I was walking into Penn Station on Christmas Eve when I felt my phone vibrate in my coat pocket. It was Richard.
"Hello, lover," I breathed, channeling my best phone sex operator.
Richard didn't laugh. His "Hey" was somber.
I ignored it. "I'm just getting here. Meet me by the Hudson News Stand"—I dodged a man coming at me with the intensity of a One Direction fan—"the one next to Duane Reade and we can get"—
"Jos," Richard cut me off, "I'm really sorry. But I don't think I'm coming. This just feels too fast, too soon."
I stopped so suddenly a woman crashed into me from behind. "You don't stop in the middle of Penn Station on Christmas Eve you stupid bitch!" she screamed at me as she stalked by.
"Merry fucking Christmas to you too!" I screamed after her, my rage fueled not so much by her, but by the jerk on the phone who I trusted not to do exactly what he was doing to me. Bail. After we had sex. Like he's done to every other girl ever.
"Josie!" Richard said. "What was that?"
"Nothing," I muttered.
"Do you hate me?" he asked, and that was when I noticed the echo. I turned, slowly, to see Richard standing right behind me, the strap of his overnight bag pulling one shoulder low and a huge grin eating up half his face.
I charged him and pounded my fists on his chest, laughing. "Now I hate you!"
Richard grabbed my wrists and leaned down. "No, you don't." We had a movie scene kiss right there, frenzied fast-walkers trying to make their trains huffing around us from all sides, but with Richard's hands dangerously low on my back, I couldn't have cared less.
"So how did Frank take it?" Richard asked, once we were settled into our seats, our coats and bags piled high on our laps. We were on the 4:11 to Summit, and the train was so packed there was barely enough room to roll your eyes at the one douchebag who had rudely given the seat next to him to his briefcase, never mind that there were about twenty people in the aisle, desperate to sit. I couldn't wait for the conductor to come by and tell that dude which way was up.
"Oh, you know Happy Franky. He poured me a glass of champagne."
Richard smirked. "Come on."
I had to wait for the official offer to come through before I could talk to Frank, and it took a few days longer than expected because there was some back and forth about my vacation time. They were offering me exactly what Literatti offered me, and Nance said in general, you don't want to leave a job unless you're getting a better offer on both salary and vacay-time. So that required me to put on my negotiator pants again and then HR had to approve it and then the offer letter had to be revised. Finally, the Monday evening before Christmas, I had a hard copy in hand.
First thing Tuesday morning, I knocked on Frank's door. "I'm sorry to bother you in the morning," I said, "but it's important."
Frank tossed his pen on his desk and sighed, "Come in."
When I shut the door behind me, Frank sat up straighter. I don't think he really believed it was important until I did that. I sat down in the chair in front of his desk. "So, before I say anything, I want to thank you for the amazing opportunities you've given me while I was here. I learned so much on the LA trip, and I'm so appreciative that you advocated for me to go with you, and to get that experience. So, thank you. Again."
Frank wasn't blinking. Two little pink circles appeared on his cheeks, right underneath his glasses.
"I got another job offer, and I'm accepting it."
I held my breath, waiting for him to say something, anything.
"Are you going to tell me where?" he asked, flatly.
"It's at Creative Writers and Artists."
Frank smiled cryptically and said, "Ah."
We sat in a tense silence for a few moments. I opened my mouth to ask what the next steps were, if I needed to talk to HR and when my last day should be, but Frank suddenly rose from his chair. He walked over to the window and folded his arms across his chest, staring out at his spectacular view of Columbus Circle and the lower loop of Central Park. "Let me guess," he said. "You're going to work with William."
I shifted in my seat so I was facing his back. "I am. They made me an offer I can't refuse."
Frank turned to face me and asked, "How much?"
I swallowed. I didn't know if this was an appropriate conversation to have, but I also didn't know how to tell Frank I wasn't comfortable telling him. "Seventy-five thousand."
Frank's eyebrows skipped up his forehead. "That's quite impressive for an assistant." He seemed to realize something. "You are going to be his assistant, aren't you?"
I nodded and Frank laughed knowingly, like he was part of an inside joke that I wasn't. "What?"
