The Booster

“A spectacular debut . . . thrilling!”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Solow writes remarkably well—both tender and razor sharp.”
—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Jillian Siegel likes to shoplift at least once a day.

It is not a crime as she sees it; it is her birthright.

Her spoils needn’t be as tall as a Louboutin boot or as wide as an Hermès scarf, often the tiniest trifle will do. Just the act of closing a fist and releasing it again into a pocket, feeling the blush of her cheek as the fresh treasure is absorbed, knowing the thing, the coveted thing, is now owned and cherished, is enough.

In general, she is a shopper. Deliberate colors like tobacco and pale lavender make her happy. She runs her finger along the folds, occasionally selecting one above the rest for more generous attention: a close hold, a caress on the cheek, a fondling of the nub, a sizing up in the mirror.

Stores are restful, tidy places for her. Six or seven items placed on an up-lit counter, quiet and articulate, each one folded then folded again infinitely throughout the day by handsome women in black uniform; a measured array of consecrated goods placed precisely so as not to touch one another. The faintest smells of cement and coffee beans at Comme de Garçons, the smoky wood planks and jasmine blossoms hovering in the air at Azzedine Alaia or the patent leather, bubblegum smell at Betsy Johnson replenish the soul.

To make an acquisition, by purse or pocket, is to bring home the experience.

There was once a time when Jillian did not need to shop, much less steal, to get her fix.  When fine camel hair coats, fluffy fur muffs and new Mary Janes just appeared at the foot of her bed. When her wardrobe, like that of a princess, bloomed perpetually – a rainbow of new delights on hangers she wasn’t even big enough to reach. This endless bounty was not, for her, simply a material one; it was the backdrop of an enchanted world. One filled with magic – the true kind of magic that animates Christmas windows, makes the sun sparkle through the clouds and, on some mornings, makes entire stretches of Park Avenue smell like hot chocolate.

But then one day, as if by some foul patch of weather, the wind came in and blew it all away – the sun and the moon and the joy that once made everything bright.

And now, a thousand pages later, these provisions, the mislaid pieces of her heart, the silky squares of material, the soft pleats of embroidered cloth, are scattered throughout the universe, longing to be amassed again by their rightful owner.

It is not a crime as she sees it; it is the eternal job of a patient practitioner.

Certainly once a day is not too much.

 

CHAPTER ONE

“I don’t understand why you don’t come, Jill.” Alex Wald is yelling loud enough from the loft bedroom upstairs for Jillian to hear him clearly in the bathroom below. “Ever.”

“Have you seen my Ativan?” Jillian is rushing through her apartment opening things and closing them again. Her bare, pedicured feet shuffle across the wood floor of her 940 square foot ‘loft-like’ apartment on Twelfth Street. “There was that small bottle in the medicine cabinet with a peeling label and then the other one in the zipper-thingy in my pocketbook.” The floor is like the rest of the apartment, decent enough, big enough, good enough for now. It’s a fine holding spot until she can get a real apartment – at least 1500 square feet – a place where she could one day serve dinner parties or keep fluffy guest towels in a spare closet.

How many times can two people have the same conversation, she wonders as she rushes from the closet to the bathroom and back again. It’s not like coming is the easiest thing in the world to do; it’s not as if you can just order it up, like a dry Kettle One martini with extra olives and poof, there it is, perfectly chilled and waiting for you to take a sip.

Jillian is wearing only a pair of Cosabella thong underwear. A spot of Alex’s fresh ejaculate wets the middle of the sixteen-dollar sliver of material. It’s just the thing she was worried about when he woke her up early, pressing his hard-on into the middle of her back. Not that she doesn’t love to feel the weight of him rolling on top of her, she does – the fleeting moment of safety beneath him, the salty taste of his shoulder as her mouth lingers there, the way his body provides sanctuary for hers, if only for a second. She does love all that, it’s just that she doesn’t love all that less than seventy-seven minutes before the biggest presentation of her life.

“I know I have another Ativan.” She holds her breasts, one in each hand like beanbags as she darts from room to room.

“I am not the keeper of the pharmaceuticals, Jill.” Alex rolls back underneath the comforter – a thousand-thread count, extra prima loft Vermont goose down – the softest she could find at Bed Bath & Beyond on 6th.

“Shit.” Jillian opens the empty prescription bottle from the side pocket of her purse. “Shit. Great. Perfect.”

“You don’t need a tranquilizer. You’ll do great today, Bubb.”

“God damn it.” Jillian pulls the sticky cotton material out from its crevice. “I can’t even wear this underwear now.” She wiggles her thong down to the floor, hurls it in the direction of the laundry basket and dashes into her closet; a second bedroom in her apartment converted with shelves, bins and wire racks.

“You don’t even want me to make you come, Jilly. I mean, I think most girls would at least want to.”

She marches up the spiral staircase to the bedroom clutching a linen shirt underneath her armpit and pointing a toothbrush with the other hand. “Yogis don’t have orgasms, Alex. They save up their Chi.” Jillian’s never told him that she hasn’t had an actual orgasm with another person in the room, unless you count Sharon Levy at Timberwood sleepover camp, and she’s never told him that she really does want to, that she really does try to get there – she tries to reach the point of no return and then it just all falls completely apart.

“You’re not a yogi.” Alex reaches out for her hand and nibbles on her fingertips. His eyes are clear and sweet and the sunburn he got two weeks ago in South America has faded to a soft patina. “And you have enough Chi to choke a horse.”

“This isn’t a problem for you because you don’t actually have to go to work today and make the presentation of your life – a presentation to people who just stare at you because they haven’t had their double espresso yet and they can’t actually propel messages from one side of their brain to the other…”

“Oh yeah. My job is really easy.”

“And I have absolutely nothing to wear and now I need to stop at McKay’s.” Jillian’s nerve endings feel like they’re about to burst. Alex should know this about her by now.

“You say that like it’s my fault you’re out of Ativan. Like it’s always my fault.” Alex puts a pillow over his head and presses down hard. “You’re the pill popper.” His words are muffled through nineteen ounces of Vermont goose feathers.

“I’m not a pill popper.” Jillian shoves the toothbrush into her mouth and brushes. She talks through it. “I have a prescription for exactly eight pills. Eight one-half-milligram pills lasts me, I don’t know, months!” The toothpaste begins to foam around her mouth. “I would think a pill popper would need more than eight pills.”

