and left her there alone with this lunatic.
“I’ll call you Leigh,” Daphne had said. “Lucky is so common.” Then she’d proceeded to quiz Lucky on ballet and opera, quickly discovering she didn’t own a single subscription. Nor had she visited even one art museum since she’d been in college. And she hadn’t gone to the right college. (And Lucky hadn’t even graduated from that not-right college—but no one will ever know that except for Grace.) Daphne’s verdict: thumbs down. Grace thought it was hilarious, but Lucky’s face had burned; she’d felt as if both of them were mocking her.
Daphne’s assistant, Morgan Lowry, is filled with fresh, down-to-earth ideas. She’s about to get a major promotion.
Lucky walks over to her window, allowing herself a TV moment: thin new editor in chief at the top of her game, with great haircut, surveys Manhattan at night. As Grace would say, what’s not to love about this?
The Big Day, Fifteen Minutes Later
Lucky checks her hair and makeup in the wall mirror and unbuttons her jacket. What she wears has never much mattered. She was the woman behind the woman, as Grace had said, writing everything, making everything fit on the page and sprinkling it with stardust.
Lucky starts down the hall, rebuttoning her jacket, like a lawyer about to sum up to the jury, before sliding open the door and standing there as all eyes alight upon her. The room is hushed.
“Come in, Lucky.” Jeff gestures her toward the back of the room. Jeff is having a ball, drawing it all out deliciously, basking in the girls’ gaze. What a job the guy has, she thinks. Grace used to call him the Internist—the guy with a degree in Internology, or the cultivation and harvest of corn silk and fresh flesh.
“Lucky, I’ve just announced that Grace Ralston has left Your Wedding to pursue other opportunities.”
A sigh ripples through the room, from the senior editors seated closer to Jeff at the long oval table to the junior editors and designers crowded at the end and against the wall or on the windowsills. Lucky notices Sara, leatherbound notebook open in front of her, pen frozen in midair.
Felice, the art director, is watching Jeff curiously. Wondering whom she’ll be reporting to, who will be the next to try to stifle her creativity. Daphne is in a huff, arms crossed, her fur arranged on her shoulders as if she’s about to walk out on a bad performance.
“And now, I am pleased, no, delighted”—Jeff pauses till every eye fastens upon him—“to announce that Lucky Quinn will be stepping up to the plate to lead our magazine to its new happily ever after! Lucky girl, come up here.”
Daphne laughs her deep, rich laugh.
From everyone else, there’s a strange sound, as if they’ve collectively had the wind knocked out of them; as Lucky makes her way toward Jeff, she feels as though cotton is stuffed in her ears. She puts her hand on the back of someone’s chair for balance. Everyone seems to be tipping away from her, head over heels, and she almost smiles at the sight of them, mouths open in cartoonish Os. She wonders if they can hear her breathing, loudly keeping time with her heart.
“Get out!” Morgan is the first to gain her voice.
Vicki breathes, “Oh my God?”
They whoop and start crowding closer as if they want to touch her. She almost cringes.
“Darling,” calls Felice, “congratulations.” Of course she is smiling at Lucky; maybe she is even happy for her. Felice tries to stay out of office politics, she always says, so she can get her work done on time.
“Lucky, here comes your cake!” Felice says. “Now you’re officially wedded to the magazine!”
An intern wheels in a wedding cake a designer had made for a shoot the day before—five tiers of Styrofoam covered in rolled chocolate fondant and decorated with sugar-paste blooms and garlands. This time the cake designer, a favorite of theirs, had made a real sheet cake for the staff, and Morgan starts slicing it with a sterling cake knife from the Registry closet, passing minuscule slivers around on paper plates.
“Be sure to wash that cake knife and put it back in the closet, right where you found it,” Daphne hisses.
As Lucky takes her cake, she feels many eyes on her. She puts the plate down. Eating in front of them would be like feasting beneath the ravenous gaze of starving children.
Grace had always said that the editor in chief is the north star, the steadily burning point of reference, for a staff who needs her guidance, for all the women getting married, and for the advertisers who need her to sell issues so they make money so they can support the magazine—and around and around it goes. A whole industry of bridal fashion designers, jewelry makers, shoe designers, wedding planners, floral designers, cake bakers and stationers—all are counting on her.