Frank sighed. "Josie, do you understand what your life will be like as the assistant of a literary agent at a powerhouse like CWA?"
The fact that even he referred to CWA as a powerhouse just made me want to work there more. "A lot of hard work," I said. "A lot of long hours. Not always dealing with the most pleasant people. Having a thick skin."
Frank gave me a pitying look, like I knew nothing. "It's a presentation." When I didn't appear to understand, he said, "You," he thrust his hands at me, "are the first thing a client sees when he comes in to meet William. And what a nice thing for the client to see."
"I'm sorry...I'm not following." That wasn't entirely true, because I kind of was.
Frank steepled his hands. "William is a buffoon. He's the laughing stock of this industry. Did you know that?" He waited for me to nod my acknowledgement but I wouldn't, the same way I wouldn't take the bait when William started in on Frank. After a few beats, Frank went on. "He wants a sweet, pretty, twenty-something assistant to get him his coffee and greet his movie star clients and give them a nice view when you turn around to lead them into his office. Then when you leave, they'll have a big laugh about the piece of ass that William has serving him hand and foot. It's a pissing contest over there to see who has the most bed-able assistant."
My face was flaming red. Even though I didn't believe it, not really, it was just such a crass, rude thing to say, and I was embarrassed.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I just really don't see it that way. I didn't pick up on anything like that when I was there. William has been good to me. And he's never once made me feel like he's interested in anything other than what I can offer him professionally. I know his reputation"—Frank tried to butt in, and I spoke louder, "but that was one woman and the lawsuit was thrown out. The judge said there was absolutely no evidence to show that William acted inappropriately, and I do believe she was just looking for a payday."
Frank didn't seem to have heard anything I said. "How old are you, Josie?"
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I'll be 26 in a month...why?"
"And I'm assuming being an assistant isn't what you want to be for the rest of your life?"
I gave him a look like, don't patronize me.
"There is a lot of in between in the publishing industry," Frank said. "You are on track to being an associate editor here. After that you're on to senior, and then there are all kinds of opportunities available to you after that, if you work for them. And you are a hard worker. I'm very impressed by you." He gave me a little nod. "At an agency, you are either an assistant, or an agent, and do you know how hard—and how long—it will take for you to become an agent, if you even become one at all?" He muttered, under his breath, "Which is unlikely."
I made a mental note of that. William has never once doubted my abilities. "The agent training program is an in between," I pointed out. "When you complete that, you're a junior agent."
Frank cocked his head at me. "Do you understand how difficult it is to get into the agent training program? And do you understand how difficult the program is once you're in it?"
I didn't say anything, so Frank continued. "Most people wait years to be nominated. Then the program?" Frank laughed, much louder than he needed to. "They send you back to the mailroom—which is where most kids start out before they're even promoted—promoted!—to an assistant. It's grunt work, the worst kind. You are on your feet all day, delivering mail, running errands, basically being everyone's servant from 5AM to midnight. Every. Single. Day. Even the weekends." Off my look he said, "Oh yeah, you don't get those off. And it's not a set amount of time either, like three months, so you at least have a light at the end of the tunnel. It's whenever they tell you you're done. You'll be in LA, away from all your family and friends, running yourself into the ground with no end in sight. And if you don't drop out—which the drop out rate is," he brought his hand to his chin and stroked it, "Eighty per cent I believe?" He walked back to his desk and placed his hands on the surface, leaning on them to level me with his gaze. "Twenty percent of candidates make it through. And then after that!" He held up his finger, excitedly, like he'd left out the best part. "You still don't become an agent! You come back to New York—or you stay in LA if they decide they want you to—and you're on a trial period until you prove you can bring in enough money to earn your keep." Frank perched on the ledge behind him and crossed his arms over his chest, satisfied that he'd sufficiently terrorized the living daylights out of me.
"Did William tell you all that?" he asked, when I didn't say anything.
I could barely speak I was so shocked. "Not in that amount of detail," I managed. "No."
Frank smiled. "Still wanna do it?"
When I still didn't say anything Frank cleared his throat. "You had a very smart, very fresh suggestion for who should introduce the new Sylvia Plath work."
