So one beer led to another and in the morning Erica felt like death but worse. Her head hurt and her mouth was dry and she was pretty sure but not entirely sure but still pretty sure that there was some kind of food under the covers with her. There were vague memories attached to that feeling. Late night pizza delivery, too tired to eat, I can eat in bed no its fine then I can just roll over when I’m done. Oh good God there was most of a slice of pizza in the bed.
She stripped the sheets and dumped them into a laundry. Erica didn’t have extra sheets, so these would have to be washed today, and since she had to work she was going to have to drop them off at the expensive cleaners across the street. Which, she decided, was a fitting punishment.
The pizza slice wasn’t quite stale yet, and before putting in the trash she had a serious thought about taking a bite, but then she saw her blouse hanging on the back of the chair–the blouse that Mr. Handsome Man had criticized so unfairly–and in that moment a wave of strength and determination came over her. She dropped the pizza slice in the trash, and then grabbed her blouse and did the same, and then took the bag out of the trash can and walked through her living room and into the hallway and dropped the whole thing into the laundry chute.
And then sprinted back to her door in order to stop it from locking her out.
It was five-thirty in the morning and even if she was awake for all the wrong reasons, she was at least awake and ready to start what would be the first day of a new life.
Through a fog of nausea and headache and the curious sensation of being both full and hungry at the same time, Erica got herself ready. By seven she was fully dressed, and that included spending extra time going through her clothes to determine what actually looked decent. Her pickings were slim, but eventually she settled on something. The remainder of the clothes, a depressingly large chunk of her wardrobe–none of it expensive but in aggregate quite a bit of money–she threw in a heap on the floor. She would deal with it later.
On days when she was rushed, she would stick something in the toaster–bagel, waffle, Pop-Tart–and then eat it on the way to the subway. On days when she wasn’t in a hurry, she would stop at the diner by the subway and treat herself to a fantastic diner breakfast, where everything was enormous and drenched in an extra layer of love and butter. Today, however, she was earlier than ever, which meant that she had time to really think about what she wanted.
What she wanted was to be a three again. Love and butter wasn’t going to get her there.
So she stomped out of her apartment and went past the diner and into Health-Eez Organic Grocery. She had walked in here once thinking it was a regular grocery store but it smelled funny and there were plants everywhere and she didn’t recognize any of the brands and there was no way she was every going to eat anything with amaranth or kohlrabi in it. She didn’t even know where those lay on the spectrum of animal, vegetable, or mineral.
But here she was, going back inside. She walked past the wheat germ section, past the soy meats and faux milks, past the enormous piles of herbal extracts that claimed to cure everything from old age to smelly feet. In the back she found the bakery, and realized that everything in it looked kinda good.
Okay, not everything, some of it looked like sawdust compressed into a vague cookie shape, but the muffins looked like real muffins. There were little cards written in the cutesiest handwriting that listed all of ingredients. The blueberry muffin was proud of its unsweetened applesauce, tapioca flour, and coconut palm sugar. In less cutesy handwriting was the price, and no matter how healthy it was there was no way that Erica was going to pay seven dollars for a muffin, especially one so small.
She wheeled around and left without looking any more. By the subway there was a Korean grocer who sold giant red apples for a dollar, and she took two and ate them both waiting for the train to come. Breakfast was done. This was easier than she’d thought it would be.
She got to her desk and started to check her emails. There were very few messages in there, mostly chains that she just needed to be dimly aware of, nothing actually for her. On a normal day she would amuse herself by digging through vouchers or orders, to find a way to add value and justify her paycheck, but today was no ordinary day. Today was the first day of the rest of her life!
That was how she said it to herself, with an exclamation point and everything. A 1980s game show host voice. There were even cheesy graphics on the screen, like stars and happy faces. A studio audience full of tight jeans and feathered hair applauded her. The first day of the rest of her life!
She started her transformation in the best way possible: on Google. “Change Your Life.” It turned out there were a bunch of songs called that. Some of them quite catchy. But that wasn’t getting her towards her goal, so she went back to searching. One site recommended she start by finding meaning in life. No shit.