“Why don’t you wear that black suit with the bow-hickies on the sides?” Alex squeezes along the shaft of his penis, pushing the remainder of semen out into a droplet at the tip. He rubs the white ball into his chest and turns over toward the pillow.

“Jesus. That’s my bed!”

Some things should just be done in private, Jillian thinks, with a tissue, or at least when no one else is staring right at them preparing for a big presentation. Alex, she recalls, will pee off the side of a dive boat. He knows nothing of personal boundaries. “Those are my good sheets.”

She races back down the tight spiral staircase, into the bathroom and spits into the sink. “Plus the black suit makes me look like an anesthesiologist.”

“Just wear what makes you comfortable.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jillian wonders why she’s even asking him – Alex buys everything from the REI catalog. Not that he doesn’t look great in his old Patagonias and Carharts; he always looks great in an I-don’t-care-how-I-look kind of way. The worn cotton of his collar and the hole in the armpit of his old cashmere sweater always makes her heart skip a beat. Sometimes Jillian wishes she could be like him – a carefree, hole-in-the-armpit photographer, roaming the wild one week a month with only stubborn sherpas to contend with and not big presentations to caffeine-deprived bosses.

Jillian rifles through her hangers, pulling things off one by one: the patent leather vest is too much of a dominatrix thing, the Donna Karan suit is trying too hard, the gray pinstriped vest and skirt is O.K. if she were going to a meeting at Goldman Sachs instead of an advertising agency, the floral Liberty button-down looks like it was an impulse purchase from the Harrods shop at Heathrow Airport (which it was), and the black Daryl K is too down-market.

“And besides, orgasms are overrated,” she yells back from downstairs as she zips up a beige suede skirt along her hip. “I don’t need to have an orgasm to enjoy myself. I just really, really like, you know, the fuck itself.” The beige skirt seems too short. Dorkish even. She remembers when it was her favorite thing – the Miss Sixty skirt – completely over now. “You generally seem to be fine with that.”

Finally, after seventeen minutes and a floor strewn with the discards of her closet, Jillian settles on the Armani pinstripe pleated pants, slim at the waist, wider at the ankle. It’s an elegant pant that elongates the leg, making it appear as if the line goes on forever. These miniscule vertical lines that look golden from just a foot away, add butter and warmth to the otherwise crisp angle. She tops the pant with the white Vandevorst work shirt – a classic enough garment with long French cuffs and a well-cut neckline but a surprisingly improper peek-a-boo slit down the back between the shoulder blades. A sliver of skin shows through as the capricious twists and turns of the day unfold. And finishing the whole thing off, at the base of the sweeping leg, a small triangle of maroon leather emerges, the tidy toe of a fierce Louboutin high heel – neither as vulnerable as a sandal nor as relentless as a boot. The pointy glimpse of color and texture is the ideal juxtaposition to the pinstripes and white cotton, a classic combo.  The result, Jillian thinks, is a kind of masculine-feminine look, perfect for her height, appropriate for the occasion, mature, a touch groovy without being overtly so, smart, tasteful and pulled together.

She can present well in this outfit. She is sure of it.

She walks back up the staircase balancing on the balls of her feet, careful not to put too much weight on her spiny heels. “Does this look O.K.?” She hesitantly stands in front of the bed.

“You look wonderful, Jilly. Like a double espresso.”

Jillian exhales. For as little as Alex knows about clothes, his opinion can always make or break her confidence.

He sits up and moves away from her just an inch. “How about a memory picture?”

Jillian puts both hands on her hips and smiles widely. “Cheese.”

Camera-less, he holds his hands up in a square in front of his face and blinks both eyes at her. He has a million of these shots of Jillian: standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, posing beside a pug in the park, trying on wigs at Patricia Field’s, buying bialys at Kossars. He taps his temple with his finger. “Good one.” Alex pulls her into bed with him and kisses her head.

“What’s on your agenda this morning?” Jillian relaxes into his arms for the moment.

“My agenda, my beautiful girl,” he carefully smoothes down her eyebrows, “is that I need to go to B&H and get a new adapter ring for the camera. Mine broke in Honduras.”

Jillian looks at her watch. “You gotta be out by nine, though.” She pulls herself up and straightens her shirt. “Yolanda’s coming – thank God.”

“Yolanda can make the bed with me in it.” Alex curls around the pillow. “It’s a cruel world out there, Siegel. I’m staying right here.”

“Please don’t freak out Yolanda. You know her position on the whole premarital relations thing.”

“She’s just jealous.”

Jillian leans over and inhales his puppy dog breath and cool laundry smells. “I’ll miss you too tonight, Allie.”

“Tell your mother my ass is still recovering from the last time I saw her.”

“Lois loves to squeeze. What can I say?” She reaches out for a kiss, one that doesn’t disturb lipstick, or makeup or the general look whatsoever. Alex manages to press his lips against hers anyway.

“And tell them I think you’re the greatest, smartest, cutest Associate Creative Director in New York City. With the nicest onion this side of Fourteenth.” Alex grabs a chunk of her rear end.

“I will.”

“Good luck.” Alex brushes her hair back with his hands. “I’ll see you after the deed is done.”

“Thanks, Bubb.”

“Sure, Bubb.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

* * *

Jillian walks into the foyer of McKay’s Drugs at precisely 8:31 am. She still has twenty-nine minutes, which should be plenty: ten minutes of waiting and nineteen for the calming effect of the pill to take hold. She picks up a small tube of Hurley’s Grapefruit & Mint lip balm on the way to the pharmacy in the back. Hurley’s has great packaging and the lip balm with its tasteful olive and saffron encasement is no exception. Her heart quickens at the luscious sight of it. Instinctively she pulls off the cap and smoothes a layer of the tender ointment across her lips. The sweet cooling oils seep in through her skin, adding flavor to her tongue and chilling her skin. Goosebumps emerge down her arms the way they always do when she holds a dear prize like this in her palm.

It is mine. It is mine. It is mine.

She envelops the lip balm entirely in her hand and slips it into her suit pocket. It is a relief just to know it is there now – that it is hers forever.

She counts out the timing as she waits in line, the numbers alone impart a sense of calm: if the prescription gets filled in less than thirteen minutes she’ll have enough time to take a half-a milligram under her tongue, stride quickly up Park while the pill melts into her bloodstream and still be in Billy Baum’s office, lightly sedated, with one minute to spare. The timing is good.

