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Authors: Jennifer van der Kwast

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BOOK: Pounding the Pavement
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“This is the input monitor over here. And this is the output. You got that?”

“Uh-huh,” I nod, doing my damnedest to pay attention. Not that I have any real burning desire to learn all I can about digital tape transfers. If anything, it’s just another skill to add to my never-ending résumé.

The problem is I
look
interested. My body is tense and rigid, and I can’t remember the last time I blinked my eyes or took a deep breath. I’m hoping my absurd posture makes me look sharp and alert, and not all hot and bothered.

“Basically you hit the button and the machine does all the work. Not too hard, huh?”

What button?

I hear a high-pitch squeal that mortifies me because I think I might just be the source of it. I’m afraid to look at Jake directly—God knows what
that
might do to me—but I catch him out of the
corner of my eye, reclining against his chair and resting his hands behind his head. Clearly, he doesn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. I decide the squeal must be coming from the machines.

“So,” Jake turns to me with a half-smile that is frighteningly disarming. “You’re the one who’s going to be replacing me?”

I arch an eyebrow. “You still need to be replaced?”

“I’m thinking of going to Canada.” To visit a dying grandmother? Please, please let him have a dying grandmother. “I just need some time off. You know?”

Shit. It
is
heartbreak. I bite my lip, determined not to pry. Whatever I do, I won’t pry.

“Oh, yeah, sure, I know exactly what you mean. I would love to take some time off.” Right. Like six months haven’t been enough.

Jake stares unblinking at the screens in front of us. For a moment we watch in silence as well-practiced underwear models unhook their bras in high-speed. At this frenetic pace, their motions seem hurried and routine, and not at all seductive.

Finally, Jake looks up at me.

“Do you smoke?”

“Oh, God, yes.”

Would you believe that Stellar Productions has a secret fire escape, too? Man, the things I wish I had known about earlier!

Jake helps hoist me up from the window onto the outside ledge a few feet above us. I’d like to think I accomplished the move gracefully, but the shooting stab of pain where I hit my shin against the windowpane makes me think otherwise.

He lights a cigarette and hands it to me. I feel giddy taking it. Like I’m black and white, and Bette Davis all over.

“I quit smoking a year ago,” he says, firing up his own cigarette.

“Good for you.”

“I just started up again this week.”

Don’t pry.

“I’ve been having a rough couple of days.”

Don’t pry. “Yeah, I heard,” I say offhandedly, taking a long drag.

“You heard?”

I nearly choke. I realize immediately I’ve said the wrong thing.

“Well, Gregory told me you were having, ummm, personal problems.”

“He what?”

I don’t answer. Jake shakes his head incredulously. With one inhale, he swallows that entire year’s deprivation of nicotine. Then he spits it out contemptuously.

“What exactly did he tell you?”

“He, um, didn’t give me specifics.”

We hear a rap on the window beside us. I immediately toss my cigarette over the fire escape. Jake takes another long drag and turns casually.

Jim Abbott leans out onto the escape and tilts his head upward. Even so, he can do no better than talk to our knees.

“Gregory wants to see you.”

“All right.” Jake exhales his last plume of smoke and tosses his cigarette over the ledge.

“No.” Jim Abbott looks pointedly at my calf. “He wants to talk to
you
.”

“I
was serious when I said I thought you’ve been doing a good job,” says Gregory. I find myself staring at him blatantly. It surprises me that he is so tiny and frail, not at all what I imagined from his thunderous speakerphone voice. “I probably won’t be able to rely much on Jake for now. But he knows the equipment and he’s great on set for productions, so we need to keep him on. But we still need an
office manager, someone who can handle the phones and the paperwork. And you did so well with the filing—”

“Thank you.”

“And we could certainly use someone to organize our budget reports. Are you comfortable handling finances?”

“Well, I really haven’t done much before.” ’Cause, even on a good day, I have trouble working with any multiple over three. On bad days, I lose the threes.