Lucky feels a jolt of fear.
Every fresh, bright little face looking toward her bears a hopeful, pleading look. They want her. They need her.
Everyone here would crawl to win her favor. And yet they’d turn on her the instant they sensed a change in the prevailing wind. But not right now; now is her triumph.
She shakes off the fear and bites into her cake. The chocolate frosting is smooth and waxy; fondant really is awful, as Grace always said. She puts the paper plate down and looks around to bring the senior team, Sara and Felice and Daphne, up to the front of the room. Then she realizes that Daphne is hustling Morgan out the door to make sure the cake knife gets back to the right shelf, and worse, Sara has left—without saying a word.
The Big Day, Five P.M.
Everyone scatters to their cubes; Lucky can see Vicki back at her computer, trying to work while Courtney declaims in ringing tones about the promotion she just knows she deserves. What she really wants is the title change. Money is not an issue, as Greg is doing fine at Goldman Sachs. Rising up the fashion ladder is the issue. She’s sick of being a fashion assistant, and Sara never lets her get a leg up. All Courtney does is lug around gowns.
The other day Lucky heard Courtney announce that her real game plan is to get out of bridal ASAP. She said she had lots of resumes out there. Bridal was … so weird, she’d opined. White dresses? Veils? Tiaras? It wasn’t the way to go if you wanted a real fashion career. Bridal isn’t fabulous. Bridal isn’t even fashion.
Lucky shakes her head. If Courtney doesn’t love bridal, she should leave. You have to be dedicated, like Vicki. Lucky knows Vicki is almost thirty, the oldest of the junior editors, and that now is her time to move ahead of the pack.
“Vee, I don’t feel like doing any more work,” Courtney complains.
“We can’t be expected to,” says Morgan.
Lucky suddenly feels very loving toward them all. She is aware of their vulnerability; it seems to her that they live strictly in the moment. She herself had never been that heedless—she couldn’t afford to blur her focus on work. Morgan, with her babyish cheeks and little pouty lips, is involved with a man in his forties, who is divorced, with two teenage kids. Vicki and Morgan share the Toxic Dump, an apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where, according to Morgan, Vicki recently spent her entire weekend watching the twenty-four-hour-a-day wedding channel. “That’s too sad,” Morgan had said. “Vee’d better meet someone soon.”
“Drinks at Black Door,” Morgan says now. “Let’s go, ladies.”
* * *
Black Door is their watering hole on Twenty-sixth Street. Lucky and Felice and Sara had stopped off with them there just once. That was the night Lucky had known that, at the age of thirty-three, she’d outgrown it all. But even more, she’d known it had never meant much to her anyway.
She smiles ruefully remembering that night—an endless bar backed by a smoky mirror, pocked stucco walls, flickering lights in sconces, no tables or chairs, only an expanse of bare black floor populated by women and men packed in like sticks of gum. She’d caught Vicki’s eye and motioned that they were leaving. Vicki waved and disappeared into the crowd.
A misty rain was falling, and the pavement was wet. “Phew,” Lucky said. “Not for me anymore.”
“Hasn’t been for me for years,” Felice, the married woman, mother of a teenage son, pointed out. “Or for Sara, either. Lucky, why aren’t you seeing anyone? Or are you but you’re not telling us?”
Lucky shook her head. “No, I’m not.” Felice’s blunt questioning made her want to pull inside herself.
“Mystery woman,” Felice said, losing interest.
Sara, whose age was the secret that dared not breathe its name, said, “I have to go. I had to wait for my train for forty-five minutes yesterday. It’s going to rain tomorrow, too.”
The rain, Sara’s train, it was all depressing.
Tonight, Lucky can vividly imagine what they—Courtney, Morgan, and Vicki—experience as they head out: the feast of the big city, all for them, like a table of desserts done by a fabulous event planner. All they have to do is show up, pick at the offerings, compete and dish about each other. At work they stay till the middle of the night to close an issue, haul wedding dresses down the street when a messenger doesn’t show up, race around to Bridal Market out of breath and live on champagne and cookies. Looking for love, finding it, losing it, having sex with the wrong people, but still filled with hope. Hope is nice, but like luck, you can’t count on it.
A Month Earlier, Mid-October
“How ’bout some lunch?” Jeff had appeared in her office door. She’d gotten a buzz of excitement right away, especially when he’d winked and put a finger to his lips.