Absentmindedly she rubs along the length of her nose, gripping the bridge between her thumb and forefinger. She draws down along the tip then makes the journey over the hook, pulling it up just a bit and back down again. It is not so tall as a mountain or as wide as a bus – but it is there, and as some have commented, often gets there before she does.

From the cheekbones up she could be Irish or Italian or even Spanish, but the true origin of her face – part Polish, part Russian, part Czech, and part German – is betrayed by this protuberance. Larger and more obtrusive than one would expect on such a refined landscape, the thing has been left in its natural state despite four consultations with Park Avenue specialist, Dr. Adam Blumenthal. Jillian always believed that keeping this particular blemish intact set her apart from her mother, so she held onto it like a talisman over the years.

“I understand why men would want to look at you, darling.”  Lois Siegel said to her daughter Jillian when she just was fourteen. “You’re a beautiful girl. And lord knows you’re growing bosoms.” Jillian looked down at the twin volcanoes waiting to erupt. “It was cute when you were younger but, let’s face it, no man is going to want to reproduce with that nose.”

Lois Siegel walked her daughter over to the mirror. “It’s not painful at all, you’re asleep the whole time. And then you wake up and it’s all perfect. Look at me.” Lois kissed her daughter gently on the cheek.

The pharmacy line is short, only four people ahead of her, so Jillian sits in the chair patiently waiting for her number to be announced and going over the presentation in her head. She’s got to remember not to talk too fast. She always talks too fast when she presents. It’s like some sort of time warp thing happens that causes the words to tumble from her mouth full speed ahead and she can’t remember how the sentence she started was supposed to end so she just ends it in an arbitrary way that makes no sense whatsoever and people look at her like they wish it was time to check their cell phone messages or order their Cubano Sandwiches from The Coffee Shop.

“Thirty-eight,” yells the girl behind the counter – a pregnant girl named “MELVA” with blatant hair extensions, an overly large nose stud, and a flat red smock covering her pendulous breasts.

It’s 8:48, and Melva has the bottle in hand.

Jillian writes her initials on the line, officially refusing the consultation from the pharmacist, and signs her name on the credit card slip – a grand swirling J, a cascading S and barely anything recognizable in between. She reaches out for the prescription.

“I can’t read that,” Melva broadcasts, clutching Jillian’s medication away and dangling her mouth open, revealing to God and the world the wad of purple gum perched between her teeth and tongue. “I’m gonna need to see your license.”

“I come in here all the time. You can’t read that?” She fumbles through her pocketbook, and thrusts her arm elbow deep into its depths. Oy. This thing is such a mess. Maybe one of those little baguette pocketbooks would stay neater. Maybe pink suede. “Why can’t you read that?”

“I’m gonna need to see your license.”

“Shit.” The contents of her behemoth bag tumble onto the counter like a cornucopia of stolen secrets: bitter flecks of tobacco, travel-size hair gel, a free sample of perfume inside a little card, tea tree oil breath drops, a swollen, open tampon, a bursting Filofax, and a bunched up pair of black thigh-highs flood the surface in front of Melva’s bulging belly. “God damn it.” A MAC eye shadow, Patina Frost, falls to the floor cracking into a thousand tiny crystals. “Shit.”

Jillian looks back at the growing line behind her. A man with coiffed moustache rocks back and forth and audibly exhales. One woman with a China doll haircut and red reading glasses fans herself with a magazine subscription card. Melva waits sucking gum bubbles into her mouth and popping them. Jillian works to keep her body cool and undisturbed (relaxed eyes, arched eyebrow, calm slouch) despite her mounting angst. Without at least eight minutes for the Ativan to kick in the whole morning will be ruined. She could also use a mint.

And a new Patina Frost.

And a pink suede baguette pocketbook.

“Here. Here it is. I found it.” She pulls out the license from the side pocket, the place where she usually keeps it but never looks. “It was right here,” she curls her hair behind her ear and shrugs her shoulders to the group. They stare blankly at her. “It’s a really big purse,” she adds.

Jillian hands it over to Melva, who glances at it briefly and deems it accurate enough to turn over the booty. Jillian opens the bottle and gobbles down the pill right there at the counter. Nibbles it in half, then works both halves under her tongue, finding solace in the saccharin sweetness of the melting pieces. And, as she only has six minutes to make it to Billy’s office, she pops in a second dose. Six minutes will definitely be enough to dissolve a full milligram of Ativan. Having the peak-effects kick in mid-meeting, after all the small talk is out of the way, might actually be perfect timing.

“Thank you for shopping at McKay’s.” Melva pops another bubble.

 

CHAPTER TWO

“Is Billy in yet, Bev?” Jillian asks the receptionist of Bomb Advertising Agency Incorporated. At least twenty years older than the average Bomb employee, Beverly sits centered and a bit to the right of the long glossy counter that extends nearly the entire length in front of the elevators. The table (and Beverly) is a genteel barrier between the stark waiting area in the front and the frenetic inner workings of the advertising agency itself.

“One second, doll.” Beverly puts a finger up. She smiles and holds up a toy Shih Tzu doggie from behind her desk. She waves hello to Jillian with the toy paw. “Bomb Incorporated. Hold Please.” Thin-lipped, pale-skinned and blonde, Beverly is nearly as white and presentable as the surface she sits behind. “Bomb Incorporated. Hold please. Bomb Incorporated. Hold please.” Beverly winks at Jillian, the headset framing her face. “I think he is, doll. Mandy’s at her desk, she would know. Bomb Incorporated. Hold please.”

Beverly has been there forever, since Jillian’s very first interview at the agency. Jillian remembers walking in that first time with her black portfolio hanging off her arm – nervous to meet Billy Baum, the man she’d wanted to work for since college. During her forty minute wait for the legendary ad executive, Beverly smiled, brewed her a cup of Early Grey and made Jillian feel welcome.

When she finally did meet the man, he was shorter and younger than she expected. And instead of leafing through her work, and grilling her on her past experience, he asked her candidly what she thought of his new open-seating plan – common tables of six or seven people in the center of the space instead of private desks or offices. She was frank with him, maybe more so than one should be in an interview, and told him that the open space was too open.

