Ellen Pober Rittberg
"Kid, get in here," my boss Alexandra says, and I rush in. Allie is an impatient sort whose voice escalates
from a whisper to sonic-boom timbre in record time. But the voice never has an edge to it. It is orotund yet dulcet,
Zeus-as-female in a benevolent mode, albeit with bad acoustics. Although I am by metabolism and inclination
slug-like, I rouse myself with the requisite fervor, having convinced myself since I began working for her
four months ago that I have transformed myself into a high-energy type, and thus am eminently right, eminently
suited for her, and thus a corporate asset.
I remind myself to duck as I enter her office, which contains an assortment of high-quality reproductions of
unclad and semi-clad classical Greek sculptures, some of which are life-sized, armed, and dangerous.
Surrounded by several mounds of book manuscripts, Allie sits in stockinged feet on her dun-colored commercial carpeting. She is totally absorbed, her aspect that of a Bodhisattva. Grazing her compact but well-proportioned shoulders is a strand of English Ivy hanging from an overhead planter. She reaches up and holds it as if she draws strength from it, as if it were a scimitar. One of her eccentricities is that she always has something in her hand -- a bag, a book, a burnished stone paperweight, or several of these objects in combination.
"Tomorrow. A one-page synopsis. Thanks, kid," she says, as she chucks reading matter at me.
Some background: My employer, Anthony Davies Limited Literary agency -- A.D. Limited for short -- is one of the oldest and toniest literary agencies. It is part of a larger entertainment entity, A.D. Inc. Despite its popular-culture bent, The Limited is grudgingly considered by its upstart rivals to be a Venerable Institution. If there ever was a need to prove it, its walls contain enough distressed cypress to have denuded Greater Ancient Lebanon.
Everyone at A.D. -- the chairman of the board's son included -- begins in the mailroom. One remains
there only if one is mentally unsuited to the rigors of the larger workplace. There are three routes out
of the mailroom: death, ambition, and dismissal due to a lack of circumspection, the most common form being
staring at female actress clients' cleavage. After the mailroom, the “boys” and “girls” serve as assistants to agents.
At first, I thought I’d go to the feature film department. In college I wrote screenplays in my spare time. Also,
I have always had this irresistible urge to use the phrase, “Fade to Black” in a romantic situation. Although, frankly, I don’t have a clue about what I might mean. I think I’m better off in A.D. Ltd. reading books.
"Kid," she calls across the chasm of space between her inner sanctum and my outer cubicle, "would you mind fetching me a cup of water?" She hands me her clean coffee mug -- which she usually washes herself, her dainty, delicate, tapered soapy hands darting in and out of the mug. One of the many things I love about my boss is that she is a democrat with a small “d.” Sometimes I fetch coffee for her and sometimes she fetches coffee for me.
When I return, she whispers, "It's asleep," the 'it' being her small derriere. I instantly become her all-purpose faithful lifeboat-tugboat-dock. She anchors her small wrists against mine; I repress a sigh of pleasure. Surely she notices my well-developed-to-near-perfection arm muscles, muscles which I have sedulously exerted in the gym in her honor. Allie plops down into her overstuffed leather chair, which emits a heavy sigh. She throws herself into the task of re-arranging her desk files. I no longer exist for her.
The moment I settle back into my cubicle, Allie buzzes me. On average, I make 20.5 trips into her office each day. Not that I'm counting.
"What does..." she consults her desk blotter, "jejune mean? Give me the lesser-known definitions, Elliot."
"Not nourishing. Barren."
"What would I do without you, kid?"
"For starters, I'd recommend an unabridged Oxford English Dictionary." She smiles sweetly and then
gazes out the window where two pigeons build a nest.
"They mate for life, you know," she says.
"Funny how most species are monogamous," I say, as my brain Rolodex spins through my thirty seconds’ worth of animal kingdom factoids. I aim to be indispensable to her. If all else fails, indispensability can feel like love in its pre- and post- passion phases.