Another site recommended making a spreadsheet. Erica already made spreadsheets for a living, and that wasn’t getting her anywhere.
This site recommended jogging in your nearest park during your lunch hour. It was clearly written by somebody who lived in New York, and the picture was of a bunch of happy middle-aged people jogging in Central Park. One of them was even a chubby Latina! Erica had found her life change.
One more check of emails to make sure nothing had blown up, but nothing, just the usual lists she subscribed to and a reminder from management that the service elevators were for maintenance workers only. Erica grabbed her purse and bounded down. The regular elevators were being slow, but the service elevator was just a few floors and coming down so she pressed the button and took it, management be damned. In moments she was outside and heading straight for a running store.
She hadn’t owned running shoes since college. The shop keeper was very happy to let her try on a bunch of pairs and jog around the shop a bit. The shop keeper was kind enough not to notice that after about forty steps worth of trotting Erica was just the slightest bit out of breath. Finally, though, she had new shoes. Now she needed new everything else. Jogging pants, stylish, with a reflective stripe in case she wanted to run in the evening along the river. Then a matching top and a sports bra. There was no changing room so she’d just have to go on faith that these fit right.
And a bag she could use to carry it back and forth from work.
For a moment she considered buying a few more pants and shirts and bras, so she wouldn’t have to do laundry every day, but a prudent voice in her head that sounded strangely like her mother told her to start with these and build up as necessary. After all, these clothes were all stupid expensive. How could regular people afford to be healthy? Seven dollar muffins, forty-five dollar bras… At least running in the park was free. Actually, because she would be running instead of eating at Julian’s, it was like the park was actually paying her. She calculated that in just two weeks she would have paid off what she spent on the running clothes.
Back inside. The regular elevators were going up, so she snuck around the columns and hopped backed onto the service elevator, which almost whisked her straight to her floor. It actually stopped one floor below, and a bunch of maintenance workers with lots of equipment, some of it rather dangerous, were really irritated to see Erica standing there in the middle. She pushed herself all the way to the back and the workers with their angry faces piled in around her. The elevator doors tried to close three times before they succeeded.
“Service elevator,” one of the mumbled rather aggressively.
“Sorry,” she said meekly and then stared intently at the numbers over the door. The elevator groaned upwards for about ten seconds before it came to a stop and the bell dinged. The men let out a collective groan, and when the doors opened Erica tried to push her way out. “Sorry… Sorry… Excuse me… Sorry…”
When she was finally out she took a deep breath, shook off the shame, and then smiled again, happily clutching her new running-lifestyle-in-a-bag and bopping over to her desk.
As soon as she got to her desk Julie came barreling down the hallway and stopped right at her feet.
“Are you trying to get fired?” she said in a whisper-shout that was deadly serious.
“What…? No! … What?” Erica held her beg just over her desk, paralyzed. Her first thought was she just spent three hundred dollars and now she was going to get fired for riding on the wrong stupid elevator.
“Put this down–” Julie ripped the bag out of Erica’s hands and flung it under the desk. “And get into Ross’s office right now.” Erica didn’t move. Julie nearly started hopping up and down. “Right now, Erica! Right now!”
Erica went as fast as she could without running. Her mind was a horrible blue. Three hundred dollars, service elevator, Julian’s, muffin elevator dollars hundred fired service exercise shit shit shit shit shit.
“Is Mr. Larson in?” she asked Brianna as steadily as she could, fooling no one. Brianna’s head stood perfectly still. She looked up a Erica, then slowly looked over at Ross’s door. Then back to her computer. Erica started to move, then stopped, then started again, then asked, “So can I go in?”
Erica took a deep breath and went in.
“You called for me, Mr. Larson?”
“Yes, come in. Close the door behind you.”
Ross Larson was a three who carried himself like a one. He had the body of a one, or at least he did when he was younger. Maybe in the over-50 category he was still a one. His office was decorated like a very small and very exclusive museum, maybe a dozen things on display in total but each one priceless. When Erica walked in he was leaning against his desk, looking at one of his personal masterpieces.
“Sit down, Erica.”
