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Wearing a long black Narciso Rodriguez number that was more appropriate for a dinner party than the office, I arrived at work only an hour late. All the assistants overdressed. It made us feel interesting, if not important, while riding public transportation to our meaningless jobs. The receptionist was comfortably installed at her desk, busy transferring callers to the wrong extensions. It would be another hour before Sam and the other senior editors meandered in.
A better name for the magazine would have been Waste, as in the brainpower, time, and trees that were squandered within its office walls. The flagship of Glossy Publishing, Inc., À la Mode was historically the waiting room of young society women playing at having careers until their husbands-to-be came into their trusts. Now the Junior Leaguers had been replaced by their granddaughters—Ivy Leaguers hell-bent on using their talents and educations to help other women dress and do their hair to seduce a man. In other words, a half century after the women's movement, the staff was better equipped to do their jobs, but the jobs hadn't changed.
Though perhaps guilty by association, I didn't consider myself a defector. Aside from the few ideas I gave to Sam here and there—I had nothing to do but read the trade dailies and page through European editions—I made no contribution to the content of the magazine. I wasn't even on the masthead.
I turned onto the fashion corridor and immediately felt an unusual energy in the air. The Monday-morning kaffee klatsches seemed to be talking about something more exciting than their weekends. A copywriter bumped into me and almost made eye contact when she mumbled excuse me. Like most everyone else, she was blond and pencil-thin, but I knew who she was—the lone fashion person who snagged assignments from the features department. Paige also regularly had questions about the clothes she was writing up and Sam sent me to her office to answer them. Paige was too harried to read the reports I typed for her.
I hurried down the hall to the windowless, doorless space I shared with Dakota West. An assistant for nearly two years at the time that I started, she'd been frosty at first. Now that she understood I wasn't her competition, and what good friends I was with Sam, a senior market editor on the rise, we were office buddies. Though we weren't so close that I would tell her about my mother's sneak visit or turn to her for help. Dakota and I went to sample sales together, and she stood with Sam and me at the monthly parties thrown in the conference room to toast birthdays, engagements, and, once, an adoption of a Chinese shar-pei.
The phone to her ear, Dakota hushed me with a finger to her lips before I could say hello. She listened a few more minutes and then carefully placed the receiver in its cradle. The red light on one of her boss's lines stayed lit.
Dakota's enduring promotionless state wasn't due to lack of effort—or even daring. Today she was wearing a purple and white checkered vintage Trigère suit, red knee-high socks, and patent leather Mary Janes. Model-tall and -thin with self-peroxided cropped hair, she could pull it, or any getup, off. Her unending assistantship was due to the dumb luck of having a boss who despised her, who treated her not as an apprentice but as a coffee fetcher, Xerox maker, and all-around slave. Chantal Lewis was a senior sittings editor, but Dakota had never been on a photo shoot.
"Nan's been fired," Dakota said at bedroom volume, her eyes bugged out. Nan was the fashion director. "And I think the evil one is getting her job." She pointed her head at Chantal's closed door. "She was here when I got in."
Sam was going to wig out when she heard that her masthead equal—they were on the same line—had been promoted over her. Though Sam covered the market, going to shows and showrooms, while Chantal styled models, dressing them up for the camera, they were archrivals. It had bothered Sam so much that Chantal came first on the line they shared on the masthead, she had considered legally changing her name from Starre to Cooper, her mother's maiden name. If she had, Dakota was going to accompany her to city hall to change her name to AAA. Dakota had been a chess champion in high school.
I ran to my desk to call Sam. She should be warned before she even approached the building. Someone from our floor might be outside, smoking. Actually, a brigade was probably down there, licking their chops. Schadenfreude, real journalists have commented, was one of the most overused words in the pages of the magazines owned by Glossy Publishing, but its frequent appearance was understandable to anyone who worked there.
I looked up at the clock on the wall to see if I should try Sam at home or on her cell. Just then Sam appeared through the glass wall, the force of her strides making her flaxen ponytail swing from side to side. She was scowling. I was too late.
The only child of the ninth richest man in America, Sam wasn't used to disappointment. Her father, Graham Starre, was the S in SDM, one of the biggest venture capital funds in the country. But she wasn't spoiled or obnoxious, as I had feared the summer before college when I received her letter embossed with her monogram. We were roommates all four years at Madison, spending more time together than with any other person, including her serial boyfriends. She took after her father, the son of a dairy farmer, though she got her looks from her mother, her father's second wife and former secretary. Sam wouldn't be taking this defeat lying down.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, wondering who had beaten me to the phone.
