As I stare into the reflective glass window of the skyscraper and smooth out my mussed hair, I can’t help but imagine what my mother would say. “You didn’t take a car?” In my head, her voice gets shrilly. “To your interview? You walked? You should have called a cab. You have to be perfect! You have to give five million percent!”
One day, my mother’s voices will quiet down. Just not today.
“I’m fine,” I tell myself, standing as far away from the passing cars as I can. Not because I’m afraid of them, of course. I’ve made a lot of progress in the fear-of-cars department, but because I don’t want to get splashed.
No, really, I just don’t want to get splashed.
“I’m better than fine.” I stop mumbling and just think the happy thoughts in my head. Even in New York City, people will look at you funny if you mumble while wearing professional attire. “I am ready, I am put-together, I am exactly what this place is looking for—better than what this place is looking for. I am a rock-solid—”
“You’re blocking the sidewalk,” a passerby says as he bumps into me. I stumble forward.
“I cannot be perturbed,” I say, feeling perturbed.
I smooth my hair one more time, turn my face sideways to confirm the bun is tight and professional.
I am ready for my interview.
Except for the part where I don’t know exactly what the interview is for. My headhunter’s phone message (“Alette, perfect job for you. Perfect!”) set my hopes soaring. Unfortunately, Charles—that’s the headhunter’s name—didn’t leave any details aside for the address, a television station in Midtown Manhattan.
Despite his lack of thoroughness, I haven’t been able to avoid bubbles of excitement. Dare I hope it will be an anchor position? Charles did say it was perfect for me.
I check the building number on my piece of paper, damp and smooth from the humidity and from my constant rereading. I confirm one last time that I am at the right address. Smooth out my skirt. Smooth out my hair—last time, I promise.
I must be perfect.
My reflection disappears as I open the heavy glass doors. The tiles in the foyer are so shiny, they send a distorted image of myself back at me. I ignore the reflection and step up to the reception desk.
“Alette Walker,” I say. “I have an appointment at WINY TV.”
She passes me a tag and points me to the elevator. I’m tempted to take the stairs. Nonetheless, climbing thirty floors in the early May heat would not do good things to my hair.
The elevator rises. I keep my eyes on the ascending numbers above the door. For the duration of three floors, I breathe in. For the duration of five, I breathe out. Midway through my fourth exhalation, the elevator surges open, and I eject myself onto the thirtieth floor. That wasn’t too bad. Not too bad at all. The elevator barely made me nervous. Hardly of twinge of panic. I am ready. I am rock solid. I am—
I can always take the stairs once I’ve clinched my dream job.
Thank heavens I can always take the stairs then.
I dodge someone as he rushes to the elevator before the doors close. Everywhere, people are running. I step up to what looks like a front desk.
“Alette Walker,” I say. “I have an—”
The redhead at the desk holds up a finger, her nail red and pointy. “I told you,” she says in a Brooklyn accent, “thirty-seven ham and cheese sandwiches and four turkey . . . No, Avi won’t eat the ham and cheese. He’s Jewish. Get the order right.” An angry bark comes through the other end. She slams the phone down and cracks her gum. “You were saying, hon?”
“Alette Walker, I have an interview with—”
“Of course.” She stands up—the shape of her posterior suggests she’s wearing very high heels—and shrieks across the room, “George, your future star is here.”
A bald man with a paunch waves me over. Light shines off his bald head. I take the long way around to avoid the view offered by the floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Alette Walker,” I say, giving him my hand.
“George Duncan.” His handshake is firm but hurried. He points me through to an office. I immediately accept his offer of a seat. From down here, I can pretend the windows don’t double as walls.
“Here she is,” George says. I wonder who he’s talking to. My gaze runs over the office. And I see him. Leaning against the glass of the window, as though he has no foibles about plunging to his death, is a man. He doesn’t budge to shake my hand, which I offer him from a semi-seated position. I give up and sit back down.
With his leather jacket and mussed hair, he is in stark contrast to the business suits everyone else is sporting. Sun comes out from behind the clouds for a moment, and I try not to notice the gold that reflects off his brown hair.
I’m here to work, not admire unkept hunks—men, I mean. I mean men.
George looks at a sheet of paper, probably the résumé Charles sent over. “Miss Walker here graduated summa cum laude with a dual degree in journalism and international relations from Columbia.”
The man sucks his teeth—uncouth—and says “La-di-da.” He sounds like he is from somewhere down South.
I refuse to look at him. He can snigger all he wants.
“Oh, I forgot to introduce you two,” George says. “Miss Walker—”
“Call me Alette.” I smile.
