After getting my stitches out, I treated myself to a cab ride to the office because I was late and I didn't have my fugly commuting shoes on me.
I knew something had gone down the moment I arrived. My co-workers were scattered in little groups across the floor, whispering amongst themselves.
Kate made a beeline for my cubicle as soon as I sat down. "Did you know?" she asked.
"That William was leaving," she said. "He's gone. He must have cleaned out his office in the middle of the night or something."
"What?" I shot out of my chair and went to see for myself. William's corner office wasn't completely empty, but all the important things—the movie poster of Big Lights, Bright City, autographed by Jay McInerney, his stupid lamp with the special red light bulb that was supposed to 'increase energy', and all of the manuscripts and contracts covering his desk—they were all gone. A little thrill went through me; William had really left, and if he kept his word, I really had a chance to go somewhere new and exciting with him.
"This is so weird," I said, turning to Kate. I didn't feel like I should tell anyone I knew this was happening, not even her. "I wonder what happened."
Later in the day, my phone rang, and the caller ID read 'Human Resources'. I took a deep breath and answered. I was told to come down to the fourth floor immediately. As I stepped onto the elevator, I wondered if this was how Richard felt when he took this ride: terrified but oddly relieved.
I was greeted by Barbara Duane, the head of HR. "Quite a day you've had, I can imagine."
I nodded but didn't say anything. It felt like my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth.
"What happened here?" Barbara pointed to her own eyebrow.
"Oh," I said. I'd almost forgotten about my injury. "I fell. On the subway."
Barbara sucked air in through her teeth and winced. "Ouch."
"It doesn't hurt too much," I offered. Just get to it, I wanted to say. This is torture.
"So," Barbara said. "I'm sure you know that William has quit."
"Uh-huh," I said.
"And left us in quite a lurch," Barbara added, huffily.
I wanted to say, Oh, like the one you would have left him in when you fire him in a few weeks' time? But I just nodded again and kept my expression neutral.
"In any case," Barbara said. "we happen to have a new editor-at-large starting next week, and he needs an assistant. We in HR all agree you are the most qualified candidate."
So I wasn't getting fired...yet. Barbara said that Frank, the new guy, was starting next week, and in the meantime I was to cease all work on any manuscripts William and I had developed together.
"Why?" I asked.
Barbara sighed. "Because it's not the direction this company is going in. Bloggers, little no-nothing YouTuber stars. That is not the calibre of celebrity that Literatti aspires to work with."
"YouTube," I said.
Barbara narrowed her eyes at me. "Sorry?"
"YouTube," I repeated. "Not YouTuber." I suddenly understood why William was so frustrated with this place. They were old school, and they just didn't get it.
"Right. Whatever." Barbara flicked her hand at me.
"But those writers have already signed contracts," I said.
"We'll still pay them what we owe them," Barbara said. "But we're not moving forward with the printing process."
"But why wouldn't you?" I pushed. "That's such a waste of money."
"Frank will explain on Monday," Barbara snipped. And that was that.
I sent a text to William when I was back at my desk, 'I can't believe you just left without telling me'.
'It's better this way,' William wrote back. 'This way you're not involved and they can't nail you on it. What is everyone saying?'
I told him about my conversation with Barbara, and about Frank, the new editor-at-large. I was careful about how much I divulged though—even though my loyalty went to William first and foremost, I didn't know what the future held for us, and I didn't want to talk badly about my current employer. Who knows, it could end up being in my best interest to stay here. I had to look out for myself, and as tempting as it was to gossip with William and laugh about how this company had no vision, no creativity, it was just asking for a bad karmic return.
William suggested we grab dinner next week, after Frank had started, and after he'd had some time to follow up on a few feelers he'd put out.
The next morning, I woke up to a text from Dr. Ahmad. 'Small opening in my schedule tonight between 7-8. Doesn't happen very often. Coffee on the Upper East Side around 7?'
I had Ashley's engagement party after work, but it didn't start until 8:30, so I texted back and suggested a diner I liked by the hospital.
'Love that place,' Dr. Ahmad wrote back. 'Good call'. I realized I had no idea what his first name was, which was a little weird.
I've definitely never met a guy for coffee during happy hour before, let alone under lights so bright they make me want to get all the botox even though I'm only 25. But maybe it would be good for a change not to get all gumby-legged and handsy over a few glasses of wine? Oh, who am I kidding. I live for that shit. But I was willing to make an exception for Dr. Ahmad, mostly because he looked like he belonged on Grey's Anatomy.
I showered and got ready for work, annoyed I'd already worn my favorite LBD into the office just a few days before. I settled on my second favorite dress, a long sleeved black dress that Nina said makes me look like a witch. "But a sexy Halloween type witch, right?" I'd asked. To which she'd said, "Nope. Like you have a wart on your nose." Different strokes.