"Um, I work here?" She was facing me but looking past my ear.
I turned to see Chantal had crawled out of her cave. I'd had minimal interaction with her; I doubt we'd said more than seven words at a time, combined—the longest exchange being, "Have you seen my worthless assistant?" "No." Chantal was out of the office on photo shoots more than she was in, and when she was in, she kept her door closed. So everything I knew about her was from Sam and Dakota. Sam said that when Chantal first arrived at the magazine, already an editor, she had a French accent, which she dropped when Dakota, newly hired, forwarded to everyone in the department a voice-mail message from her mother out on Long Island. Dakota swore to Chantal it was an accident, but their relationship never recovered. Now Dakota was fond of telling people that Chantal was a lesbian, not a slur per se, but a rumor that could hurt a fashion editor on the make, the thinking going that a woman who dresses for women doesn't know how to dress for a man.
"Hey there," Sam called over, mustering a cheerful tone.
Chantal acknowledged the hello with a nod as she tossed a stack of files on Dakota's desk. Readjusting the pile of dishwater-blond curls on top of her head, she sauntered back into her office. She left the door open.
Sam's smile cracked. She quickly recovered and crooked her neck in the direction of her office. I nodded, but Dakota, her back to Chantal's open door, gave us an aggrieved look, the one she often made while picking at her tossed salad as I bit into a hamburger or pastrami sandwich. She probably was hungry, since she always was, but it was more likely the anguish of not being able to join our conversation that was behind her long face. Sam mouthed, "Later."
"Isn't this great?" Sam asked before I'd taken my seat across from her desk. "Chantal's so insecure, she can barely be civil to me."
"Great? But she's the new…" Sam didn't know. It was better that she find out in the privacy of her office, from me. We saw less of each other on the weekends and at night—partly as a consequence of our spending almost all day together, partly because I found her childhood pals pretentious and unbearable—but I would always be more than just a work friend to her. "I have to tell you something." I got to my feet to close the door.
"Where are you—?"
"Just a second," I said over my shoulder. As close as Sam and Dakota were getting, I was sure Sam didn't want her to hear her cries of indignation and pain.
I was glad for this opportunity, small as it was, to repay Sam, to hold her hand for a change. These days her primary role seemed to be playing my fairy godsister, whisking me from my dropout doldrums, bringing me to New York, a city I otherwise would have taken years to make it to, even cosigning my lease when the landlord insisted on a guarantor in the tristate area. I was grateful but a little uncomfortable with, or maybe not used to, our unequal footing. In college, the assistance had gone both ways. My gift for writing papers had complemented her aptitude for locating and getting into the best parties. She'd taught me the value of studying and not cramming, of befriending professors and going to their office hours, while I explained football and procured for her the driver's license of a high school classmate's older sister when the bars near campus stopped accepting out-of-state IDs.
Okay, I was getting a little tired of being Sam's project, her underling, when we were the same age—when I had gone further in academia.
Sam had taken out her cigarettes. Smoking wasn't allowed in the building, but when people complained about the smell traveling through the vents, she just denied it was her. No one dared to go to Helena Boyle, the editor in chief.
"Chantal," I said, shaking my head at the proffered pack, "is your new boss. It happened this morning."
Sam choked on her smoke. She rolled away from the desk and bent over. Her shoulders shook. But she wasn't hyperventilating. She was laughing. "I'm sorry," she said, gasping for air. "I wasn't expecting that."
"I'm not kidding, Sam."
"The way you closed the door, I thought you were going to announce you were pregnant."
I arched an eyebrow at her. Unless she believed in spontaneous conception, I didn't know how she could have thought that. I hadn't gone out with a man since leaving Madison. "Nan Bran's been fired," I said.
Sam lost her smile. "No, she hasn't," she said, stubbing out her cigarette. "She quit." She pushed the Post, open to the gossip column, at me. "When she read this."
It took me a while to find what she was referring to; the blind item was so small. It said: "Which Glossy fashion director is thisclose to getting a pink slip? (And we're not talking underpinnings.) Our inside source gave the rhyme but not the reason."