Heart in throat, she sat on his chair. Even his sofa was beautiful.
“Seems you picked a bad day to be out and about all morning.”
“Mr. Larson, I can explain.”
He help us a hand to stop her. “No need, Julie was able to get it all done. For whatever it’s worth, your shared files are very well-organized. She got it all done just in time.” Erica had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded bad. “But that’s not her job, and that’s what we need to talk about.”
In movies sometimes the actors close their eyes and then the voices get all far away, the camera slowly comes in and eventually someone asks, “Are you hearing me?” and the hero snaps back to life. In real life you just sit there, sweating through your dress, realizing that your life is being upended and you can’t even concentrate on it because you are unbelievably hungry because all you’ve had today is two stupid apples.
Mr. Larson paced between her and his own desk. “I’ve been at Grossman Press now for thirty-two years, can you believe that? Thirty-two years in this business teaches you. About the business, yes, but about people. Who fits where, who will help the company get to where it needs to go. It teaches you about time, too. Time is always changing, and we need to change with it. Just when you think you have a handle on things you learn that the wheel has turned and you can either turn with it or get crushed underfoot. Are you following me?”
He arched an eyebrow at her, then continued. “I’ve decided we need to take this company in new directions, and that means making some changes, changes that will affect all of us. Some more than others.” He let that linger for a while. Erica stomach made an audible grumble. He stopped to look at her. Unable to think of anything else to do, she smiled back at him.
“We are going to purchase Saltpeter Books. I’m delivering the offer to them personally this afternoon, and they will accept in a little ceremony. After that the details are for the lawyers. Saltpeter brings us a wonderful roster of artists who specialize in young adult books for struggling readers, and self-help books. These are two big markets that we don’t represent at all at Grossman.”
Erica was getting more confused with each sentence.
“This is the biggest shakeup we’ve had in a decade or more, and I want you to know that I thought long and hard about who would best oversee this transition. Just so there’s no misunderstandings I wanted to tell everybody personally. Elizabeth Rawlins is going to take over Saltpeter directly, meaning she’ll be at their offices in the Village. Julie Knight will take over her portfolio, and we should be able to have someone in Julie’s seat in the next few days.”
“Oh,” was pretty much all Erica could say. “And what about me?”
Mr. Larson looked as if he hadn’t given it any thought at all. “You? You’ll stay where you are. Except that you’ll be reporting to this new person instead of Julie, I don’t think anything will change for you. Until the new person comes in, though, Julie will be wearing two hats, which means I’m going to need you to be more independent. And more at your desk.”
Erica’s heart wouldn’t slow down but her head began to stop swirling.
“Did you have any questions?”
“No,” she said.
“Then…?” He sort of gestured to the door with his face. Erica stood up.
“Oh, of course. Thank you, Mr. Larson, for telling me personally.”
“Of course. We are all family here, after all. You can close the door behind you.”
Brianna was reading the newspaper. “Did you get fired?”
“No,” Erica answered indignantly.
“I guess I lost the bet.”
Erica went back to her desk, and as she went she started to feel relief at not being fired, and disappointment that everyone was getting a huge promotion except her.
“What the hell, Erica. Did you read any of your emails?” Julie. Pissed.
“I didn’t see any emails. I didn’t get anything all day.”
“Yesterday, dummy. I told you I needed a bunch of stuff–financial reports, author lists, calendars. It’s all in the damn email! I even told everyone to leave you alone today so you could get it done!”
And now that she thought about it, Erica did vaguely remember reading something yesterday, when she was depressed about the assessment. And many of the email chains that she didn’t really read this morning did kind of suggest that Erica was supposed to be busy today.
“I’m sorry. What can I do?”
“Get me the damn reports!”
“Mr. Larson said you already got them.”
Julie’s face lit up to a new level of livid and she stepped into Erica’s tiny cubicle and plopped down in her chair. Her angry whisper-shout was more whisper than shout, which was even scarier.