“The more public you ask people to be, the more privacy you need to give them,” she said confidently, repeating one of her uncle’s favorite aphorisms. “Ultimately people make all their big decisions in private, Mr. Baum.” She suggested that the people who worked at the open tables should still have ways to screen themselves off from one another and sketched out an eyelevel panel that could be placed beside or in front of every worker. Billy took the sketch, nodded and called his architect while she was still standing beside him. Jillian left that day – hired, her portfolio unopened. Jillian sometimes wonders if she’d have gotten the job if he never asked her that question.

Jillian walks down the long corridor toward Billy’s office in the back corner. A brick wall runs the entire length of one side. Oversized windows punctuate the center of each glass-enclosed office. The windows sit low, nearly to the floor, as if the whole floor was added recently to another much larger space not used for this purpose at all. Bomb’s décor is more industrial chic than fancy. All the tell-tale signs of a young, hot shop are here: the exposed wood beams, the open studio, the campy collection of 60’s and 70’s lunchboxes mounted one after another on the wall, the small mountain of neon orange bean bag chairs piled up in the corner, an open box of last night’s pizza on the counter.

Clients come to Bomb for Billy’s unconventional approach to advertising. Usually after a lackluster stint with a conservative shop uptown, they seek out the turbo-charged momentum that Bomb and Billy Baum are famous for. They mop their brows, loosen their Hermès ties and direct their Town Car chauffeurs downtown to the brash office and its irreverent maestro. They hope to introduce, or more accurately, their lives depend on introducing their new product with a bang. Or more often, dusting off their tired old brand and making it fresh and relevant again for the modern young consumer.

Down the hall, a few doors before Billy’s office, a “War Room” is set up for the Loevner’s Department Store pitch. It’s actually the agency’s smaller conference room usurped for the duration of the project. Usually Bomb’s War Rooms are in smaller spaces – the unused office next to Production, the hallway across from the bathrooms, or in some cases, just a wall for hanging up the work. But the Loevner’s Department Store account, which includes the hundred or so Loevner’s affiliates around the world, is the biggest the agency has ever pitched. The media spend alone is enormous. Sacrificing prime space seemed warranted.

Jillian walks in to pick up her presentation. There are old coffees on the table, half a turkey sandwich and the remnants of Billy’s chewed but never lit cigar hanging off the edge of the table. Jillian can see his bite marks on the soggy end. Her stack of black boards rests against the side wall alongside the other six campaigns. The temptation to look at everyone else’s ideas (especially Brandon Pietro’s) is huge but she doesn’t want to distract herself immediately before she presents. Plus Brandon’s idea is bound to be indiscernible without Brandon himself there to present it – a target in the middle of the page, a stick figure standing upside-down, the cover of People Magazine with an X marked over it.  Brandon’s ideas are always esoteric yet Billy falls for his charismatic presentations every time.

A new exhibit is up on the easel – a black board labeled “Target Audience” with pictures of sophisticated women torn out of catalogs tacked to it. Jillian thinks about how the target photos are way off. They’ll eventually figure it all out after the planners do their weeks of consumer research, but she knows it all by heart already. The Loevner’s customer has always been sophisticated, sure, but a kind of left-wing sophisticate who boldly mixes patterns and designers. She might go to Noodle Town for a bowl of four-dollar soup wearing a thousand-dollar jacket and jeans and a vintage cocktail ring. This is what the store has always been about. The Loevner’s woman is riskier, more fabulous, more off center. These photos are too uptown and conventional – too suburban.

Jillian jots down, “Loevner’s target audience way off” on a Post-It and stuffs it in her pocket.

She walks deeper into the war room to a dark spot in the corner next to the empty chart. Hanging a bit below eye level is a Xerox copy of the old Loevner’s ad. The image is classic – as supremely sophisticated and modern as it was when it was taken, over twenty years ago.

Three “models” punctuate the space of the black and white photo. On the left, the haughty actress, Brianna Terrell, pulls back the skirt of her Balenciaga gown, her arms, enveloped to just above the elbow in matching gloves. The folds of her duchesse satin dress are accentuated by the dramatic chiaroscuro lighting that skims the top of each graceful curve, and darkens it on the opposite side. Her eyebrows are dark and pointy and the mole under her eye mars her otherwise perfect symmetry. She seems frozen in the world’s most elegant pose, poised to step toward the center, off balance, like a butterfly about to flutter away.

In the middle, wearing an impeccable tuxedo, the flamboyant Loevner’s spokesman, the owner himself. He’s a delicious foil to the tall and comely actress: A Truman Capote to her Babe Paley. Even then, his face had more personality than most; his round head, his suntanned skin, his barrel chest, generous belly and his easy smile warm the image – making it real and human. On his cheek, as it is in every ad in the series, the lipstick residue of a brilliant kiss – the darkest mark on the page. Perhaps from Ms. Terrell? Perhaps from another fan? The iconography is provocative but never, not in a hundred images, completely explained.

And finally, set back a few feet and to the right, away from the other two, sits the mysterious little girl. Perched atop a white piano, she has the unaffected slouch of any bored seven-year-old – overly dressed and asked to pose for a picture. She is not smiling. She is not, like the actress, trying to look her best. It is, at first glance, easy to think she doesn’t belong there. That she’s merely an accessory to the real action. But the eyes, the round, haunting eyes of a woman five times her age draw you in. It is in these two pitch-black marble-sized spots on the page that the viewer realizes it is she who deserves the attention.

Above all three in the spindly Didot typeface favored by magazines like Vogue and Bazaar, the curious faux-French headline that captured the imagination of an entire city for over three decades:

Je t’adore Loevner’s!

Someone has drawn red stars and written across the image in red:

**THIS WAS LOEVNER’S!!**

 Jillian tucks the black boards underneath her arm and smoothes her hair behind her ears as she approaches Billy’s executive assistant, Mandy Mandel. Mandy’s chest seems to have a life of its own. It bulges out in front of her – balancing atop Billy’s Day Planner.

“Is Billy in yet?” She asks the young secretary.

Mandy’s listening to headphones and cutting out images of women from a stack of catalogs, presumably on assignment from Billy. Mandy is, as far as Billy’s concerned, the resident expert on the pulse of the young New York woman. “Billy’s in the little boy’s room. You wanna wait in there?”

“I’m a few minutes late.” Jillian feels the Ativan about to smooth out the edges.