Together they had walked down Seventh Avenue, to the Thai place where everyone went when they wanted a meal that wasn’t a takeout mixed-green salad from Fresh, balsamic dressing on the side, or a costly package of sushi from Whole Paycheck.
Over their lacquer bento boxes, Jeff had chitchatted about how much he and the Men liked Lucky’s contributions to the magazine. Waving his chopsticks and asking for an extra bowl of rice, he enthused about her wedding stories.
“You’ve got it down, girl,” he said. “Every page makes a splash. What was that one you wrote about the farm with the cornfield? Man, that one really got me. Both people were divorced, and they got together somehow or other, I forget … what a tearjerker, dude!”
The bride had decided never to remarry after her divorce—she’d accepted the role of maiden aunt to her friends’ children—but then she met the groom-to-be at a Central Park concert and that, as they say, was that. Lucky smiled at Jeff’s enthusiasm: He’d never remember the details of a wedding story. Bridal was a no-man’s land—love to the nth degree of romance, surrounded by floral arrangements and vases and coordinating linens—unless a man happened to be gay. Which Jeff was decidedly not. He’d never grasp the import of party favors tied up with furry pom-poms and wrought-iron chandeliers with tea light votives cunningly suspended on sleek satin ribbons.
Of course, neither love nor décor were really her territory, either. But Lucky had made weddings her territory; she’d come to the magazine as a blank slate, open to ideas and direction. That’s what you have to do when you drop out of college because you’re broke. The day she’d gone through all her pockets looking for change, and come up with about three dollars, was the day she’d “graduated.”
A blush of happiness rose up her neck and she was glad for the restaurant’s dim lighting. The wedding story he was referring to was beautiful: it had been held on a Connecticut property that was once a farm that had now been made to look farmlike so that it could be rented out to brides who dreamed of a “farm” wedding. The bride had worn Vera Wang and carried a bouquet of bright green sweet potato vine, silvery dusty miller, and calla lilies, for shots in a lush green cornfield. Lucky had added whimsy to the story, making the blond bride into a corn maiden who happens upon her prince sleeping an enchanted sleep among silken tassels. She kisses him, marries him, and they live happily ever after.
Lucky warily put down her chopsticks as Jeff started talking numbers. Newsstand circulation was terrible. Over the last few years competitors like Chic and Princessand Winnie Whitcomb had worn away at the audience and at the advertisers. Not to mention the impact of the Internet. “Double whammy,” he had said grimly. “It could put us all out of business.”
And now the economy, he added. Triple whammy.
He balanced his chopsticks carefully on his plate, then used one to push the soy sauce bottle around in a circle. Watching, she felt queasy; the food had been too filling for lunch. Usually she just had a salad. Where was Jeff going with all this? An image of Grace flashed in her mind.
Of course Lucky knew. She just couldn’t believe it. With her chopstick she poked a hole in the little beggar’s purse, a dumpling cunningly tied with a bit of ribbonlike pink dough, all that was left in the bento box except for a few shreds of lettuce and a slice of pale tomato.
Jeff was giving her a careful look.
“You and Grace are very close.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes.” She waited for him to say more, still in almost dizzying disbelief.
“From this moment on, you’re gonna have to be a real hard-ass. Can ya do it?” He grinned briefly.
“Sure.” She shrugged; she wasn’t going to look weak now.
“Good girl. Some of our pages don’t look fresh. Are you with me?”
She nodded carefully. I’m right with you.
“There was a positive effect when you came onboard. It was noticed. We looked and sounded fresher. But Grace is set in her ways. Felice is itching to do a redesign, but Grace drags her feet. Big advertisers have noticed, and I guarantee we’re gonna lose ’em. Sara, well, she’s a sweetheart, and I honestly think she’s a miracle worker, but she needs leadership. We’ll bring her along with the new regime. She needs fresh inspiration.”
“And Daphne, well…”
Lucky had flushed, thinking about Daphne. Everything Jeff was saying was exactly what she’d been feeling.
Jeff smiled and moved the salt and pepper shakers like chess pieces. “Our pages could be from the eighties or the fifties, for God’s sake.”