“Alette it is. Alette, this is Holder Pierce.”
“Pierce will do,” he says. He is definitely from down South.
Pierce is still standing by the window. He makes no effort to come my way and shake my hand. I don’t know who this Pierce is, but I need to make a good impression on the producer, even if that means getting close to the window and shaking this other man’s hand.
It’s not big deal. He’s just leaning against a floor-to-ceiling window that, any second, could leave us all plunging to our—
I breathe in and sub-vocalize, “five, four, three, two, one.” On “one,” I move towards the window and shake Pierce’s hand. I don’t look at him, though. On account of the window.
My heart is pounding. I take a deep breath, exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I have to get myself under control. I have to. I scootch back to my seat, smooth out my hair, smooth down my skirt. George likely doesn’t notice my nerves. He’s too busy rifling through papers, talking. In the jumble of his chatter, I hear Pierce’s name, but right now, I don’t care about Pierce. I care about getting my chest to stop thunk, thunk, thunking long enough to impress the boss.
Come on, Alette, I say. One hundred and seventy-six hours till your college reunion. One hundred and seventy-six hours. Do you want to show up unemployed? Do you? Do you?
The self-haranguing works. The ringing in my ears subsides. I’ll be okay.
Really, perfectly, exquisitely, five hundred thousand percent okay.
“How much did Charles tell you about the job?” George says. I realize he’s sat down sometime between the time I made my journey to the window and the time the ringing in my ears stopped.
“All he said was that it was perfect for me.”
George smiles and gives a sideways glance at Pierce, as though to say, “Told you she was good!” Pierce doesn’t react though. I wonder why he is even here. I wonder why he feels the need to be rude.
The job description was what George was likely explaining before, when I had my mini-episode. I hope I didn’t miss too many important details.
“I’m glad to hear it, Alette,” George says. “Pierce—what a daredevil—was hoping to take you out on a ride this afternoon, but the weather forecast doesn’t bode well.”
“Cowards,” Pierce says. “It’s not even raining anymore. You try to find me a storm I can’t take my bird in.”
“Bird?” I say.
“Helicopter,” George says.
“Helicopter?” My breath catches. Helicopter???
My own personal panic-o-meter flashes across my mind. Bicycle (conquered) < Cars (working on it) < Hot air balloon < airplane < helicopter < parachute < pogo sticks.
I don’t know why pogo sticks always appear. I don’t even know how they work.
I force myself to smile, to lend a casual tone to my voice, a tone I have practiced many a time in journalism school. “Why would Mr. Pierce take me out in his helicopter?”
“Just Pierce, not Mr. Pierce,” Pierce says. “That’s how traffic reports work. You go up in a copter. Unless you prefer first class on a parachute.”
“No, not at all. I prefer a helicopter.” Which is true, in its own way. Parachutes are much higher on the panic-o-meter than helicopters are. In fact, the meter should read helicopters < < < < < < (ad infinitum) parachutes.”
Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel better.
I want to strangle Charles. Would it have killed him to mention that this job was for traffic girl?
“Charles led me to believe this job would interest you?” George says.
Oh, no, George doubts me. I need this job, traffic reporter or not. Deep breath. I’m good. I’m ready. I’m rock solid. Smooth hair. Smooth skirt. Strangle my heart in my fist till it stops thumping like a battering ram with a hyperactive case of ADHD that left its Ritalin at home.
Why won’t it stop thumping?
“Yes, George. Traffic is a particular interest of mine.”
“Could have fooled me,” Pierce says. He’s scoffing. I can tell. I don’t see his scoffing, because I refuse to look at him as long as he is standing right up against the edge of the building, leaning on a flimsy window, ready to plunge any second now to the rain-soaked sidewalk below where busy Manhattanites who know better than to climb into speeding vehicles will walk over him or scurry around—
I shut the image down. The point is, he is scoffing. And that’s rude.
“Alette?” George says.
George was talking again, wasn’t he? I force a smile on my face. “George, why don’t you give me a rundown of the position?”
“Right,” George says. “You have no doubt heard of the affiliate station WDOA.”
“It hasn’t been doing well.”
Pierce snorts. “With a name like that.”
I appropriately wipe my smile off my face. Producers don’t appreciate DOA humor when it comes to TV stations. George rubs his hands together as though the whole situation makes him nervous. “We’re acquiring it, which will give us a broader reach and more opportunities to offer pieces to the national network shows. Many of their employees are retiring, so we are bringing in new blood.”
“What George here means is, the old fogies got early retirement because they get paid too much. George is bringing in newbies who won’t expect quite so much money.”
