Read Break in Case of Emergency Online
Authors: Jessica Winter
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright Â© 2016 by Jessica Winter
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Break in case of emergency / by Jessica Winter.
978-0-451-49422-1 (open market)
1. Single womenâFiction. 2. BusinesswomenâFiction. 3. FeministsâFiction. I. Title.
84 2016 813'.6âdc23 2015031653
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Janet Hansen
We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.
âJoan Didion, “On Self-Respect”
Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can't be heard. How do you get to be so full? And so full of only meaningful things?
“It's hard to reproduce those kind of results ifâoh, sorry,” Jen said, realizing a beat too late that the rest of the room had gone quiet.
Leora Infinitas had already taken her place at the head of the table. For one silent-screaming moment, it looked as if she were attempting to rip her own face off, but in fact she was tugging at her eyelash extensions under the placid gaze of the members of her board, who were seated in a corner conference room at the headquarters of the Leora Infinitas Foundation, also known as LIFt.
Jen scanned the other women around the jade-and-walnut table, festooned with crystal-and-bamboo vases filled with fresh-cut gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies, selected at Leora's request for their air-filtering qualities and replaced every day, even on days when the conference room was not in use, which was most days. The other women sat in tranquil anticipation as Leora yanked with greater urgency at her right eyelid using the pincer of her thumb and forefinger, as if trying to thread a needle with her own flesh. The rain against LIFt's floor-to-ceiling windows chattered like a gathering crowd, even as the white noise that pumped in from every ceiling at LIFtâan undulating
an airless air-conditioningâbegan to hush.
Jen shivered. Even a month into her tenure at LIFt, her body still misapprehended the
as an Arctic blast that required shuddering adjustments to her internal thermostat.
Leora Infinitas's lashes now lay on the tabletop before her, a squashed yet glamorous bug. Without them, Leora looked at once diminished and more beautiful. Flecks of glue balanced on her eyelids. She blinked rapidly and stared into the table, searching the lacquer for the script, the incantation, hidden below its glinting surface.
“I don't like the idea of limiting ourselves,” Leora finally said. “I'm a big believer in not settling for twenty-four hours in a day.”
Rain shattered against the windows, the applause track of a sitcom. A head nodded; a pair of lips buzzed “Mmm.”
A pen tapping on the table stilled itself.
The flowers stood beguiled in their vases.
The electrons in the air murmured to one another in grave consultation, then telepathically cabled the message to the rest of the room that Leora, in twenty-one words, had concluded her opening statements. It would be up to her braintrust to, to borrow Leora's phrasing, “advance the conversation.”
is to say,” intoned Donna, the board chair and one of Leora's closest friends, “that there are not twenty-
hours in a day?”
“Ha, right, who decided
anyway?” asked board member Sunny, who was also Leora's personal assistant.
“We always said we'd have a start-up mentality,” Leora said. She peered down at the squashed eyelash bug. Soundlessly, Sunny materialized at her side, palmed it into a cupped tissue, and evanesced back into her seat.
“Start-ups never sleep,” Leora continued. “Metaphorically speaking.”
“Totally,” Sunny said, nodding with her entire head and neck, the tissue of squashed eyelash bug clasped in her hand.
was something Sunny said a lot whenever Leora spoke. Sunny's
was so total that it became two words.
“But at the same time, why bother doing everything if you're not doing everything
in. The right. Way,
” Leora asked.
“Mmmmm,” Sunny moaned.
Donna squared her shoulders. “I think that, right now, at this moment in the young history of LIFtâand especially at this perilous moment in our global economyâour focus is
” she said. Her voice was deep and stern, the vowels round and sonorous as church bells. Her hands sculpted the air. Multiple bangles on each of her wrists clinked together in a wind chime of assent. “But shining a light on certain ideas
doesn't mean that
worthy ideas are left to languish and wilt in the dark forever.”
Sunny was slow-motion headbanging.
“We must focus on those projects that feel most immediate to us,” Donna continued. “This sensation of the year two thousand and nine leaping bravely into spring after such a bitter winterâwhat does that
like? Let's capture it; let's hold that moment and transform it. We can return to other, more timeless ideas laterâa wellspring of creativity that will nourish us when we feel depleted from giving birth to our first idea-children. And we
“I love it!” Sunny said, clenching a fist to her sternum. “Donna, you are amazing.”
“Karina,” Leora said imperiously to LIFt's executive director, seated to her right. “What would you prioritize?”
Karina, who had been raking her fingers through her hair and then twisting the strands, raking and twisting, tossed her hair over her shoulder and widened her eyes, as if absorbing the shock and import of a happy epiphany. “I'm going to second what you're saying, Leora: focus, focus,
” she said. “The only way we can possibly limit ourselves is by taking on too much at once. We're empowering ourselves by making the choice
to make choices.
The newness of the foundation and the uncertainty of the historical momentâwe can see them as
Dares to be bold, dares to
Jen stifled a smile and looked down at her open notebook, where she'd written
BOARD MEETING NOTES
with her fountain pen and gradually added serifs and flourishes until the letters became a row of gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies. From the first time they'd met, Jen recognized Karina as a master of the filibuster, but she hadn't yet seen Karina cast the spell on Leoraâthe gift of shrouding any and every topic in a fluffy word cloud of reiterative agreement until the original query was swallowed up in the woozy vapor of resounding enthusiasm for an unstated but sublime goal.
Karina shook her head wonderingly and peered into a dazzling middle distance, taking in a new horizon line. “I'm really jazzed about this,” she said. “I can't wait.”
Forty-five minutes later, as the meeting did not adjourn but rather transitioned into a discussion of Leora's daughter's Bikram instructor's ayahuasca retreats in Oaxaca, Jen's line of gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies had sprouted into a garden of vines and ivy that plumed across both open pages of her notebook, speckled with topiary animals and actual bounding cats. The stippled-sketch form of Jen's toddler goddaughter, Millie, peeked around a flowering espalier with a little fistful of poppies, a wreath of gardenias and eucalyptus atop her black curls.
Jen closed the notebook, rose, and began to leave the room, but hovered at the head of the table beside Leora. She had resolved to hover in awkward mid-stride, resulting in a slight lurching motion that stirred up a gruesomely intact memory of balking on the pitcher's mound in Little League, with the bases loaded, on ball four. Jen had not yet been introduced to Leora, and keenly wanted to introduce herself now, but just as keenly wanted not to disrupt Leora's Oaxaca anecdote, which involved a surreally vivid dreamâinduced by a midnight snack of
stall reassembled itself as an animatronic giant and began
ing toward Leora, embroidered tunics and colorful straw handbags winging down from its bionic shoulders in a confetti of symbolism.
machines, merchandise, mechanical reproductionâthe moment was just so
in meaning,” Leora was saying. “I don't have the
to deconstruct it.”
” Sunny said.
Swaying on her feet, Jen tried to catch Karina's eye to plead mutely for an assist. But in each of the rapt faces around the table, Jen recognized the temporary tunnel vision that she herself had adapted and perfected in high school as an overtaxed waitress at a casual-dining franchise. She arranged a grin on her face that was intended to convey merry diffidence and backed out of the room.