My desk is next to an exposed and tumescent Poland Springs dispenser. This causes me to think Allie-thoughts, all of which are broadly and conflatedly non-work-related. If I go without seeing her for too long -- say, half an hour -- I begin to pine for her. To allay this sensation, I silently pad back into her office to retrieve a steno pad or a book that I have cleverly and surreptitiously planted in her office earlier in the day.
"Kid, are you trying to give me heart failure? My nerves are shot to hell without your help, thank you very much."
"I aim to please."
"In which case, goodbye. Shoo."
I salute her smartly and leave. "Will do." I return to my desk. My buzzer sounds.
"Did you know Shakespeare's meaning of the word will?"
At home that evening I check out the word will in my O.E.D. Noun form, Shakespeare's usage: the male member. Verb form: sexual copulation. I consider this a small victory.
The following morning, Allie shakes a page of a manuscript in my general direction. The author came to us via Underboss, which is her nickname for our department head.
"Every other sentence -- that infernal 'I.' Well, I can't take it. Give me a hole puncher.
I’m going to punch each 'I' out."
"Umm, do you want me to make a copy of the page first?" I ask her.
"Good thinking,” she says. Standing next to her, I feel as if I am her North Star. I'm tall, very -- 6'4." She's small, compact. I wonder if she thinks I am handsome? I have been told I am, and I believe I am, in a brooding, Byronic way.
"Oh shit. I can't believe I just punched a hole in my hair." She inspects a tendril of her charcoal hair, which reaches halfway down her long neck. She licks it. Her action makes me feel immediately lascivious -- not a good way to be in my subservient state and during business hours, no less. I have taken to wearing a long nubby gray old-man cardigan sweater to work. It is my last line of defense against this temptress who tempts with a lick.
I return to my desk. My buzzer buzzes.
"Elliot, if the writer doesn't knows stygian refers to the River Styx or that it means gloomy and hellish, why does he use it? Doesn't anyone read Greek mythology or Robert Graves or Edith Head anymore?"
"Hamilton. I think you mean Edith Hamilton."
"Whoever." Allie stares sullenly at the manuscript, which is attached to an inter-office memo. "You and I both know we wouldn't be hawking this tripe except her daddy's a good golfing buddy with What's-His-Face," Allie says, snorting a stagy snort for emphasis. Watching her while simultaneously grabbing onto the crooked elbow of Narcissus to stabilize myself, I feel my love for Allie coursing through me. And for a moment I forget the ever-present fact -- ever-present, because she is always bringing it up -- of our age difference. Which is -- I'm not certain exactly how much it is. I am a mature twenty-two. Allie is somewhere in her forties. She has two very grown sons, Archer and Richard, both of whom must be biologically hers. They have her creamy skin, aquiline nose and obdurate chin. But that is where the physical similarity ends. Her sons are large, hulking and behemoth. Their wary eyes are nothing like hers, which are dreamy and soft, except when she rarely berates me.
Oddly enough, or not so oddly, Allie never speaks of her ex-husband by name. When she refers to him, she refers to him as "he," as in, "He drinks tea with lemon and two and three quarter packs of Sweet and Low. Hand it to him when he walks in, Elliot. He's impressed by efficiency," which I take to mean that he wasn't very good in bed.
"Hey, great sweater," her ex- said when we were introduced. He took the arm of my old-man sweater and ran it between his stubby fingers. "So, this is the latest in grunge office boy chic. That's what they call the assistants, 'boys and girls,’ isn't it?"
"She calls me 'kid' because she doesn’t know my name."
"Of course I do. It's...Elliot...is that really your name? Elliot. Elliot Elliot. I don’t know. It doesn't sound right."
"It sounds right to me."
"Is that alright with one 'l' and no space or two 'l's' and a space?"
"Are you two finished?" he asked us, not remotely amused.