George smiles at Pierce in the same way an executioner would smile at his prisoner if the prisoner offered to hold the ax while the executioner tied his shoelaces.
I still can’t figure out why Pierce is in the room.
For now, anyway, until he plunges—
Stop, Alette. Stop thinking about the window.
George turns back to me. He’s starting to look red in the face. “It’s a job with tremendous growth potential. A special job, really. Traffic reporting is a dying breed, and we here at WINY take pride in our traffic segments.”
“What George here means is that the big guns upstairs are pressuring him to bring in viewers or get ready to stand in line at the unemployment office.”
George rubs his hands together some more. That seems to be a nervous tic of his. “We’re quite proud to be one of the few buildings with a helipad. That’s very rare these days in New York City. Very rare.”
I nod, which seems to please George.
“You will broadcast some reports locally, principally the traffic reports for the city, but you’ll also have the chance to do stories of interest for the national network.”
“And potential for the anchor position?” I say.
My heart leaps. Anchor. That would look good at my reunion.
“Not yet,” George says, “of course. Within a few months, though, we’re hoping to move you to a more in-house position, if everything works out. It’s a great opportunity. We’re looking to really innovate the traffic reports and our offerings in general. You’ll be more than a talking head. You’ll be a personality.”
Another scoff from Pierce. I don’t know why.
“I see,” I say. I wipe my clammy hands on my skirt. I need to say something intelligible. Something that demonstrates enthusiasm. But all I can think is “Helicopter?!?!?!” I’ve never seen myself as a traffic reporter. I don’t even know how to drive a car. But the doors that could open . . .
George is staring at me, no doubt waiting for an answer.
I want this job.
No, I need this job. It’s not just that I can’t show up at my five-year reunion unemployed. That would be bad. Very bad. Because I don’t do unemployed or failure or screw-ups. That’s not who I am. I am valedictorian. I am summa cum laude. I am top-of-my-class material. That is who I am, and I have to stay at the top.
But there’s also this wager I have going with a certain rival—it’s not important who—about which of us would nab the best job by the time we reach our five-year reunion.
Just some guy I studied with. Who isn’t really important. What’s important is—
Okay, fine, he’s my ex. Sort of ex. Who stole my scoop. MY scoop, during our internship at The New York Slate, and I have to beat him or I will—
“Alette?” George says. “You’re our top pick. The job is yours, if you want it.”
I want it.
I mean, I do want it, and I don’t want it.
Because of the helicopter.
Think positive, Alette. It could be so much worse. It could involve parachutes instead. Or, horror of all horrors, pogo sticks.
It’s just a little helicopter, piloted by some man who sucks his teeth and leans against floor-to-ceiling windows as though death is something you eat between breakfast and lunch.
George’s mouth is moving, has been moving for a few seconds now, but I can’t make out what he’s saying, what with the sound effects from my imaginary helicopter and its slicing blades and its ability to yaw in midair—
“Alette?” George says.
The whoosh of the slicing blades cuts off. I have no idea what George just said. “Yes?” I say.
“What do you think?” He’s pointing at the pilot, as though whatever he said involves Pierce. All I know is that Gorge’s smile suggests he wants me to agree with him, so I do.
“Absolutely.” I nod for emphasis. “Absolutely.”
He laughs and points at Pierce. “See, Pierce? Told you you two had chemistry. I can feel it.”
I know it is snooty of me, but I’m rather offended George thinks Pierce and I have chemistry. I mean, the man wears a scuffed leather jacket.
Pierce grunts. I don’t know if he means it in agreement or disagreement. I’m afraid I don’t speak Neanderthal.
“Do I hear a yes?” George says. “To the job? Great opportunities!”
Only George’s voice has gone all echoey. It sounds like he is saying, “. . . Job-ob-ob-ob” and “Opportunities-tunities, tunities, tunities.”
My thumping heart plays bongo accompaniment to the echo. All I want to do is huddle in a corner, eyes closed, till all thoughts of helicopters dissipate in the wind.
George is losing patience. George wants an answer. I can tell. His smile is disappearing. His right eyebrow is slouching in displeasure. My answer is logjammed somewhere between my brain and my throat. It’s as though some sort of time dilation device has exploded above my head, trapping me and only me in a sluggish delay warp such that my silence, lasting only seconds for me, is stretching into hours for everyone else, making them doubt that I am the right one for this job. I have to get an answer out. Now. I can’t hold off any longer, but I need to hold off. I need time to think. I need time to consider. I’m out of time. Out of time!
The phone rings.
George picks up.
My shallow breaths sound like they do when my ears are clogged.