“I told Ross that I could get the reports because you’re so organized. But you aren’t! Your shit is a mess!” She took Erica’s hands and squeezed them, hard. “You are going to do nothing today but get this all put together. Don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t get up to pee. Nothing. Just do this. We’re all going to Julian’s to…fucking…’celebrate’…and you are going to be finished before we get back. Ross already ordered champagne so figure we’ll be there until at least two. Are we clear?”
“Yes. Sorry.” Julie stormed off. A few moments later Erica had to go to her and ask her to resend the original email. Julie did, and then she and everybody else went off to lunch. Erica, who was by now starving, spent the rest of the afternoon digging through her files.
As it turned out the party lasted until three-thirty, and only broke up because they had to go Downtown to deliver the papers and have another little ceremony. Which was good, because Erica was still printing out the last pages of the reports when people started coming back.
Mr. Larson, she noted, took the service elevator up.
And on his way out he told everyone who was still in the office to take the rest of the day off. Julie, still a bit mad but also now a bit drunk, walked past Erica slowly and nodded to let her know that Erica could go home, too.
On shaky legs Erica packed up, grabbed her exercise clothes, and left. Shaky, because she was so hungry she was dizzy. Had she ever gone this long without food? It was torture. She couldn’t even make it to the nearest restaurant. She went to the office cafeteria. Lunch was long over so all they had left was the stuff nobody else wanted. She took two hot dogs and wolfed them down, then left. On the way to the subway she stopped for a more proper lunch, and on the way from the subway to her apartment she stopped at the laundromat for her sheets–another huge and unexpected expense for the day–and then at a bakery for pastries.
“You’re home early,” Becky said. She was sprawled out on the couch. “What’d you get?”
“No, in the other bag.”
“Oh.” Erica was suddenly embarrassed by the bag of exercise clothes. “Nothing. I needed some stuff. Cream puff?”
Erica grabbed the smaller bag, the one that negated the bigger bag, and sat next to Becky on the couch.
“Have you ever been fired?” Erica asked her. She tried to make it come out of the blue but because she was obviously stress-eating Becky knew that this was what she had wanted to talk about since the moment she came in.
“Did you get fired?” she asked giddily.
“No.” She took a big bite of cream puff so she wouldn’t have to elaborate further.
“What happened?” Becky had turned to face her, as if watching a really good scene in a soap opera.
“Nothing happened, stop acting like that, if I get fired you have to find a new roommate.”
“Fine.” Becky sank back onto her side of the couch. “I always quit before I get fired. You can usually see it coming a mile away. Like, once the boss has decided but before he gets the guts or finds the right excuse. They start taking away responsibilities, pass you up for promotions, hire outside people to take over things you can do. That’s when you storm in and say, ‘Blow it out your ass, dickhole.’ Then I storm through the office telling each and every person why their job sucks. And then I leave. If I do it right I don’t even need to go back to my desk because I already cleared everything out the day before.”
“Don’t you have to come back the next day? Two weeks’ notice?”
“If you do it just right, they don’t make you.” She nodded her head as she gave her sagely advice. Erica laughed but kept eating.
“Listen, you,” Becky said, hoisting herself up and dragging Erica up with her. “Whatever happened at work it sounds like you weren’t fired, so what do you say you cheer yourself up, huh? Let’s get out of here, go to a movie.”
“I don’t want to go to a movie,” Erica said, rubbing her face like a child, but she knew that it was already decided. Erica had to get changed but Becky, who drew few if any lines between work clothes, play clothes, pajamas, and nudity, was ready to go. They were out the door in minutes, determined to watch whatever was playing next.
What was playing next was a dark drama that featured a lot of European actors and ran almost three hours. After about fifteen minutes Becky checked her phone and discovered that the next movie, just started on the screen next door, was a cartoon with talking animals. They snuck out and watched that instead. It did make Erica feel better, both the thrill of breaking the rules and the satisfaction of watching a better movie.
Afterwards a giant cone of Belgian fries (ginger-wasabi sauce for Erica, curry ketchup for Becky) and a plans to catch a show somewhere in the Village–there’s always something going on, right? Becky picked up a copy of Time Out at a newsstand and started reading the listings out loud(“You gotta pay for that,” the guy in the stand said, and then Becky shot him her evil eye and he backed down).