“It’s fine, hun. He’s been in there for half-an-hour.” Mandy whispers. He took The Times, she adds privately. “Catch your breath.”

Jillian walks into Billy’s office and takes a moment to settle. After two years of working there, the place still makes her anxious. His office is in its usual condition – hastily purchased designer furniture draped with the advertising debris of the past five years: a cardboard cut-out of a basketball player perched on its side, now wearing a bra and plaid boxer shorts; a case of David’s Surefire Ale (the brainchild of one of Billy’s buddies from Brooklyn); a blow-up basketball with a Xerox of Billy’s face taped to it; a Star Wars lunchbox (a gift from a wannabe employee), various photos of Billy with semi-celebrities and politicians; a dart board with Billy’s face superimposed on it; a white easel in the corner with the words “Loevner’s Brand Equity” and four big red question marks on top. And four thousand used black boards balanced atop every possible surface with long-dead advertising ideas glued to them.

Jillian takes a seat in the low leather chair and adjusts her slacks. She’s sure Billy won’t appreciate the thought put into this outfit. Billy Baum, founder, CEO and Executive Creative Director of Bomb Advertising Incorporated, does not think about these things as Jillian does. Instead, the Brooklyn-born Baum focuses his efforts more narrowly – on cowboy boots: horned-back alligator cowboy boots from Billy Martin’s that he merrily places on his desk, right over left, so that his entire body is eclipsed by the foreshortened soles of these well-shined waffle stompers. In this position, across from Billy’s endangered footwear, it is not difficult to find oneself diminished and intimidated.

This, Jillian guesses, is the only stylistic strategy with which Billy concerns himself.

Jillian looks up at the framed photo on Billy’s wall of the smiling, newly promoted Brandon Pietro on the cover of last year’s Ad Age:

Pietro’s campaign for Surefire Ale wins big at Bomb!

She wonders what they’d write in Adweek or better yet, what might show up in The New York Times:

Siegel saves the day! Bomb wins Loevner’s pitch!

She should be smiling for her picture too, yes definitely, casually smiling, and maybe with her arms crossed in front like Brandon, or maybe sideways, hand on hip, slimming at the waist. She could wear something eye-catching, maybe even a touch controversial – a provocatively low neckline under a smart Prada jacket or a whimsical Vivienne Westwood or something effortless and sophisticated like a McQueen tweed or a Vuitton bouclé something.

She pulls the lip balm out of her pocket, rolls a minty layer over her lips and reviews the day again just to keep her focus. Talk slowly. Talk slowly.

“No one takes a dump like me? Right, Mand?” Billy smiles and swats his New York Times against his hand, his blue and yellow cowboy boots clumping heavily on the wood floor.

“You’re the king, Billy.” Mandy hands him his double espresso without looking up. He slides the door shut behind him as he walks into the room. The sound of it – the metal pulling along the groove – always makes Jillian uneasy. She is glad her easy smile has taken over. Billy walks over to his desk and takes a minute to rummage through some papers.

Billy yells to his secretary loud enough to pierce the closed glass door. “Mandle, don’t let me forget to call Craig Allen.” He shuffles through a pile of mail left on his chair. “Why do all these guys from Chicago always have two first names? Craig. Allen. Paul. Roger. What is that shit, Siegel?” He looks vaguely in Jillian’s direction. “There’s coin in it if you give me a good answer.” Billy pulls out a twenty from his wad of cash and flips it out at Jillian. He lets out a short hyena laugh.

Jillian shrugs her shoulders. She’s never been good at Billy’s games.

“Shit.” Billy stuffs the bill back in his pocket and buzzes Mandy from his phone. “Ask Pietro why those Chicago guys all have two first names.”

“O.K., Billy.” Jillian hears Mandy’s nasal voice from behind the glass door. Jillian crosses her legs the other way around and inconspicuously checks herself for armpit sweat.

“So,” Billy turns his attention her way, “if it isn’t the infamous Jillian Siegel.” Billy places his cowboy boots on his desk, right over left, and takes a sip of his coffee. “God damn it.” He spills a dribble down the front of his shirt and wipes at it with a piece of paper. “Mandy!”

“Here ya go, Billy.” Mandy enters the room on cue with a stack of paper towels. “Brandon said something about needing two first names when you have a little putz.”  Mandy measures an inch out with her thumb and forefinger and shrugs her shoulders.

Billy lets out another laugh and hands her the twenty as she leaves.

“So,” Billy blots the stain below his collar, “how is Jillian Siegel?”

“I’m good, Billy.” Jillian knows there’s a more clever answer to this question, a bit of the old crackerjack repartee that delights Billy so much, a waggish answer that Brandon Pietro would have at his fingertips, one she will think of later, probably in the little girl’s room with The New York Times.

“Good. Good.” He shuffles some more papers around. “You know Loevner’s will be our biggest account.”

“I do, Billy. And I feel like I really have a unique perspective to offer the agency on the campaign.”

“You’ve heard the rumors that they’re gonna have a big management change over there. Craig Allen is retiring to his golfing or fly-fishing or whatever those goyisha all do in the twilight years. Palm Springs. Whatever. We’ll need to step up to the plate. We could be reporting to somebody much worse. Probably another one of the Board’s Chicago suits.”

“Yes, sure. I did hear something like that.” She did not, in fact, hear that. She never hears anything.

“Good. Good.” Billy shuffles through another pile of paper. “O.K.” He puts the papers back down on his desk and moves his Gold Pencil Award on top of the pile for emphasis. “Lemme have it.”

“So.” Jillian holds the boards on her lap. She smiles and takes a deep breath. “Shopping at Loevner’s is really all about the experience…” She drags out the word to stress its importance. It sounds good. She’s doing great so far. This is exactly the first sentence she practiced. “…even more than the clothes.”

“Right. Right.” Billy seems engaged – interested already.

“People who shop there, I mean women who shop there, because most of the customers are, of course, women, and these are the kind of women who shop at Noodle Town in really, really expensive jackets with jeans and vintage jewelry and these women…”

“Mandy!” Billy yells to his assistant.

“Yes, Billy?” Mandy Mandel pokes her head in the office.

“Call Levinson. Ask him when the fuck he’s gonna pay me back for the tickets.”