Lucky decided to play it safe, show off her wisdom about the bridal category. “Well, that’s what bridal is about on some level. And that’s what makes Grace so amazing. She so gets bridal.” She wanted Jeff to see her as above being a traitor, not someone who would sell out her boss at the first opportunity.
“But you catch my drift.” His tone was intimate.
Calm. Careful. Not too eager. “Yes. We’ve got the timeless angle, but we need a modern angle, too.”
Distancing herself from Grace was now in order.
“Yes!” Jeff said. “We’re on the same page!”
How often had she and Grace made snarky remarks about Jeff, the proverbial bull in the bridal shop, and his testosterone-fueled ideas to promote the magazine.
As if taking a cue from her, he said, “I’ve made my mistakes, too.” He grinned. “Grace set me right. I owe her a great deal.”
It flustered her when he grinned like that. It made it difficult not to imagine what it would be like to be in bed with him. She remembered how, when he’d started at YWjust a year ago, after a stint at a golf magazine, he’d thrown a huge party at the Waldorf for all the dress manufacturers who advertised and the ones who didn’t but whom he was tracking like a coyote. On a round, elevated platform in the middle of the chandeliered room cavorted ten dancers dressed in tiny tulle dresses with ruffled satin underpants peeking from beneath, corset-style laced-up bodices, and white patent leather platform go-go boots. White fishnet stockings—the finishing touch.
Grace, Lucky, Felice, and Sara had walked in and stood there with their jaws hanging open. The designer Augusta had wafted over. She’d just come in to the magazine, buying three full pages at the front of the book. “Oh, and so this is the work of your new publisher, ladies?” Her voice had been frosty.
“Guilty only of too much testosterone,” Grace had said calmly. Jeff had joined them. “This wasn’t exactly right, was it?” He’d seemed genuinely abashed. “God, I knew it. What a jackass!”
“We all owe Grace everything,” Lucky told Jeff at the restaurant. “But fashion needs to be freshened up. The tone of the magazine is too fussy. A lot of the layouts are dull. We could use a redesign, Jeff. My main thought is that we should be about shopping.”
She continued, “Even in this economy, brides still shop. Even if no one else does, brides do! We have to help them find the best deals and help them have beautiful weddings.”
“I’m loving what I’m hearing.”
“I have lots of ideas for upgrading and redesigning the Web site in line with the shopping concept. The Web site has to give brides added value.”
“We have to get right on this. There’s a dozen new bridal Web sites a day.”
Lucky shook her head tolerantly. “The Internet’s just not Grace’s thing. She thinks it’s destroying all the good taste in the world.”
“Great old gal,” Jeff said. “Cracks me up sometimes.”
The waiter came by with the check. While Jeff lay down his Amex card, Lucky watched the departure of a party of gay men in leather jackets. The restaurant became quiet. She felt as if she were on a stage, in the hush before the raising of the velvet curtains.
“Lucky, I’m going to be blunt. Grace is out of ideas. You, more than anyone, know it. What I admire about you is that you’re not only talented but hungry.”
Hungry. Yes, she was. Famished.
She was flooded with warmth by Jeff’s intuition. Flattery would get him everywhere. She’d always been ashamed of her need for approval. Validation—that was how her therapist Maxine put it, a dry clinical word for such an anguishing need. Lucky felt she lived for the seal of approval, the stamp on her forehead that said “Good girl! She’s the best! The smartest, the prettiest, the most creative … and on and on.” It was like basking her face in sunshine.
And then as she sat, almost in a trance of well-being, Jeff said, “I want to confess something to you. When Mike and Dave and I started talking about making a change, you weren’t the first person we thought of.” He winked. “Now don’t get insulted.”
“I’m not,” she said coolly. But she was.
“We immediately thought of Sara. She’s a star in the business, everyone knows she discovered Vera Wang, and the advertisers worship her. There isn’t one down-market Seventh Avenue manufacturer or one high-end wedding couture designer that doesn’t adore her.” He paused. “And she gets in on budget, and you-know-wholoooves that.”
Lucky smiled wanly.
“But does that make her the best choice for editor in chief of Your Wedding? That’s what we’re talking about here, Lucky. The answer is no. Mike Mann knew you were the One. Sara’s turf is fashion—while yours is the big picture, the whole enchilada. I can spot talent. Your light’s been hidden beneath Grace’s, er, bushel. I want your light to shine, Lucky! Now, Grace was accustomed to working with a limitless budget. I think you can be clever. Less is more. Think where you can cut, who you can cut. Who gives added value, who doesn’t? Your Wedding is your baby. And baby needs a bit of discipline.”