"Yeesh," I said, putting the paper down. "I can't believe Nan took the bait." Hothead though she was, she must have known that by quitting she was doing exactly what Helena wanted—forfeiting her severance package. "It doesn't even give a reason."
"O'Henry was given the reason. Falling newsstand sales." The art director chose the cover models, but the fashion director styled them. "It just didn't make for such good copy."
"How do you?"
She licked her lips delicately before answering, "Chantal is acting co-fashion director."
I held Sam's gaze until her face broke into a grin. "Ohmigod! Congratulations!" I leapt to my feet.
"Hell's giving us a month to prove who's best cut out for the job." Everyone called the head honcho that, but Sam was the only one who said it to her face. "She says she has to give Chantal a shot to be fair, but it's all a waste of my time if you ask me."
"What's a month? Let me give you a hug." I squeezed her hard. She had said she was going to make editor in chief by the time she was thirty, the age her father was when he banked his first million, and she was well on her way. She was moving up in the world.
While I was still casting about for a career. As successful as my mother was, I didn't compare myself to her, because real estate, which she entered after my father left, was a livelihood, not an identity. She'd gone to college, but her broken English lowered the expectations—and gave her fewer options. She wound up working in an office, but she would have been able to hold her head up among Koreans if she'd toiled in a store backroom or restaurant kitchen—that she owned, of course.
But Sam was my peer. The ground I had lost from grad school was only increasing. And my mother's crazy husband-hunt made matters all the more urgent.
"Okay, we got to get to work," Sam said, taking out a pad of paper. "Hell's holding an ideas meeting—"
"Not to be self-involved," I cut in. "But how does this move affect me?"
Sam jiggled her wristwatch. "In half an hour."
"I mean, if Hell fills your spot with someone on staff, will I move up to associate?"
"Associate?" Sam put her pen down. "Since when do you want that?"
"Since my mother arrived," I exhaled loudly, "to spear me a husband."
Sam pushed the notepad to the side. She knew about my bind when it came to my mother's expectations and my feelings about Korean men.
I recounted my morning. Sharing it with my old best friend was cathartic and made me feel like less of a freak. I mentally took back everything I'd been thinking earlier about her help.
"It sounds like it's time to come clean with her," Sam said, leaning back in her chair.
"You know I can't do that. I can't hurt—"
"Maybe if she knew, she'd give in."
"She won't." Marrying a non-Korean was to my mother what marrying someone beneath one's station was to Jane Austen—blasphemy.
"Or tell her you're not ready."
"It won't do any good. She thinks she knows better." She had said grad school was a mistake. Her exact words: "Who hires Korean to teach English in America?"
"But what's the rush?"
"My bloom is fading."
Sam stared incredulously at me.
"She's not a total throwback," I said, defending my mother despite myself. "I mean, if I told her I wanted to go further in my career first, she would back off. That's why I need this promotion."
Sam grimaced. She reached again for her Marlboro lights and held them out. I took one. I probably already reeked of secondhand smoke.
"I'm not asking you to hand me the job. I'll work for it. Just teach me the business."
"It's not that," Sam said. "I'm concerned that you're just grabbing for the nearest thing. You'd be taking a promotion away from someone whose passion really is fashion."
"Dakota is younger. She can wait."
Sam's mouth twitched. "I agree that you've been my assistant for too long. This is the prime time of our careers and you've been pissing it away."
"But you should set your sights on an industry you're actually interested in. I have connections everywhere. I could hook you up."
"This is what I want to do." Not a total lie. Just a bit of an overstatement. I felt I could do many things, and these past months I'd been savoring the vista of possibilities as well as licking my wounds. But the time for self-indulgent dawdling was over. "I may not have shown interest, but I've shown aptitude."
"You do have good taste and ideas."
"And I have the big picture. Fashion isn't just trendy clothes. It's a mode of self-expression, an art. It's like architecture, where form meets function."
"I had no idea you thought so highly of what I do."
"Editors are critics, purveyors of—"
"Enough," Sam laughed. "You're starting to sound like Chantal."
"—culture. It's a worthwhile profession as long as seduction isn't the only objective. And it wouldn't be mine."
Her steepled fingers pressed against her lips, she looked at me in silence.
"Please, Sam. I'll give five hundred percent. Just give me—"
She tossed her ponytail. "I don't care about natural talent or hard work. They don't really matter here—or anywhere, really. What I'm concerned about is dedication."