“Sure, Billy.”  Mandy answers Billy’s usual barrage of demands with her unique brand of disregard, attentiveness and feigned submission. It is this sort of symbiotic relationship with employees that keeps Billy’s corporate wheel well greased – the sort of relationship that Jillian never perfected.

“Those were courtside fucking tickets.”

“I know, Billy.”

“Better yet, get him on the phone. I need to talk to him.”

“Sure, Billy.”

“Now, Mandel!”

“Sure, Billy.”

“Where were we?” Billy takes another sip of espresso.

“We weren’t really much of anywhere, Billy.” Jillian cracks the tightness out of her thumb. She takes another deep breath. “So these women really want to be seduced by the in-store experience.” She thought of that word yesterday and is glad she did.

“Right. Right.” He’s still with her. Sexy words always bring him back into the room.

“So…” Jillian flips up the first board. It is a stick figure drawing of the Loevner’s two old doorman, Pierre and Gerhardt, tipping their top hats to a lady stick figure as she leaves the store. The headline reads:

“Thank you for shopping at Loevner’s!”

 

“It’s a doorman campaign?” Jillian is not sure if Billy’s question is good, bad or rhetorical but he is still listening after thirty seconds, which is unusual for him.

“Well, not exactly.” Jillian hedges her bets.

“I get it. It’s like these two old guys are the spokesmen for the store. We could give them names. Something really crazy.” He’s excited, on a roll.

“Pierre and Gerhardt are their names,” Jillian mumbles. She’s feeling thrown off course. Billy’s talking about doormen but that’s not really the point. “Well, but, it’s sort of…”

“Right. Pierre and Gerhardt. Now that’s funny.” Billy is chuckling to himself. “The doormen campaign!”

“It’s not just about doormen, Billy.” Jillian flips up the second board. On it is a drawing of a scarf display. But instead of a conventional store display, the brilliantly hued scarves are hanging from a live tree planted in the Loevner’s foyer.

The headline reads:

“Loevner’s is spectacular!”

Jillian continues on, “it’s about the ambience, the atmosphere.” Jillian flips the boards up desperately from her lap one by one, each illustrating a new detail from the department store experience and a headline that defines it. “It’s not just about doormen, Billy, it’s about everything! It’s about the people at Loevner’s and they way they do things, which is not just the same way every store does it, I mean it’s not, it’s a really, really special place, really, and if you’re the kind of person, I mean the kind of woman who shops there then…then…you’re fine with. I mean great with that. With those things.”

The sentence has tumbled out chaotically and Jillian is out of breath. The whole idea seemed amazingly brilliant to her just minutes ago. It actually seemed like she was onto something. But now, saying it out loud to Billy, none of these thoughts seem connected in any discernable way. Her campaign is made up of thoughts – good thoughts even, but strung together loosely if at all, and certainly not, as Billy calls it, the Big Bomb Idea™. She wants to throw up. She should have never turned over the second board.

Billy glances down at his watch. He picks up the phone and yells into the distance. “Mandy!”

“Yes, Billy?

“You got Levinson?”

“One second, Billy.”

He lowers his voice and looks back at Jillian. His eyes don’t make it above her clavicles. “I think it’s time…” Billy looks at the phone, as if he’s forgotten why he’s holding it. “Mandy!”

“Hold on, Billy.”

“I think it’s time…”

“I got him, Billy.” Mandy yells back with excitement. “Line One.”

“I think it’s time we parted ways.” The words spill quickly out of his mouth like gravel from a dump truck. “We’re looking for someone with the big idea and frankly, Siegel, that’s just not you. Where’s “Apple 1984?”  Where’s “Nike, Just Do It?”  Where’s the B.B.I™? I just don’t see it here.”

Billy holds his hand over the receiver.

“Bomb is like an organism. It either accepts you or rejects you.” Billy pushes line one. “Levinson, you asshole!” Billy puts a hand back on the receiver and looks vaguely in Jillian’s direction. “You can say you resigned.” Billy takes another sip of coffee and turns his chair to face the window. “Is that how you thank me for courtside tickets, douche-bag?”

Jillian sits in the low designer chair. The weight of her back is heavy against the leather. Her smile is stuck to her face. Her French cuffs feel suddenly claustrophobic. A sizzling heat travels up her body to her neck and cheeks. She wants to grab Billy’s coffee and pour it on his face or on her own or splash the scorching liquid across his desk. She wants a hydrant of coffee and a fire hose; she wants to spray the place down, the white walls, the pony skin chairs, the designer furniture, the dead black boards.

“Did you need something, Siegel?” Billy looks up from his call and sees Jillian still sitting there in exactly the same place. She gets up and turns and walks out the door, a scream works up from her belly but does not release, instead her muscles simply move her out of the office.

She will hold it together. She will not expose herself to these people. She will leave before they know. She will never, ever, ever see any of them again and never, ever, ever talk to any of them again. She will walk confidently (slight smile, long strides, upright posture) to her office.

“G’morning. Morning. Hey. Morning.” She will keep it all together for another three minutes, until she can grab her address book, the old photo of Bingo and Alain at Café Borgia, the Polaroid of Alex in Costa Rica, her paprika pashmina and the bamboo pencil holder from Chinatown. She will leave the new plant she bought last week. It’s dead already anyway.

“I need you to look at the Ambience layouts, Jill.”

“You’re on a conference call with Lanky at ten.”

“Are you going to the Color-Correct today after the briefing?”

The various citizens of Bomb Incorporated seem to split and multiply in front of her. Their foul mitosis makes her dizzy. Brandon Pietro walks into the Loevner’s War Room balancing a bagel atop a cup of coffee. Brandon, like Billy, also wears cowboy boots that clap along the floor. The rest of the pitch team is already in there, laughing and hurling wads of paper in the air. Brandon shuts the door with his foot, quieting the noises from the room

“Yes. Sure. O.K. Yeah. I’ll be right there.” Jillian grabs her things and walks calmly to the elevator door. She presses the button and waits.

“I’m so sorry, Jill.” Beverly looks at her with soft eyes and a tilted blonde head. “I heard.” She holds up the stuffed doggie again and moves its head. “Mr. Jiggies will miss you too.” The elevator door opens and Jillian escapes inside. She stands quietly in the middle of the crowded space and holds on as the waves of nausea move through her. Her calf cramps into a knotted ball.