He took a sip of his water, and sent her a sly grin.
Jeff had no problem listening to the sound of his own voice. As she sat quietly, he went on: “You’ll hit the ground running. I admire how you landed here without bridal experience and courted Grace and made it all work. You’re a go-getter, Lucky. I can relate. I was the same way myself. The Men kicked Farley out, brought me in, and the rest is history. Farley was dead wood and I was hungry.”
Lucky knew from Grace that Jon Farley, the former publisher, had been hemorrhaging professionally for months. The former king of bridal was disappearing from the office for days at a time, returning with tales of major surgeries; his chest reportedly looked like Edward Scissorhands had gotten to him. He’d routinely threatened suicide from his office windows and had frequently been intercepted just as he stepped out on the ledge. At other times he was quite blithe, spending hours practicing his golf swing in the corridor outside his office.
The Men had let him go, but he kept showing up for work until they changed the code on the door and set up an alert downstairs. Desmarie had instructions to call the cops every time Jon Farley appeared.
Jeff looked at his watch. “My guess is, we’ll be seeing results by your third, maybe your fourth issue.”
Her third or fourth issue. That would bring her to late summer.
* * *
She can remember every detail of that day, being handed the job and having the bar set for her—way, way high. She recalls her half-full water glass with her lipstick smudge on the rim, the low-sodium soy sauce bottle that Jeff had finally overturned, even Jeff’s seemingly unconscious foray into her bento box for one of her dumplings.
Finally he’d stopped talking and turned to her. “Aw, come on, give me a big, slammin’ ‘I do’!”
They’d both laughed. “I do,” she said. “Yes, I do!”
He winked. “From this day forward…”
“For richer and for poorer.”
“Whoa, there—for richer, baby.”
“You got it.”
She laughed, with just the slightest edge of fear in the top register.
* * *
She should have agreed to nothing and called her lawyer right away to start negotiations.
But she didn’t have a lawyer.
Well, she should have thanked Jeff nicely and said she’d get back to him and then gone out and found a lawyer and come back with a contract that spelled out every comma of the deal: a huge raise, a bonus for raising newsstand numbers, a clause ensuring editorial autonomy from him and the Men. However, she’d been too busy being grateful. Too busy having her Cinderella moment.
She’d known that Jeff and the Men would lowball her—and she knew enough to know they were saving money by hiring her instead of doing a search for someone with a big name and big salary requirements. If she’d played hardball and said maybe instead of “yes oh please thank you,” then she’d have been in a better position to throw that ball back in their court and get several thousand more dollars.
But does she care? Not really. She’d have done it for free.
* * *
She’s startled by a knock on her door—she’d thought everyone had left for the night. But Felice walks in, throws herself into a cane chair at the table. She surveys Lucky from across the room the way she might eye a gown she doesn’t like that Sara wants her to shoot anyway.
“I’m trying to absorb this,” she says bluntly.
“It’s all good for you.”
Felice shrugs. “I would have liked a heads-up from you, my friend.”
Lucky stiffens. She doesn’t have to answer to Felice.
Felice watches her for a moment. “Well, I see how things will go.”
Lucky is suddenly angry. “Hey, what about congratulations? What’s wrong with you, Felice?”
“I said it, remember? Two hours ago, at the meeting?”
Then Felice jumps up. She opens her arms wide and they meet in the middle of the room. For a moment they hold each other tightly, and Lucky smells Felice’s slightly cinnamony scent.
“You’ll be wonderful,” Felice murmurs. “The magazine needs you, and I envy you. I’m sorry—my green-eyed monster raises his ugly head again.”
“Don’t envy me. It’ll probably be hell.” She doesn’t mean that, and Felice knows she doesn’t.
“Hey, enjoy it while it lasts. Let’s go home early tonight. For once in our lives. Okay, boss lady?”
“Don’t say that, Felice!” She doesn’t feel playful right now, especially if there might be a little dig in it.
“Take it easy! Ms. Irritability.”
She smiles. “I’m sorry.”