“Erica!” Erica, laughing, turned to see who it was.
“Lewis!” she said.
“Oh fuck me,” Becky sighed, putting the magazine back on the stack.
Lewis leaned around Erica to wave at Becky. “Hi Becky. Miss me?”
Erica swatted his chest and mouthed, “Leave her alone.”
“Right,” Becky said to Erica. “I gotta go sit in the park for a while. Call me if you want to meet up. Bye, Lewis!”
When she was gone he turned to Erica. “I never even touched the cat.”
“The cat’s fine, Lewis. He–it–recovered.”
“It wasn’t my fault, though.”
“What are you doing around here?” Lewis had moved uptown a few months ago, tired of the “downtown scene,” although Erica didn’t really understand what he meant by that since he wasn’t an artist, a club kid, or a banker.
“I was just, you know, out. You?”
“Same.” She swept her hair behind her ear. “You busy?” Too forward? He looked up and down the street, and then at his watch. “Nah, I got a little time. Coffee?”
Although there were perfectly good coffeeshops along the way they had coffee at her apartment. She made him wait in the hallway while she found Boobs and locked him up in Becky’s room, just in case. It took a while to find him–Boobs wasn’t a particularly active animal, and once he or she found a cozy spot he or she could stay there for days, unseen and unnoticed. She found Boobs in the bathroom behind the toilet, up against the water heater in the wall, and dragged him into Becky’s room. The cat didn’t move, but its annoyed meowing began immediately and continued uninterrupted for the rest of the evening.
“You can come in now,” she shouted out, and Lewis let himself in.
“You know, the cat attacked me, is what it was. I’m lucky it didn’t claw out my eyes. It’s vicious.”
“I know, I know.”
Some time ago, when he complained about her terrible coffee, Lewis bought a French press that he left in their cabinet for the occasions that he came over. Erica couldn’t tell the difference and Becky didn’t like coffee at all, so only Lewis used it. In a weird way, his rejection of her coffee and insistence on leaving his French press in her apartment gave Erica a little bit of a feeling that they did have some kind of an actual relationship, maybe not exactly romantic but close.
He made two cups worth and they sat on the couch to talk.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Erica asked him.
“As long as it isn’t too personal,” Lewis said.
“Have you ever been assessed?”
“Like, by a shrink?”
“No, the…” She waved her hands over her face, and then her body.
“Oh, the ugly test. Yeah, I took it. You’re supposed to. It’s a civic duty.”
“What’d you get?”
“Three.” He said it so quickly she knew he was being honest. “Everyone’s a three, except models and actors.” And then he noticed the look on her face, and had to stop himself from being accidentally cruel. It was hard. “No… What’d you get?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t matter. So tell me.” He was just like Becky, leaning forward with a big stupid grin.
“No!” she insisted, and stood up and went to the kitchen. He splayed himself out on the couch.
“Come on! I won’t say anything, I promise!”
“Forget I mentioned it.” She felt her face start to turn red. She wanted to rinse out her coffee cup as something to do but it was still close to full so she took a long sip. It was still piping hot and burned her mouth but she didn’t let it show.
Lewis put his own cup down and stood. He was doing better at taming his amusement now.
“Look, it isn’t fair. I’m a man, I get graded on a curve. Like, let’s do an apples-to-apples right: a woman who’s a one, she’s got like, what, good boobs, right?” With his hands he tried to mime what the right size would be. First, a realistic C-cup, then perky Bs, then with a sly smile he let his hands drop to enormous double-Ds (“Whoa!” he said), and then laughing he brought them back to a size vaguely the same as Erica’s.
“And a good figure, right?” He struck a Jessica Rabbit pose. “Gotta have nice legs.” He mimed sexy legs, and then let that blend into a pretty good stripper dance, running his hands over his butt and jiggling his cheeks as much as he could.
“You’re a little too good at that,” Erica said, laughing now, still hurt but feeling better.