“What I am saying is this.” Gregory folds his hands and leans forward on the desk, searing me with a look of complete seriousness. I think I preferred communicating with him by speakerphone. “Do you think this job might be something that interests you?”

And that is the question. The one that screws me every single time.

T
here is a major problem with being unemployed for as long as I have. This is no longer a hunt, no longer a search, no longer a pursuit. This is a mission. And it isn’t a mission to find any old job. It is a mission to find The Perfect Job. Damn it, I’ve put in too much time and far too much energy to settle for anything less than utter and complete satisfaction. I want job security, growth potential, and a 401k plan I just might bother to invest in. I want my name engraved on a gold plaque and a thousand business cards etched on steel plates. I want it all!

Because I don’t ever want to have to go through any of this again.

But how I am going to explain this to my mother?

O
ver the course of the years my mother has begrudgingly come to terms with the fact I can’t very well call her every night of the week. Nevertheless, she does expect to hear from me on a regular basis, and is sometimes even willing to schedule our phone conversations well in advance.

Today being one of my rare working days, I know she is anxiously awaiting an update. If I don’t phone in by the close of the business day, she’ll panic, naturally assuming I’ve been abducted by fake would-be employers. You know, the only-in-New-York sort of lunatic who would have the time and wherewithal to post want ads for a receptionist, hoping to entice naïve young women into wearing pantyhose and lip gloss and then luring them into the insidious domains of deserted offices in downtown Manhattan high-rises. That kind of fake employer.

I start rummaging in my bag for my cell phone as soon as the elevator doors spill me into the lobby. It usually takes me a good four minutes to locate the damn thing. Like I’ve said before, I’m not exactly the most organized person in the world. Just think what would happen if I were put in charge of a company’s financial records.

Fifteen minutes later, I am kneeling outside the Stellar Productions office building, the entire contents of my bag spewed out in front of me. My cell phone is nowhere to be found. I can’t remember placing or receiving any personal calls at the office today. Even if I did, I am not about to go back upstairs, fling open the door, and sing, “Ta-da! I’m baaack!”

No, for convenience’s sake, let’s just say I left my cell phone at my apartment. In fact, I’m sure that’s where it is. Still, I’m due to meet Amanda at a bar downtown in half an hour. If my calculations are correct (they might not be—I know there is a multiple of three
in there somewhere), there is no way I could possibly make my way uptown and back down again by then. Cursing under my breath, I shove all my crap back into my bag and do the unthinkable. I look for a pay phone.

The hard part isn’t finding an available pay phone. The hard part is trying to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do with it. What, now thirty-five cents for a local call? A couple of bucks worth of change to page the West Coast?

To top it all off, my mother isn’t even home, so I end up leaving my cab fare on her answering machine. I hang up annoyed and turn on my heel, nearly colliding into the person waiting behind me. I wasn’t expecting a line for the pay phone. As I slowly make my way to the curb, I try to convince myself that it really doesn’t matter a complete stranger has overhead me call my mother “Mommy.”

On the sign across the street, the little white walking man becomes the little red hand. I wait on the corner and try to remember if I did, in fact, say, “It’s me, Mommy, just calling to say hi and I love you,” or if maybe, just maybe, I said something a little more sophisticated, like, “Hello, darling, it’s Sarah. So sorry you weren’t at home. Perhaps I’ll give you a ring in the morrow.”

Red hand becomes white man again. I’m about to make my move, when I stop suddenly. I could have sworn I’ve heard someone call my name.

“Hey, Sarah!”

I turn. I don’t believe it! A gorgeous, golden god of a man trots toward me. This is definitely a first. A thrilling first, but also a confusing one. I don’t have enough time to rack my brain and try to place him. The popular guy from high school, maybe? My summer camp junior counselor? A lucky night in college I ought to remember?

He comes to a halt in front of me and bares his perfect white teeth in a dazzling smile. I suck in my gut.

“You’re Sarah?”

“Yes?” I answer demurely, brushing my hair away from my face.