“Keep smiling, Lucky. You’ll dazzle everyone.”
Lucky looks at herself in her desk mirror. Smile. Dazzle. Pop. Her front teeth won’t do at all. Note to self: Call dentist.
She gets her coat and gazes around her office, turns out the light and shuts the door, peels the tag—LUCKY QUINN, WEDDING WRITER—off the nameplate.
The Big Day, Three P.M.
Grace drops her shopping bags in the vestibule and closes her apartment door behind her. Abdul hadn’t been able to park in front of the building to help carry her bags into the lobby. The cops were ticketing, and she’d shooed him off. Dear Abdul, he’d been so upset.
And here she is, jobless, in the dead middle of the afternoon. Even when she’s sick as a dog, Grace never stays home. No, she belongs at the office, no matter what. At home, one P.M. is worse than three, because it is impossible to imagine the end of the afternoon. But three is pretty damn bad. In an hour it will be four, which is a bit better because the afternoon starts losing its hard edge as it slides toward the cocktail hour.
The hell with it. Cocktails will now commence. She heads for the kitchen, seeing that Isabel has polished it up with rags and magic potions, leaving all the white counters and blond wood sparkling clean. Grace’s beloved old farmhouse dining table, hauled back from an antiquing junket in upstate New York, is set with a sturdy wooden bowl of beautiful green apples with blushing pink cheeks and a neat plate of Carr’s crackers and a wedge of Brie, left out so that it will have the consistency Grace likes by the time she gets home at seven or eight to enjoy with her usual glass of crisp pinot gris. Now, because it’s only three, the Brie is not nearly ready. And the wine won’t be chilled, either.
These things make her want to weep—not because she’s so spoiled that everything has to be just so, but because she imagines Isabel innocently keeping to Grace’s routine, never knowing, as Grace hadn’t, either, that life as they knew it had ended. Oh, the bliss of six hours ago!
She checks the wine; sure enough, the bottle is barely cooled. She puts it in the freezer, thinking she’ll give it ten minutes to flash-chill. Two minutes later, she takes it back out, saws off a piece of Brie and sticks it on a cracker. Of course it’s cold and gummy, while the wine is nauseatingly warm.
Pookie and Pie come winding into the kitchen, yawning, surprised to see her. “And I’m surprised to be here,” she says a bit defensively as Pie gives her his remorseless stare. She takes her glasses from the top of her head and peers back.
“Mommy got the axe today,” she explains.
Sweet little tortoiseshell Pookie tilts her head and looks at Grace searchingly with her perfectly round translucent green eyes. Grace has lately become absolutely convinced that Pookie knows stuff. But no one, particularly not her daughter Isla the veterinarian, believes her. Isla thinks that with age, Grace is becoming one of those women who talks to her cats.
Bullshit. She’s merely fifty-one. Fifty-two, actually. Fifty-threeish, to be perfectly honest, till her next birthday, when she turns, oh God, fifty-six. At fifty, the staff gave her a party called “50 Reasons Why We Love Grace” that included things like the way she used a brown magic marker to indicate to some unfortunate intern the exact hue that she required of her morning coffee. Was it really so much to ask to have your coffee made the right way?
It had been a surprise party. She’d been surprised, all right; she’d suspected Sara, the birthday queen, of course, but she and Sara had never told each other their birthdays or, God forbid, their ages. She imagined Sara wangling it out of the HR Harpy with some free dandruff shampoo from the beauty closet. She pictured Sara’s satisfaction and the Harpy’s glee.
This had happened before she hired Lucky—who would have stamped out the whole smirky idea.
As if fifty were old! Or fifty-three! It’s absurd. Only ten years ago she was forty! Forty-three. Forty-five. A babe in the woods. And still more of a babe, to this day, than half of the girls on staff who have nothing but their youth and their leg-stalks to recommend them. They’d all find out soon enough that it takes a whole hell of a lot more than impossibly long legs to get you over in this world!
Forget it—it is the legs. Grace has a secret: she can’t stand the young girls. Interns, junior editors—their oblivious prettiness, accompanied by utterly blithe cluelessness as to the decline of the flesh that awaits them, just as it had awaited Grace.
Had she ever been that gorgeous? That unknowing?