“And what's this I hear about 'office chic'? Or is it 'cheek?' Is someone being cheeky?" Allie said, throwing her arm around her ex's shoulder. And then it hit me right between the cerebral cortex that this man, this smarmy creep, is my rival, and a surefooted one at that. A history and children in common can be a powerful aphrodisiac, I think. He clucked his tongue appreciatively as Allie moved around the room.
"You may be in luck. She likes them young," I imagined him saying as he left the office.
Would that it were true! She is forever throwing my age or my lack of years in my face.
“Read this. It takes place in the late-sixties through mid-seventies. They've got every cultural phenomenon in it. They even have a Teach-In. Oh, that's right," she adds, her voice thick with sarcasm. "You wouldn't know what a Teach-In is unless you attended one in utero."
"I remember sloshing around and hearing things in a faraway region," I reply.
"Yeah, I'll bet you did," she says, returning to her work.
Yea, though she may tarry, I know one day she and I will become as one. One day, while leaning against the wall, her body waving like a wheat stalk, she will lock the door after work -- she wouldn't do it on company time, no slacker is she -- and she will wrap one long and lovely leg around me and will send me reeling onto the carpet.
"I can deck you any day kid," she will say. And our passion will course over us like an ocean wave that breaks too late, tossing us into the heady disequilibrium that love is.
My reverie is interrupted by my buzzer. I bound into the room.
"What'dya think?" She points to a manuscript.
"Didn't like." She slides my evaluation sheet next to hers. They match exactly. They always do.
"Lush prose I could deal with, but...lush dialogue?"
"It has its place. If the speaker were drunk."
"Very funny. Very funny, kid." She looks up. Her pupils, which are inches away from her high intensity lightbulb, are fully constricted, giving them the appearance of a hyperalert tropical lizard.
That night I dream about Allie. She is inside a large yellow iridescent fish and I am inside the belly of
a transparent whale. She wears one of those Speedo bathing suits that the swim team women at my college wore, the kind that makes even small-breasted women like Allie look broad and chesty. It billows and curls around her body. She suddenly disappears underwater. And then -- just at the moment I would have seen her breasts -- I am jarred to wakefulness by my five alarm clocks that stand next to my bed, five, because Allie hates late people. Point of fact: Allie thinks lateness ought to be a cardinal sin. When I told her she'd have to eliminate one of the other cardinal sins, she picked gluttony. "It's vastly overrated," she said.
Half-awake but fully-aroused, I start another day with her, reminding myself that with the exception of her black
hair and sensible shoes, she really does look like Botticelli's Venus. On bad days, I consider asking personnel
to assign me to another department. I couldn’t bear not seeing her daily, not smelling her Carolina Herrera perfume.
I know that's her fragrance because one day a Bloomingdale's saleslady and I sniffed through several dozen
mirrored trays of perfume atomizers until I identified my beloved's fragrance. I bought Allie a bottle,
and I plan to give it to her at a propitious moment. I'm a firm believer in propitious moments.
One important reason Allie and I are suited for each other is that we have the same literary sensibility. Between us, we have discovered several unknown authors. And -- oh happiness for me -- she has a special Walt Whitman section on her bookshelf. I don't think I could ever seriously love a woman who did not love Whitman. One day, I will read old Walt aloud to her in my rich baritone voice, my breath heaving up, all fire, all feeling.
Around the office, there's talk of slash and burn cost-cutting and agent firings. She mentions it to me at 9 p.m., just as we are finishing up our Chinese take-out meal. She slumps against the wall, tired, depleted.
"I'm going to get the ax, I just know it," she says morosely. "But your track record's great," I tell her.
"Didn't you ever hear of last hired, first fired?" She snaps a snow pea in two for emphasis.
"Apothecary" cleaned up. That how-to book, "How to Eat Out," reached what, Number Seven on the
New York Times Best Seller List? You've got great taste. And you're valued by...everyone."