"You've got it."
"Which means total submission. I'll need you to do everything I say."
I felt uneasy but I said okay.
"I mean it. No questions. No guff."
"Even with my coaching, it may not happen right away."
"That's all right. If I can show my mother I'm busy, she'll go home. I may have to go on the dates she's lined up, but I can deflect them—she can't have that many."
"You'll be competing against assistants who are pretty hungry."
"Anorexic, more like it."
"I wouldn't underestimate them."
"I don't. But they don't have you."
"Like Dad says, work is war."
"I can handle it. Ph.D. candidates aren't exactly kittens. They used to intentionally mis-shelve library books."
Sam looked hard at me. I stared back. Satisfied, she said, "Okay."
Grinning, I slouched back in my chair. Now that she was on board, my ship seemed less at risk of sinking. I could relax; she didn't have any showroom appointments scheduled for the day.
"Sit up. Let's get started."
"Either we do it my way or no way."
"Your way," I said hurriedly, pulling myself up. No wonder she'd advanced as quickly as she had. Perhaps if we'd stayed in touch the years I was toiling in my library-stack wasteland, I would have finished my degree or left sooner. "Where are we going?"
"Nowhere." She tossed her pad of paper and pen at me. "First we've got to cover some basic tenets of office warfare."
"Are you serious?"
"Okay." I picked up her Mont Blanc and held it ready.
She took a minute, pulling together her thoughts. She cleared her throat. "Number one, always put yourself first. Before you do anything, know what's in it for you. Number two, never let people—"
I held my hand up.
"You don't have to do that."
"I wasn't sure," I said, pulling it down. "I have a question."
"What happened to—never mind. What is it?"
"Have I been breaking the first rule all this time I've been giving you story ideas?"
Sam cocked her head to one side, considering the question. "No," she said, straightening her neck. "By helping me you were helping yourself. Now, where was I?"
"Number two, never let people," I prompted.
"Oh, right. Never let people see you sweat. Everything you do should seem effortless. It makes dumb people think you're untouchable and it makes smart people underestimate you."
She paused, but I held my tongue, scribbling down what she'd said. Her father, a former marine, was a shrewd man.
"Number three, don't discuss your plans or deeds. Word always leaks."
I looked up. "That's why you've never told me how you moved up? You could've trusted—"
"Four, scrap loyalty. It has no place in the office."
"Even between us?" I persisted.
"Scrap best friends. There are no real friends in business." She pointed to my pen. "Write it down."
I bent my head and did as she said. While I was piqued that she'd included me in her don't-trust-anyone policy, I was surprised, and not a little pleased, to hear she still considered me her best friend.
"So I should keep secrets from you," I said, jotting the last period with a flourish, "and back-stab you at the next opportunity?"
"Yes, but under my direction." She smiled at the nonsense of what she'd just said. "I mean, the point is that you shouldn't trust anyone the way you trust me."
"Not that obvious. You're so indoctrinated, you don't realize that snakes come in both genders."
I looked c'mon at Sam. Most of the missing books in the library at Madison had been feminist texts.
"If you're going to be this difficult—"
The phone interrupted her. The caller ID said it was Hell.
"Shit, the meeting. And we haven't even brainstormed for ideas." Sam jumped up. I rose with her. She grabbed her notepad and tore off the paper I'd written on. "Quick, give me one."
"Uh…" Folding my notes, I looked at her black Ungaro sundress, then down at myself. "Narcisco?"
"No, I need story ideas, not market news."
Her sharp tone triggered an idea. "Arresting looks," I said. "It could be models in various scenes of being arrested. You know, up against the wall with their legs spread. Stepping out of a squad car. Being handcuffed."
"With cops in uniforms. And hunky FBI agents. You're brilliant!" She turned back at the door. "I just thought of something."
The last time I'd seen that particular gleam in her eye, she'd proposed going to Harlem to score some coke. I'd begged off, stunned to hear she'd taken up drugs.
"I'm going to tell Hell you helped me on this one."
Caroline Hwang is a magazine editor and writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Redbook, Self, Newsweek, Mademoiselle, CosmoGirl!, and YM. Reprinted from In Full Bloom by Caroline Hwang with the permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2003 by Caroline Hwang. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.