I didn't really have much to do at work, since everything I had been working on was on hold indefinitely. I spent the afternoon polishing my resume and updating my LinkedIn profile just in case. When I left to meet Dr. Ahmad, I realized it was the first time I'd left the office before 7PM in I couldn't remember how long. It felt like I'd taken a half day.
Dr. Ahmad already had a cup of coffee in front of him when I arrived. He was wearing his scrubs and doing some serious justice to his five o'clock shadow scruff. Why, hello.
I stopped by his side. "Dr. Ahmad? Hi."
"Josie," he said, standing and gesturing for me to take a seat. "And it's Hasan," he added. "Has for short."
Once we were settled in our seats, Has said, "Looking good," and pointed to his eyebrow.
"I've been applying the Vitamin E oil every hour," I said. "I do not want a scar."
"Keep it up and it will be like it never happened."
"Except it will always sting that I missed Pearl Jam." I stuck out my lip and mock-pouted.
"That's where you were headed?" he asked. We got to chatting about music, our favorite bands, and the best concerts we'd ever seen in person. Has told me he goes to Burning Man every year, and I pictured him treating all those concert-goers tweaked out on Molly. In my mind's eye he was shirtless, sweating underneath the sun, and screaming, "If we don't get this man to a hospital within the hour he will die. Do you hear me?!"
After I had a cup of coffee in front of me (decaf after three, otherwise I stay up all night fretting over things like how it's been three years since I've been to the dentist), Has said, "Honestly, I was surprised you wanted to do this. I assumed you were, you know, involved with your friend."
Nina and I? Lezzzbians? I'd never gotten that before. I mean, we were headed to a concert and I guess we were dressed a little on the tough side, but if that was all he was basing that assumption on it was pretty weak. The idea of Nina being my girlfriend made me laugh. "God, no."
"Oh," Has shrugged. "The way you were...I just assumed."
I didn't know what to make of that, so I just changed the subject. "So you have to go back to work after this?"
Has nodded. "Sucks, doesn't it?"
I nodded. "But it's so admirable, what you do."
"Well," Has pointed at me. "You too! The head of the Pro Bono program at your law firm. I mean, good for you. If I meet one more woman in this city who is in media, God." He rolled his eyes dramatically.
I don't know what came over me—a combination of female agreeability and good old fashion surprise—because instead of correcting him, and telling him that I was not, in fact, the do-gooder intellectual he thought I was, but instead the media-girl who he was so sick of meeting, I said, "I know, right?"
Thankfully, before I could dig myself any deeper, Has looked at his watch and said, "Sorry to do this. But I really have to get going."
I was all prepared to never see Has again. But then out on the street, he leaned down and gave me a kiss goodbye, and he smelled like late nights and courage under fire, and when he said we should do this again, I nodded dumbly.
As soon as I was by myself, I called Nina and told her everything.
"This is amazing," Nina said. "My very own little Elle Woods! I couldn't be more proud."
"Stop," I said. "I'm honestly so confused about why he thought that though. Was there another girl at the hospital who looked like me or something?"
"Now that I think about it," Nina said. "There was this one couple there. She'd done something to her head too, and she was holding a towel against her forehead. I think she had blonde hair."
That had to be it, and Has's comment about assuming I was 'with' my 'friend' hadn't been in reference to Nina, it'd been in reference to this couple. It also explained the shock on his face when I first asked him out in the hospital hallway. He thought I was creeping around on mah man.
"Grand," I said. "Anyway, I gotta go. Ashley's thing."
"Good luck," Nina said. "Call me after and tell me everything."
I was pretty surprised when I arrived at the engagement party. I knew it was at L'Artusi in the West Village, so I'd assumed Tom and Ashley had rented out the back room, which was on the small-ish side. But they'd actually rented the entire top floor, which could not have been cheap.
The first people I saw were Ashley's parents. I said a lukewarm hello to them, doing the awkward lean in I always do before Ashley's Mom makes it crystal freaking clear we are not hugging. Ashley's parents are...well, I'm not really sure how to describe them. They're good people, and they want the best for their daughter, obviously, but they're a little cold. Not much personality and certainly the type that avoids confrontation at all costs. I can almost guarantee you that if I were to go to them and tell them about Tom, they would just shrug their shoulders and say it was between the two of them and Ashley would eventually figure it out. If a guy did to me what Tom did to Ashley and my Mom found out about it? It would be his balls.
Ashley also has an older half-sister, who she was never really close to because they're twelve years apart. By the time Ashley was in middle school, Marissa was already out of college. Now, she lives in upstate New York with her husband and two kids, and the two hardly ever speak.