She begins pacing the small space between her bookshelf and her desk. If she starts to cry hysterically, I know just what to do – hey, I've watched enough "B" movies -- I'll slap her across the face once. Just once. I'm not a violent person.
My reverie is suddenly broken by one of her Statements From The Past. It invades me, rips at my viscera.
"You sound just like him. He used to say, 'Stop it. You're a mature woman. You raised two children.'”
What could she see in him, my nemesis, I wonder? He is big and hulking, like her boys, but even more so. He has heft around the neck like a bull, and is wide in the seat like a trucker who does long hauls. He is a highly successful accountant who I assume was a good provider. Which must explain his appeal. That, and his fine flax-colored hair, which, if I know my little woman well enough, was the thing which hooked her on him, the delicacy of it.
Before leaving the office, Allie calls her ex-. I hear her laughter. It sounds uncharacteristically giddy and girlish. And then she says: "Fred, you're wearing down my resistance." Bending down to clean up the remains of our take-in Chinese meal, I almost pass out. The thought of the two of them together coupled with some iffy egg drop soup was too much for me. I force myself to consider the latest persistent A.D. rumor: that old Fred Mertz has floated a re-marriage proposal her way and that she is seriously considering it.
Later that night in my apartment while forcing myself to sleep at 4 a.m., I decide that I must let her know how I feel. I'll use subtle word-play. But if she doesn't get it, what then? Will I grow old at A.D. Ltd. alone, making agent, seeing her only in the hallway or hearing her voice, muffled and distant, from an adjacent room. Jamais! Never! I fall into a fitful sleep, not without first taking out the Carolina Herrera perfume atomizer I bought for her. I sniff at it desultorily.
The following evening, Allie packs it in earlier than normal -- which makes me nervous. I decide to visit Rizzoli Bookstore. I settle into a windowseat, examining a book of William Blake woodcuts. When I look up, I see Allie leafing through a book in the adjacent section, History. It's the first time I've seen her outside the workplace. She appears to be alone. Could it be? Could this be my opening, my one-time-only chance?
And then I see a man next to her. He is much older than her and me. They chat eagerly. I hunch over my book to avoid being seen. Allie sees me. She approaches me, smiling gamely.
"Elliot, I didn’t see you there! Look who I just ran into, one of my very favorite people, Richard Moony. I was his girl before he retired from A.D." I nod, as if I was expected to have committed to memory this significant piece of corporate history.
"Aren't you Greta Morris' son?" he asks me.
"How did you know?" I ask, flabbergasted.
"She mentioned you were working for one of the newer female literary agents at A.D. and I quite naturally drew the connection." Naturally my ass. The only thing I know is, I want this man out of here now.
"I didn't know Mom knew any of us agency-people," Allie says to no one in particular. "Richard and I are going for drinks. Would you care to join us, El?," she asks. Her voice is uninflected and soft, and thoroughly devoid of the tough-girl inflection she always uses with me.
"Thanks. I think I will join you if it’s all right with Richard." Richard's mouth twitches ever so slightly. Which I take to mean that he sees me as a potential rival. Which is good. We walk to a cafe a few blocks away. Allie instantly charges forward, loping greyhound style. Lope. Lope. Unlike me, Richard has no trouble keeping up with her. He looks back.
"Isn't she something," he says with a cluck. What is it about Allie that makes men cluck? He tugs at her elbow. And then it hits right between the sinus headache region that yes, they slept together. Maybe she goes for older men and older men only. A wave of nausea flows over me, lodging around my Adam's apple region.
"I don't feel so good suddenly," I tell them, bowing low to the ground.
Richard looks genuinely concerned. After all, I'm one of the extended A.D. family.
"Well, let's sit down."
"No, I'll be all right," I tell him, bowing lower, my head almost grazing the pavement.