Even when she was young, she didn’t have the legs; hers were shapely but too short, though it hadn’t seemed to matter. As the years passed everyone kept telling her how young she looked, and she’d bought eagerly into what she now sees was shameless flattery. Her thick, curly hair stayed its same warm brunette, and discreet doses of filler helped her lips and cheeks. Obviously fooling no one but herself, she’d stayed in a young woman’s business way too long. She should have left, butwhen? And done what? It had never been the right moment. And the years had passed.
Pie hops onto the table and goes after the cheese, which Grace had removed from its protective anti-Pie cellophane. Pie hates the way cellophane sticks to his claws, so he never gets near it. Grace quickly rewraps the cheese, and Pie crouches on the table and watches it. He’ll sit all night if he has to.
Grace is a cheese nut. There’s nothing she likes better than a real working woman’s dinner of a Tomme de Savoie or a Spanish Manchego, with pitted kalamata olives and a hunk of sourdough, maybe some grape leaves or a mesclun salad. She requires nothing more.
The cheese stands alone, Grace thinks, suddenly tearful again. The big cheese stands alone. Ha.
Evening of the Big Day, Seven P.M.
At home Lucky plays her phone messages. She imagines the one Grace didn’t leave: laughing and pooh-poohing it all. Saying it’s all OK. In fact, I feel terrific! Everyone needs a change! She’d thought maybe Sara would have left a message; after all, she’d slipped out of the conference room, ruining Lucky’s toast to the staff. But no, no message from Sara.
She worries about Sara. Why had she left? She must be very upset to sneak away like that. Or maybe she hates Lucky already.
Message from her mother—delete. No downers needed now.
She deserves to be happy—but she isn’t quite.
She deserves the job. Grace had it for a million years. Grace is a dinosaur.
Leaving the apartment, she locks the door and starts up the stairs, one flight up to her secret place: the roof. She’d discovered it a few months after she moved in. Someone had once grown flowers and vegetables up here, and there are still pots filled with old soil and leaves and brown stalks.
Clutching her coat, she looks toward the triangular back roof of a church, barely visible in the twilight, never seen by anyone but her. Beyond juts the Upper West Side skyline, a shifting constellation of lights twinkling on and off in bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, TVs glowing cool blue.
Out there, she imagines, lies her real apartment, the one that will belong to her. Over the years she’s hopped from one stepping stone to another, toward it. And today she’d taken a giant step.
She imagines street after street, bridges, parks, feels herself levitating north over the city. The West Side Highway, Washington Heights, the Bronx, Wave Hill mansion perched grandly on a cliff overlooking the Hudson, where Sara had done a fashion shoot beneath the grape arbors.
She can’t live without this city, without the sense of being on an island that you get to via a dangerous journey, a vision quest. You map your way here, you plan your survival. And you do survive, even when it seems you won’t. Then you’re privileged to stand here, with a wind sweeping in from the sea, and you feel at home with the grandeur and the insignificance.
No one cares. Sometimes the enormous indifference is perfect; other times, chilling. She gazes up at the stars. That’s what infinity looks like: it looks like nothing. Then she starts to feel warmed, as if she’s breathing along with the great bellows of a huge organism.
West of here lies Grace’s apartment, and suddenly the sky seems weighted in that direction, a black hole of emotion that threatens to suck her in. She’ll go back downstairs and e-mail Grace. It’s easier than writing, she thinks, giving a last look at the stars.
Back downstairs, she opens her laptop. I’m so sorry, Grace. Let’s talk someday soon. xxxxL. Delete. Grace, forgive me. I’ll call you in a few weeks. xxxxxL.
Call in a few weeks … and say what? Delete. She closes her laptop, cracks open one of her two windows—the apartment is stifling—and lowers the blinds. Then she lights a candle on the coffee table and breathes in the grassy scent.
When her phone rings, her heart squeezes. Nervously she waits as voice mail picks up. It’s Marcia Fields, the wedding designer.
“Jeff made a good move.” Marcia’s voice is chatty. “Grace has gotten too hard to work with. Always had her knickers in a twist.”
Lucky lets out a long sigh of relief. Thank goodness someone’s happy! Of course, she knows Marcia’s agenda: more exposure in the magazine and more money.