Alette, you are ready. You are good enough. You are strong enough. You can do this. You have to do this. Because it’s been three months since you quit your newspaper job to return to New York and find television work.
My voice morphs into my mother’s, complete with clipped vowels: “You came all the way to New York only to stoop to reporting on traffic? Are you sure you can handle that? Remember your nerves? You wouldn’t want people to find out about your nerves, would you? Remember the last time people found out? You wouldn’t want that to happen again, would you? What would they think?
OH MY GOSH. WHY DID I QUIT MY JOB? WHAT WAS I THINKING?
Unbidden, images of my plane crash. Images of my seat mate. He fumbles with my oxygen. He’s in the hospital, covered in blood. Blood splatters on my unaccompanied minor tag.
Images. Darned images. If only I could forget.
I try to pretend the blood is ketchup. It’s not working today.
I stagger to my feet. George, who is still on the phone, looks up at me, his eyes questioning.
“George,” I say. My voice sounds like I’ve just been punched in the gut.
George hangs up, puts his hand out like he thinks I might collapse.
I back away towards the door, away from the floor-to-ceiling window, away from the pilot who flings himself at death just for kicks, away from what might be my last chance to get any job before my five-year reunion in—I count on my fingers—seven, six, five, four, three, two, one days.
“I’m sorry. George, I don’t think we’re an adequate fit.”
Before George can say anything, I stumble out the door and slam it behind me. I lean against the wall where George and Pierce won’t be able to see me. I close my eyes.
And I breathe.
For a few moments, the only things I hear are my breaths and the ringing in my ears.
Slowly, the sounds of the office separate from the ringing. Sounds of the job I have been dreaming of ever since I was five. Someone yelling, “Get to makeup!” Doors slamming. Footsteps rushing. At first, all the running around blends into one indistinguishable stampede, but bit by bit, the footsteps divide into their lanes. On the right, urgent footsteps run to retrieve copy. On the left, frenetic high heels tap-tap-tapping scurries to the studio before the live remote starts. Up ahead, footfalls emerge from the elevator and stop at the receptionist’s desk, where her nasal voice harmonizes with the surrounding traffic: “Tuna? We didn’t order tuna. Do you know how that’s going to smell up the—oooh, pickles.”
But I can’t be the traffic girl.
My footsteps will never merge with those of this office.
Then another voice enters my consciousness.
A familiar voice.
A not very smart voice.
A dangerous voice nonetheless.
I open one eye. Across the room, standing in front of reception, all six-foot-three of him, with his wavy, blond locks and charming smile, is Brock Brockson.
Or sort-of ex.
He leans on the desk, his chin in his hands, and even from here, it’s obvious his baby-blue eyes have already managed to hypnotize the receptionist. I know he’s hypnotized her because her head is cocked like someone who’s lost muscle function subsequent to a pogo stick accident.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“Coco (giggle, giggle).”
“Coco, my sister’s name is Coco. She’s a model for Victoria’s Secret.”
Brock Brockson doesn’t have a sister. Even so, she probably has upwards of a thousand names by now.
“Is that right?” Coco says.
“Yes, I don’t think you should meet her though.”
“No?” Coco sounds injured.
“She’d be—” Brock leans forward. This is where Brock always leans forward. “Jealous.”
Coco erupts into a hoot of giggles.
What is Brock doing here?
He doesn’t belong here.
No, he can’t be—
“I’m here for the traffic reporter interview,” Brock says.
Brock would be perfect for the traffic reporter job. Statuesque, GQ, charming.
My life is over.
I can’t let Brock win.
That is the man who dated me just to steal my scoop.
Or anyway, who dated me and then, at some point, figured out he could steal my scoop.
Or who stole it by accident.
I’m not sure.
He’s not every smart.
The point is, we have a bet. The point is, he has some low-level sports radio job in Buffalo. Buffalo! His latest report was on acrobatic monster trucks, whatever those are. The point is, until just now, when I threw away the best job offer I’ve gotten in months—months!—I had this bet in the bag. George said so. The job was mine, if I wanted it.
Victory was mine.
I can’t let it slip through my fingers.
I can’t let Brock win.
I want victory.
I taste victory.
Funny enough, it tastes like tuna.
Even if I have to throw myself out of a million helicopters with a parachute strapped to my back and a pogo stick duct-taped to my knees, I will excel at this job.
My eyes are still on Brock, who is laughing with Coco, while I fumble for the doorknob. I clutch it in both hands. I close my one open eye as I get ready rush inside.
Two—I’ve changed my mind.” I say, eyes still closed. “I accept the job.”