“But what about a man. A man, we’re talking a toned physique, right? Good hair, good teeth.” He pulled his shirt up over his head. Erica pretended to discourage him. “Look at this.” Lewis was scrawny, with ribs that stuck out and shoulders that seemed to be reaching towards each other. “I’m average, right, I’m a three. How far from the ideal am I? I got no muscles, I look like a hungry chihuahua with mange. Look at this hair.” Lewis’s chest hair was very dense in the center of his slightly sunken chest, a sort of auburn-y shade of brown. A thick tendril reached up to his neck. He had sense enough to shave it so it wouldn’t peek up over his shirt collar, but left to its own devices it would merge with his beard. In the opposite direction a smaller line of hair reached down over his very pale stomach, disappeared above his belly button and reappeared, darker and thicker, just below. Two other trails of hair extended out to and formed a ring around his oval-shaped nipples.
“And let’s not even talk about my face and my teeth,” he continued. “It’ll hurt my feelings. If we normalized the scores, though, the amount of work I’d have to do to turn this into a one is much more than what you’d have to do. So if you’re a–don’t tell me… I’m at least one worse.” She had to admit that if she was a four, Lewis was at least the same, if not even…well, maybe not a five. But somewhere lower.
“But like I said, I’m graded on a curve, because I’m a man. Because no matter what a man looks like, whether we’re talking about a pro athlete or a movie star or a schlub like me, every man has this.” And in one fluid gesture he pushed his pants and underwear down to his ankles. Just the sensation of air hitting it was enough to make it fully erect. He put his hands on his hips and pushed his pelvis forward, proud of himself like a little boy with a ribbon from a belching contest.
“Look at that.”
She as laughing now. “I don’t want to.”
“Ridiculous, isn’t it? No matter what we look like with our clothes on, this is how we look naked.” He stopped to look at his member. “Isn’t this thing ridiculous. Look at it. Like a little sword. Like a stale hot dog. Lie me down, I can be a sundial. And you know, they’re all basically the same, I mean every guy thinks his is special, but let me tell you I go to the sauna a lot, and basically, they all look the same. Big body, small body, muscles, no muscles, hairy, shaved…it always looks like this, pretty much.”
He looked down at it again, and did a little dance to watch it waggle. Now she really was laughing.
“So it brings the ones down a notch, you get it, because even at their most perfect they still look like they have little dog tails sticking out of the wrong end.”
“Okay, okay,” she laughed, “you can put it away now.”
Mock surprise on his face. “Put it away? Are you kidding me? I can’t put it away like this.” He stepped out of his clothes and extended his arms out, like “Ta-da!,” and for a second the only sound was the lazily angry cat, still mewling, still probably exactly where she left it.
Erica took a sip of her coffee. “Fine.” They went into her room and closed the door, in case Becky came back.
Afterwards, he put his clothes back on right away.
“Are you in a hurry?” she asked.
“I told you I only had a few minutes.”
“Are you serious? What are you doing?”
“I’m going out with some friends.”
“You have a date?”
“Not a date, I never said date. But some of my friends are girls.”
She got up and got dressed, her good mood gone again.
“What?” he asked.
“I had plans that I cancelled for you.”
“I didn’t ask you to. Look, you want to come, you can come, but we’re going to listen to jazz and I know you don’t like it, otherwise I would’ve invited you.”
She sighed. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not.” Now she really did rinse the coffee cups. The coffee was cold, and Lewis insisted that coffee shouldn’t be reheated once poured.
“Let me call you next week. How about Wednesday?”
She wanted to say no, because right now she didn’t want to see him or anyone or anything again ever, but by Wednesday she might change her mind. “Sure.”
“Thanks, babe. You can let the cat out now.” He blew her a kiss and let himself out.
At least she hadn’t put the sheets on the bed yet so they were still clean.
Erica opened the door and the cat was, indeed, exactly where she’d left it. Though once the door opened it stopped meowing and instead went to sleep.
Erica finished the dishes and then picked up the bag of exercise clothes. She took it into her room and tossed it into the closet. Tomorrow she would take it back for a refund.
Or maybe not tomorrow. She probably had thirty days to decide. She made a note that if she hadn’t put them on in two weeks she would take them back. In the meantime, she kept the tags on.