Instead of down, she is taken up, hoisted toward the sky and one by one, floor by floor, people exit into their various foyers. Can they tell, she wonders, can they tell she is no longer one of them, no longer a real person?

Jillian’s eyes chase the space for an inch of relief – some free air, a blank, empty spot of wall. The people stand there, belonging perfectly in this small ascending world – they in their coordinated suits and appropriate leather accessories – staring at the lit numbers, rifling through their pocketbooks. They do anything to avoid linking eyes with one another.

Jillian wishes she were alone in a Town Car, encased in metal and glass.

The last man gets off on Twenty-One. He is skinny and purposeful and doesn’t look back as he enters into his bustling, wood-paneled world. The doors close and the car shifts downward. She leans her whole body against the wall, the muscles and skeleton finally giving in to the emptiness. With a loud ding, the elevator opens again on her floor. The doors, like eyelids blink open onto the bright horizon and then close again. Two girls, familiar, Bomb interns perhaps, wrestle their way through the doors just before they close. They gossip with each other, clutching their designer wallets to pay for cappuccinos and toasted bagels at the deli downstairs.

Her phone buzzes from the bottom of her bag. Maybe it’s Alex calling to get the scoop. Jillian barely manages to pull her vibrating cellphone out of her pocketbook. “Hi. It’s me.” Her words come out in their usual singsong patina, despite her depressed state.

“Hello, Miss Siegel. It’s Yolanda Plazas.” The signal’s weak in the elevator and the words – barely audible. The accent, however, is unmistakable.

“Yolanda, I can’t really talk right now.” The saliva is thick in her mouth. She struggles to form the words correctly. “I’m in an elevator.” The two interns try to keep their eyes off Jillian and her overly loud conversation.

“Miss Siegel, I no find a check today.”

“Yolanda? I can’t hear you. Where are you?” Jillian watches as the numbers creep lower and lower toward the ground floor.

“Yes, It’s me, Yolanda Plazas. I no find a check today.”

“I put a check on the counter for you.” She sits up and clutches the phone tight to her ear, hoping to hear the words better. She holds the phone outward in hopes of a better signal a few inches to the left. “Is Alex still there? Yolanda?”

“I no have a check last week.”

“I told you, Yolanda, I would put a check on the counter for you for both weeks, this week and last week. Which I did. Right on the counter. Where I usually put my keys and mail and other things. I’m sure I did.” Jillian is not sure, never sure, of these kinds of things, but sounding sure is as important as being it.

“I look on the counter. I no find it.”

“Christ.”  Jillian grips the phone with her chin and rummages through her purse.

“What?”

“Nothing, Yolanda. What time is it? Where are you?”

“In Grand Station.”

“You left already? You left and didn’t do any cleaning?” Jillian remembers the rejected outfits strewn about the floor and the general disarray of the last seven days without a housekeeper.

“I go to my next job.”

“Wait. Wait. Yolanda, please don’t go. It’s Shabbat-at-Bingo’s tonight. A family tradition. The Jewish holiday. At my uncle Bingo’s.” The elevator stops, seemingly on every floor. New people enter, all holding onto their coffee money and trying desperately not to stare at the girl on her cellphone. “He’s very sick, Yolanda, you know that, and my entire family will be there.” Jillian is now pacing the small space. “Yolanda, please, please don’t leave. Please. I need some clean clothes for tonight.” Jillian is crowded into the back of the elevator. The freshly straightened hair at the back of happy coworkers’ heads grazes her face. “Christ.”

“What?” The sounds of Grand Central Station drown out Yolanda’s words.

“Can you come back downtown, Yolanda? Can you just stay there? Just stay right there. Don’t move one inch. I’ll come and get you.” Jillian holds the phone tightly under her chin like a violin as she pleads with the housekeeper.

“I no hear you, Miss Siegel.”

“What?”

“I gotta go, Miss Siegel.”

“Please don’t leave, Yolanda. Please.” Jillian watches as the elevator nearly reaches the ground. “I’ll pay for your cab. Anything”

“I think it’s more better you find someone else to clean your apartment.”

“Oh God, Yolanda. Please, don’t leave me. I got a promotion today. I’ll give you a raise. I have a new very important job. Have you heard of the Loevner’s Department Store chain, Yolanda?  Please, please, please stay. Please come back!” The people in the elevator turn and stare.

“Sorry, Miss Siegel. There’s my train.”

“No!!” Jillian holds the phone down beside her. None of the muscles in her body works, they simply release and the device drops to the floor. The elevator doors open into the ground floor and the people release in a gush into the light.

A girl picks up the phone and hands it to Jillian.

“Thanks.” She takes the phone and claps it shut.

“Are you O.K.?”

“Yeah.” She tries to stand tall and brush her hair back into something respectable. “Yeah. I’m O.K.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

Jillian hurls the wad of keys on the counter in her kitchen. The metallic sound sends a chill up her spine. It is before noon on Friday afternoon. The light streams in through the blinds in an unfamiliar sixty-degree stripe across the floor. Even the air is different. People shouldn’t be at their apartment at this hour. It’s depressing. The only people home before noon on a Friday afternoon are housewives and the “self-employed” who pad around their studio apartments sipping Cup O’ Soup in their old socks and college sweatpants.

The sunlight reflects off a photograph hanging on the wall that Alex took of her when they first met. “The Cigarette Picture,” Alex calls it, because it was taken back when Jillian still smoked and the swirl emanating from the Marlborough Light between her fingers frames her body provocatively. The white stripe of sunlight across the wall seems to slice the photo in half – obliterating her face from view.

The message light on her machine reads “0” but she pushes the button anyway, just to be sure. The synthetic voice hands down the ruling, “You have,” the voice pauses to calculate the results, “zero messages.”

Zero messages! Nothing. She hasn’t checked her messages since last night before dinner.

She opens the refrigerator, looks in and closes it. No messages? As far as the machine’s concerned, she’s been gone since yesterday. Things have happened. Not even an annoying message from Lois. Or the official H.R. call from Bomb about Cobra benefits and vacation pay and all the things they invent to make it seem like you have parting gifts coming to you on your way out the door.

The two-week-old hydrangea sitting in a stew of water is a blatant reminder that Yolanda is definitely gone. Which means the dry cleaning is not picked up, the toothbrush is still on the counter, the dirty sheets are still crumpled on the bed, the thong is still dangling off the doorknob, the half-eaten croissant is still in the sink and as expected, there are thirteen outfits still scattered throughout the closet and on the bedroom and bathroom floors. She plucks the half-croissant from the sink and stuffs it into her mouth.