The phone rings again. “Lucky Quinn, what wonderful news!” It’s the warm baritone of Rodney Miller, a still-life photographer who’s been angling to do fashion shoots. A few years ago, Rodney, whose incarnation at the time had been hedge fund manager, made a killing in the market, and quit to become a photographer, outfitting his enormous Tribeca studio in the best equipment money could buy. He thinks of himself as the next Avedon, the only one standing in his way being Grace Ralston, who found him terminally smarmy. Grace had strong opinions about people, which Lucky always accepted—until today. Now she can hate the people Grace loves, and vice versa.
She will meet with him. The woman at the top! It’s her!
Lucky and Grace couldn’t be more different. Grace got her start from family connections. Her mother had gone to Wellesley with the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, where Grace had started as an entry-level editor. “I admit it,” she’d said breezily. “Of course it didn’t guarantee my success. That was all my grueling hard work and immense talent.” She’d smiled.
For Lucky, family connections had landed her a job at the Clifton, New Jersey, laundromat after high school. Her mother’s sister worked there.
What could an NYU dropout without a single connection do? Get a toehold in the city, somehow, anyhow, by taking a waitress job and going in on an apartment share.
Lucky’s mother had been smugly waiting for her to return to Clifton. Lucky told her she’d suddenly developed an allergy to her cats. She’d already wasted two years after high school living in Clifton, saving money so she could go to college. The thought of going back really did give her an allergy.
Her roommate was strange. She and one boyfriend after another wrestled in the living room. Lucky always knew when she had a new one because she’d jolt awake to the sound of bodies thudding, grunts, and muffled whimpers. It could go on for hours.
Once the roommate met her match she moved out, leaving behind two empty suitcases and a pile of dirty laundry. Lucky’s rent went up, but she was infinitely relieved not to hear the sounds of bodies slamming against each other in the night. She slept soundly on her mattress on the floor and used the other girl’s abandoned suitcases to store her clothes.
She spent most of her time looking at apartments on Web sites and going to open houses, pretending she was shopping around. She imagined herself in each one, making coffee in the kitchen, lying in bed and gazing at a particular view. Views especially enthralled her: particular angles of vision that showed her something unique, not seen in just that way from anywhere or by anyone else.
In each apartment, she’d imagined her life contained in, defined by, the shape of the rooms. Here was how life would be laid out, or maybe not here, but here.
She practically moved in to Barnes & Noble, browsing home decorating magazines. She dreamed about houses, walking through rooms, deeper and deeper into the interior as if she was making her way into the heart of something. Her fantasy took on more detail. A high floor, a spread of windows overlooking Central Park. Polished wood floors. Tall plants in corners, lit up with spotlights. A bedroom, smaller than the living room, but still spacious, full of sunlight in the mornings. And most of all, a beautiful marble fireplace that worked. That was the ultimate.
More and more it seemed as if Clifton were on another planet, very distant, but always exerting a dark gravitational pull.
One day as she made a pile of her magazines and tied them with string for recycling, she stopped and looked for an address. She went the next day to apply for a job.
Of course her mother always said it was luck—Lucky, the lucky daughter—not hard work, not talent, just serendipity. Along with that went an unspoken accusation—Lucky didn’t deserve good things more than the rest of the family; she just got them.
* * *
The publisher’s home decorating magazines didn’t need anyone, but one of its fashion magazines, Pretty, needed a freelancer, someone to lug stuff and help with shoots and make phone calls. At the same time she lucked into the apartment she’s in now, a temporary sublet that turned permanent.
Now she opens up her sofa bed and straightens the sheets, takes her quilt off the closet shelf. It’s soft and expensive—a splurge after she’d been working for a while. She climbs beneath it, billows it upward, and lets it cozily settle.
With a raise that seems huge to her, which she’ll see in her next paycheck, she can afford to move. This has been the joyful thought she’s kept at bay until this moment—like saving the best gift till last. But now that she’s shot ahead with heart-stopping speed, her pleasure is leavened by anxiety—she has so many more chances to fail, to see her luck run dry. And lose it all.
She reaches for her phone to reschedule her Friday session with Maxine. She cringes, thinking of the day Grace had tossed the therapist at her like a bouquet. “Next up!”
Lucky leaves a message, and Maxine, a workaholic herself, calls her back at midnight.
As she falls asleep, she’s still worrying about Sara.
Copyright © 2011 by Susan Schneider