I didn't know what to expect from Tom's family, but I figured any family that turned out a man like him had to be broken in some way. So I was shocked to discover that they were exactly the opposite: A sweetheart of a younger sister, two loving parents who had been together for thirty something years, and tons of cousins and aunts and uncles, all loud, vivacious, and incredibly warm and welcoming. When Ashley introduced me to Tom's Mom, Doreen, she threw her arms around me and jumped up and down, squealing, "I'm so happy to meet you, sweetheart! Ashley's told me all about her best friend."
Ugh, that made my heart hurt. I wanted nothing more than to be genuinely happy for Ashley, but this was just all kinds of wrong.
As I made my way around the room, giving hugs hello and meeting the rest of Tom's family, it occurred to me that Doreen was the total opposite of Ashley's Mom. Part of me wondered if half the draw of Tom was his family, since Ashley didn't really have that going on for her. It just made me all the more determined to be a good friend to Ashley, to show her there are people who love her and will be there for her, even without Tom and his family.
I always have to dig deep to be pleasant towards Tom. And you know what makes it even more uncomfortable? The last time I saw him, and the night of the engagement party, he was one charming bastard. It would almost be easier if he was an asshole to me, because we could just exchange a bit of small talk and move on. But Tom complimented my dress and engaged me in a long conversation about my job. And what else can you do but respond as though he is a normal, decent person? The disconnect between how I feel about him and how I'm forced to act around him is massive.
At one point, I was idling in the corner, checking email on my phone, when Tom's sister, Isabel, approached me. I'd put her in her late thirties/early forties, and she was there by herself. "Divorced." She'd rolled her eyes at me when I asked if she was seeing anybody. I think she felt drawn to me because we were two of the only single people there.
"Anyone fun?" Isabel asked, nodding to my phone.
It took me a second to realize what she was asking. "I wish. Work email."
Isabel groaned. "The worst. Like no respect for your personal time these days."
I nodded, even though from what I'd heard from Ashley, Isabel had never worked a day in her life. She'd gone from her father's payroll to her ex-husband's. It's like my worst nightmare.
"So we are in love with Ashley," Isabel added.
"She's a good one," I said.
"And you know, it's like thank God Tom got that problem fixed so they can just move on with their marriage and start afresh."
I was really surprised Isabel would speak so candidly of Tom's 'problem', but it was kind of a relief to have it out in the open, and to be able to talk about it with someone who was so close to Tom. "I wouldn't say it's fixed," I said. "He needs to do a lot of work, but hopefully he gets better."
Isabel cocked her head at me. "Of course it's fixed. The vasectomy is reversed." She clapped her hands, the noise so sharp I jumped. "Done and done."
"Oh, right," I stumbled. "I guess, I just didn't know...how that worked."
"No," Isabel said, reproachfully, like I was her student and I'd answered a question to her oral pop quiz wrong. "You were talking about something else."
"I wasn't!" But my voice pitched, giving me away. I took a step back from Isabel. "I'm just going to quickly run to the bath—"
Isabel put her hand on my wrist, stopping me. "Did he hit her?"
Jesus, Josie. Way to put your foot in your big fat mouth for the second time that day. "I...I don't know."
"Yes, you do," Isabel said. "Tell me."
"There's nothing to tell!"
"I mean it, tell me or I'll create a scene. If you just tell me, I'll wait and speak to my brother about it in private."
I just gave up. I was tired of hiding this. "He did. Okay? He did."
Isabel dropped my wrist and put her head in her hands. "God damnit!" she seethed. "He promised me..." she trailed off.
"He promised you what?"
"That he was getting help. After Jackie. His ex. He said he was all 'fixed' or whatever." She picked her head up and looked at me. "This family does not condone that behavior. That's not how Tom was raised. I don't want you getting the wrong idea."
"I'm not," I said. "I don't have any idea...about anything." Oh God, someone save me from this conversation.
"Well, I won't say anything here," Isabel said. "But I am going to talk to him."
"Please, don't," I said. "I'm actually afraid. If he finds out Ashley told me, and that I told you. I'm afraid what he would do to Ashley."
"He's not a murderer for Christ's sake," Isabel laughed. "He just has a little bit of a temper is all." So that's how the family excuses it. 'Just a little bit of a temper'. People are so gross sometimes.
I was about to protest again, but at that moment Isabel's aunt joined us, and the subject was dropped.
At the end of the night, I said goodbye to Ashley and all of her new family. Ashley thanked me over and over for coming. You won't be thanking me when I tell you about my conversation with Isabel tomorrow, I thought. But deep down, I was hopeful that the news that Tom 'tried' to fix his problem, and clearly failed, would make her reconsider the engagement.