Zero messages?

Maybe the machine is broken. Answering machines break all the time. She dials her home number from her cellphone and listens to the mismatched double ringing, one phone in each ear: “Hi, it’s Jill. Leave me a message…”

“Testing, testing. This is Jill testing my machine, testing, testing,” the sound of her voice on the machine echoes back, disturbingly hopeful. She hangs up the phone and watches as the message light changes from zero to one – one message from herself, lingering in the guts of her properly working machine.

 

Jillian opens the cupboard over the stove hoping for a few crackers to munch on, maybe a Power Bar, but it’s empty. She wanders through the war zone of her apartment and into her closet. She pushes around what remains hanging. It is the dregs of the dregs. No inspiration in sight.

My God, she needs new clothes. What was she thinking? There is nothing in here for tonight. Nothing. Sure, there’s the slinky silk charmeuse slip dress which can be paired with a cardigan and heels for a Paris in the 20’s thing and there’s the white Courrèges which, with hoop earrings, looks kind of modern Barbarella, and then there’s scads of low riders with boy waistbands and pencil skirts and minis, surfer cords and Yoga pants, but there’s nothing appropriately classy yet lightly coquettish for the evening. Nothing.

Where are the black Capri’s?  Where are the cashmere sweater sets? Where is the black tea-length coat and matching cocktail dress? The Audrey look was a complete bust and The Audrey look would be perfect for tonight. Actually, her whole wardrobe should be Audrey – everyone one knows Audrey is good for any occasion. (Just look at Selma Blair.)

Why can’t she just decide who she is and commit to it? She gets sidetracked by chunky platforms or maroon fur collars, sometimes even by silver loafers! She gets diverted from the mission, by these, the odds and ends of her closet which do nothing at all for her. They hang there, tags still attached, bringing down the rest of the clothes and now she has nothing to wear.

 

Jillian needs something to turn the day around. She opens the refrigerator again, hoping for a little sweet to have materialized. It has not. She opens the cupboard to the side of the stove. An open box of Zuni’s Original Flavor Rice Pilaf and vegetable bouillon cubes float around in the dark space. She walks the length of her apartment then walks it again. Her sound of her footsteps bounces off the ceiling.

She can’t go to Shabbat-at-Bingo’s like this – desperate, hopeless, rejected.

She needs to hold it together. This is what she does. She holds it all together with the miscellany of her toolbox: new clothes, new perfumes, new salves and ointments, new polishes and sprays, new hangers, new tweezers, new hair ornaments, new anythings to brighten the moment and give her a reason to be.

For tonight she needs help, a compass rose to point her away from the morning and toward the evening. It doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be something. With her big suede purse still around her shoulder, she scoops up her keys and makes her way to the little shop around the corner.

* * *

 Through the window she is surprised to see that La Petite Coquette is full. In the middle of the day! A man in for a look-see, a woman about the same age as Jillian looking desperate, as if she too is seeking sanctuary in lingerie and another woman overloaded with shopping bags cram the undersized lavender-scented shop.

It looks like Christmas inside – shimmery, hopeful and filled with goodies. She’s so eager to go in that she nearly forgets her Mantra. She inhales a deep breath to compose herself.

“It is mine. It is mine. It is mine.”

La Petite Coquette sells primarily expensive under-things, but occasionally items like soft sweaters, airy drawstring pants and silky scarves make their way onto the racks. Last year she bought a wildly expensive Deborah Marquit leopard bra and matching low rise hipsters so, the way she sees it, she been a good and loyal customer of the store.

She wanders by a row of corsets and past the undershirts and panties, toward the back by the bras. Her heart picks up the pace, the pulsing palpable below her blouse.

One bra in particular catches her eye – tiny eyelet straps, piercingly white, demi-cups. Her fingers trace the edges. Not perfect under a t-shirt – too bumpy, but impeccable under a jacket, clean – the tiniest scallop edge framing the décolletage. Lovely. 34 B. Close enough. Double seamed. Flawless. Custom-made closure. Heartbreaking.

She glides it off the satin hanger and lets it drop to the counter. It must weigh less than an ounce! Her breath pounds out in heaves. Her teeth chatter, droplets of sweat trickle down her side sending out a rank perfume, her nipples harden. She swallows a mouthful of saliva, the gulp of it echoing in her head. A quick slide off with a nimble hand and poof…it is gone. Engulfed by a cavernous pocketbook.

On a normal day this trinket would be enough. She would go home and build a new world around this tiny but poignant acquisition. But today there’s a larger hole to satisfy. She meanders around to another spot and smiles at the young salesgirl. “Hello,” “Hello,” “How are you?” “Fine,” “Fine.” Jillian lowers her eyes, using the thinnest drape of eyelid to protect her from the world.

It occurs to her for a moment to run. To pull out the flawless 34 B white eyelet demi-cup and hand it to the young salesgirl and say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to take this from you, I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to take it from you.” It occurs to her to run away from La Petite Coquette with nothing crammed into her purse or her pocket and to be whole once again, innocent, a regular person once again – but she can’t, she can’t because she is not, and she has not been, for as long as she can remember, free or clean or whole or beautiful, or a regular person.

Three scarves drape over a counter, one red, one teal and one burnt orange. The flossy surface of the fine material tickles her fingertips. These tiny filaments, hundreds and thousands of them to the inch, rise up from the weave and flirt with all who approach. She smoothes her moist palm lightly along the surface then brings her hand up to her face to smell the musky fragrance. She imagines it folded in her drawer or resting against her skin tonight. The desperate longing seeps from her stomach into her bloodstream fueling her bravado. With a sharp exhale and a nimble wave and scoop, it is home.

The hole is filling up, but empties itself almost as quickly. Another smooth walk around, she is panting invisibly, nearly vomiting. Her left hand trembles in her pocket. It is mine. It is mine. It is mine. Another smile and nod to the pretty salesgirl and two pairs of stockings, size unknown, are added to the goodie bag. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. “Thanks,” she gestures and adds a blasé smile. She escapes, nearly falls, out the front door and into the street.

Out of breath, sour sweat pouring down her wrists, she stumbles home to throw up and change.

  • Share/Bookmark

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>