"Well, at least let's put you into a taxi," he says. I fall forward almost into his arms, while at the same time suppressing my urge to do him permanent bodily harm. I don't like his repeated use of the first person plural, in contraction-form no less.
"Richard, I'm going with Elliot."
"All right. Call me," he whispers while pressing some cash into her hand.
As the taxi pulls away, I watch the image of a grizzled and thwarted Richard recede, and I feel instantly better. Chipper even.
"Where do you live?" Allie asks me.
"Ninety-sixth between Broadway and Amsterdam."
As I exit the cab, she follows me out, grabbing my arm. Her palm is cool and smooth, like a pearl. Do I tell her the truth, that I've made a miraculous recovery? I say nothing.
As we walk the few steps to my apartment building, I make a quick mental tally of how many personal items are scattered around my apartment. None. Good. There's nothing worse than the wayward jockstrap lying on the floor, exposing me, as it were.
"Give me the key," she commands. Her voice sounds unnaturally deep, as if she is inside a wind tunnel.
She fumbles for the light switch. I put my hand on top of hers and then quickly pull away. Great. I’m pawing her. She flicks on the light, wiggling her index finger in the switch like a tongue in an ear and then she takes off my coat. Every hair on my head starts to tingle.
"You can go. You don't have to..."
"Do what?" You're sick. I'll take care of you. Maybe I should get you to a hospital." I wince.
"It could be appendicitis."
"No it's lower. I'm going to lie down," I announce as I collapse onto the couch, my faintness returning in earnest.
She bends down to plump up a pillow under my head, and for the first time I smell her skin,
which smells like a ripe peach and Carolina Herrera fragrance. I strain to reach my shoes.
She unties the shoelaces. Our hands meet. This small intimacy is so very sweet I want to scream. Instead,
I bite my lip so hard it almost bleeds. Doesn't she know I love her slightly-puffy lower lip? As she slides off my socks, her thumbs brush across my ankle-humps. I tug at my old-man sweater to cover my vitals but the gesture is futile. The sweater wads up around my waist.
"Didn't your mother teach you not to put your feet on the furniture?" she asks. One of her black elliptical curls falls into her face, swinging rhythmically, like a metronome. Our eyes meet and hold for the first time. And then my eyes roll back in my head, not because I am trying to play my faux-tropical disease for all it's worth but because my eyes roll back involuntarily whenever I am seized with great feeling.
She looms over me and then lands with a small thump onto her stockinged knee next to me. "You're not epileptic, are you, Elliot?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
"Because your eyes are doing this," she says, and she imitates my eyeball inversion, raising her eyes toward the ceiling as if she has a speck in them.
"It's something I do, a reflex, I guess, when I want to separate myself from myself."
"It sounds Hindu or something. Or is it Buddhist? I never took a course in college in comparative religion and in high school we only studied it as part of a larger Eastern-Western civilization survey. I studied it cursorily. Is that the right pronunciation, Elliot?" Cursorily?" she asks me. She bites her lip.
"Didn't your mother teach you to look at people when you speak to them?" I ask, elevating her chin with my thumb.
"You're not people." You're Elliot.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means the rules of civilized society need not apply here." Her face is a mixture of uncertainty, longing and fear of the unknown. My thumbs and forefingers encircle her wrists like handcuffs.
"I'm not letting go."
"All right. But first I want to see some I.D."
"Oh shut up."
She stands up, and my hands levitate above my head -- I’m still holding her wrists. She tries to speak but I kiss her. It is a decidedly long and non-Platonic kiss. She drinks me in. Her arms drop to the sides of the couch. She is an equatorial butterfly suddenly pinned. I bury her under a sea of airy kisses. And then, only then do I let go of her wrists and undertake to concentrate on her other, less-bony regions. And then I whisper more to myself than to her as I click off the high intensity reading light, “Fade to black.” Maybe later, I’ll recite some Walt Whitman.
©2007 by Ellen Pober Rittberg