“Your mom is on the phone for you.”

I can feel a bright shade of crimson burning my cheeks. “Oh. Thanks.” I hang my blazing head and brush past him, toward the dangling phone receiver.

“Hello?”

“Sarah?”

“Mom, how did you get this number?”

“It showed up on the caller ID.”

“It did?”

“Where are you, sweetie-pie? And who was that who answered the phone?”

“I don’t know. Just some guy on the street.”

There is a long pause. “Oh, dear,” my mother whispers. “Are you calling from his … apartment?”

“What? No! Mom, you called me at a pay phone. Some guy just happened to answer it and he chased me down.”

“Really?” Another pause. My mother doesn’t grease her wheels all that often anymore. I can almost hear her stripping her gears. “Well, that was very nice of him, wasn’t it?”

“I suppose—”

“I bet that doesn’t happen a lot in New York. And he did have a very sweet voice. You sure you didn’t catch his name?”

“Mom!” I’m pissed. Not at her. At myself. She’s right. I should have gotten his name.

“All right,” my mother relents. “So, tell me. How did it go with the job today?”

“It didn’t take.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I do my very best to explain it to her.

I
t doesn’t matter how long I make Amanda wait at a bar. An hour, five minutes—I know when I find her she’ll already be halfway through with her martini, tossing her hair, and laughing gaily at something the bartender just said.

She’s in top shape tonight. She beams when she sees me and waves me over ebulliently. Her cheery disposition annoys me for no good reason I can understand.

“I have good news,” she says.

“Me, too!” Of course I don’t really. But I’m not in the mood to bask in the glow of her self-congratulation just yet.

“Oh.” The twinge of disappointment in her voice please me considerably. “You go first.”

“I met a boy.”

She gulps. “Really? Where?”

“He’s the guy I was supposed to replace at the temp job. He came in this afternoon just to show me the ropes. That was pretty nice of him, don’t you think?”

“I guess.” She shrugs. “Why’s he leaving?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why he’s leaving the job?”

“Oh. Ummm …”

“Don’t you know?”

“Yes, of course I know,” I snap. “He’s, ummm, been having personal problems.”

“Oh.” Amanda raises an eyebrow innocently. “What kind of problems?”

“I don’t know exactly,” I mutter. Man, how much does it suck that even my fake good news isn’t really all that good?

“I see.” Amanda’s smile begins to verge on the smug. “Do you get to see him again tomorrow?”

“No.”

“No more ropes to learn?” Bitch.

“It’s not that.” I pick up a drink menu and study it with far more attention than it really deserves. “I turned down the job.”

“You did? Why?”

“Because I don’t want to be an office manager.”

“You’re in a position to make that kind of decision?”

“Yes,” I say emphatically, more so to convince myself than her.

“Okay.” She shrugs. “Then when do you get to see this boy again?”

I sigh. “Probably never.”

Once the words are out, I feel their sharp sting. I try ignoring the dull ache in my chest. A man I’ve only met once isn’t allowed to break my heart.

“Oh, no, that’s not necessarily true.” Amanda’s tone sounds infuriatingly patronizingly. Almost like she’s mothering me. “You still have the number at the office, right? You could always try calling to see if he’s there.”

My eyes narrow. She just doesn’t get it. She has no idea girls like me don’t get away with calling strange boys out of the blue.

“We’ll see,” I place the drink menu back down.

Amanda’s new pal behind the bar returns to take my drink order. Like well-practiced understudies, she and I block out our old song-and-dance routine. I ask what she’s drinking. She says it’s a chocolate martini. I ask if it’s any good and she tells me it’s delicious. I take a moment to contemplate, then decide to try it. Amanda takes
a moment to contemplate, then decides to have another. The bartender commends us on our wise choice. And after the whole ordeal is over and done with, there is a moment of silence, and I know Amanda is waiting expectantly for me to say something. I take the plunge.

BOOK: Pounding the Pavement
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