I looked up at him, waiting.
"Lena Dunham." He smiled. "She's basically this generation's Plath, isn't she? Marginalized, equal parts celebrated and panned for being a talentless hack. A new kind of feminist. All just like Sylvia." He looked at me like, recognize any of that? And I did, because I'd written all of it in the pitch I'd given him. It had been my one dark horse idea.
"Everyone loved it," he said. "I think you have a real future here. And," he stood now, "I think it might be time to promote you. To associate editor. I don't know if we can offer you 75,000, but I think we could get you to 65. And as you move up the ranks," he demonstrated this rise with his hand, "you'll be compensated accordingly. You'll be stuck at 75 at CWA for as long as you are an assistant, which will be a while."
"So what are you going to do?" Richard demanded.
I looked at him, startled. I'd been so in my head recapping the conversation I forgot he was there. "Uh, go cry to my mommy."
Richard laughed. "Did you at least tell William they counter offered you?"
"He's on a flight to Switzerland," I said. "I emailed him and said we needed to talk, but I didn't want to get into the why over email." The train screeched to a stop and I simmered with self-satisfaction when all of briefcase douche's things spilled into the aisle. No one standing there helped him pick up his things and he had to get on his hands and knees in his nice suit and collect them himself. SWEET JUSTICE. "But I know exactly what I'm going to say to him."
"Well, I want him to be brutally honest with me about the agent-training program. I want to know if Frank was right or if he was just trying to manipulate me into staying. Then I'm going to tell him they counter offered me, and ask if he can do better for me now. Better title. More money."
"But," Richard said, "Frank didn't offer you more money."
I smiled, slyly. "Did I say he did? I'm just asking if CWA can do better than what they're already doing for me, not what Literatti is doing for me." I shrugged. "The worst they do is say no, but at least I tried."
"We-hell-helllll," Richard said. "Look at you. Playing hardball." He dug his hands in my sides and I yelped when he hit a ticklish spot. Now everyone was looking at me with venom in their eyes, like I was briefcase douche. "Shhhh," Richard laughed, "sorry." He looped his arm around me and I rested my head on his chest.
"I wish I could have been more like you when I was your age," Richard mumbled, so quietly I almost didn't hear him.
"Richard, we're three years apart."
I rolled my eyes. "Fine, three and a half."
I felt his sigh on the top of my head. "I'm just saying, Josie. I'm going to be 30 soon. It wasn't that I dicked around all these years, but I just couldn't figure out what I wanted to do."
"I thought you want to write a book."
"I do," Richard said. "But let's be real. That may or may not happen, and it's more likely to not pan out that it is to be my breakthrough. I need a career. I've moved around so much that I'm basically entry level wherever I go. If I'd stuck to something at 26, I'd actually be somewhere by now." He fiddled with a loose thread on the arm of my sweater. "I wish I had a do-over or something. I'd do exactly what you're doing."
I didn't know what to say, and the train was lulling me to sleep. I closed my eyes, equal parts exhausted and humming with energy.
When we arrived in Summit, Richard and I collected our things and filed off the train. I scanned the parking lot until I spotted Nance's car.
"Richard!" Nance said when we climbed in. "We are so thrilled to have you with us this Christmas, sweetheart."
Richard said, "I can't thank you enough, Mrs. Mitchell."
"Nancy," my Mom said. "I told you, call me Nancy! And thank you! For making my daughter this happy."
"Mom," I fumed. You should have heard Nance when I told her that Richard was coming home with me for Christmas. "I knew it!" she shrieked. "Just the way you looked at him, you weren't the most subtle, Josie. You should really work on that. Everyone likes a challenge." That made me laugh at least. What was Richard's word for me? Oh yes, cocktease, I believe it was.
Nance hummed along to her Kelly Clarkson Christmas album the entire ride home, and when I looked back at Richard I saw he was actually smiling looking out the window. It practically broke my heart in two—I don't think this guy has had a warm, homey holiday in a long time. He caught me looking at him. "What?"
"Nothing." I reached behind me and found Richard's hand. He gave it a little squeeze and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nance smile.
Part deux on Thursday!