1 BRANDS, BRANDS, BRANDS!
I guess you could say this whole thing started the day we tacked Ellen Hanks’s face to our vision board and began thinking seriously about how we could best take this incredible human being and turn her into a brand. Ellen Hanks was the face of Minneapolis’s Real Housewives franchise, and she had, just a few days before, approached People’s Republic Advertising about inte- grating her brand identities. PR was the best boutique agency in town, and Ellen needed our help. She’d launched a number of her own personally branded products—low-cal vodka, protein bites, and shapewear called Shape UP—but she felt these brands lacked inter-, intra-, and meta-coherence. They didn’t reflect, she said, her core values. She’d put us on retainer for what we were calling “co- hesive brand management,” to not only support the growth of her consumer base but to add value to the life of each and every Ellen Hanks girl. Which is why we—Annie, Jack, Lindsey, and I, the crackerest-jack team PR had ever put together—found ourselves on that dreary March day puzzling over Ellen’s giant face and its implications. In fact, it was the Ides of March—I’ve always had a soft spot for days when famous guys got murdered—and I was wearing palazzo pants in the hopes of appearing more European. Despite the freez- ing temperatures, I was also wearing open-toed shoes in the hopes of dressing for the weather you wanted, not the weather, in Minne- sota, you’d ever get. My best friend Susan once said my optimism bordered on derangement, and I told her they’d probably said the same thing about Gandhi. She’d said she doubted it, and I’d said greatness always seems deranged at first, which was something I thought about while writing in my diary sometimes, and a para- phrase of a quote I’d read on Pinterest.
Together the four of us looked like an advertisement for the kind of glamorous urban life you could have if you went into adver- tising: three stylish and beautiful women, and a fetching gay. Well, it pains me to say that Annie wasn’t empirically beautiful, but when you put her with Lindsey and me you tended to, in your mind’s eye, gently round her up.
“I am loving—” Jack said. He paused, placing one putting-the-man-in-manicured hand atop his checkered shirt, beneath his bow tie. “Loving what I’m seeing here.” He was our team’s senior art director; it was his job, in other words, to create the “visual ethos” for each branch (print, digital, film) of a brand’s campaign.
“Uh-huh,” Annie said, nodding. “Absolutely. Uh-huh.” Annie was a copywriter, a fresh-faced twenty-three. Annie wore a lot of cardigans and was very diligent. She worked hard, much harder than the rest of us. She was talented enough to know she did not have a ton of talent; fear of unworthiness gave her a near-alarming level of commitment. But by then I’d read enough books about fe- male leadership to know that true torchbearers ruled not by fear but inspiration, so I took Annie under my wing, complimenting her cardigans and praising her work and giving advice I don’t think she asked for but, I believed, might need someday. Annie returned this kindness with devotion, which only compounded my natural beneficence. She also didn’t mind, during long meetings, serving as an appreciative audience member for the rest of us as we waged our usual campaigns.
“Here’s what we do,” Jack said. “Full-page glossy, put it in O and Us Weekly, we airbrush the face, add a fan to the hair, then her name at the bottom with the logo.” He blocked out the words in the air with his thumbs and index fingers. “ELLEN HANKS—”
“Ellen Hanks,” I said. “And then the tag. ‘Housewives take no prisoners,’ or something.”
“Casey, enough with the tags. We don’t need a tag,” Jack said. He was irritable that morning. His shih tzu, Johnny, needed eye surgery.
“I think we might need a tag,” Lindsey said, cringing. Lindsey cringed when she said anything controversial. She’d gotten an art degree at RISD, painting tiny dolls on china saucers. A year or two after graduating, when it was clear she could not live by the bread of her Etsy store alone, she turned her saucer eyes toward advertising. Recently Lindsey’d gotten into what she called the Healing Arts. She drank weird glops out of mason jars and was always sug- gesting that I hold crystals and smell things. “Here,” she’d say when I complained of fatigue, and push a tiny brown bottle my way. “It’s for energy.”
“So’s this,” I’d say, and glug down an entire Americano.
“We don’t need a tag,” Jack said impatiently. “All we’re doing is creating brand recognition.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Yeah, but people won’t under- stand what the ad is for.”
Jack put his hands on his hips, too. “So we’ll put the names of her product lines at the bottom.”
While we bickered, Annie looked back and forth between us like a cat trying to keep track of a laser pointer, bless her. When she watched, the part of me that felt I needed an audience to exist was, in that moment, satisfied. Jack and I went on like that for a while, more for sport than anything. Boredom crept into our edges like blackness on those old-timey photographs. It was important for our mental health to keep it on the periphery.
“We can’t just use her face, Jack,” I said. “Her face alone doesn’t mean anything.”
“What are you talking about?!” Jack said. “Her face is her entire brand identity!”
Finally Lindsey interjected. “You guys,” she said, cringing. “Seriously, let’s chill for a second.”
“Fine. Take it to the windows!” I flounced in that direction.
People’s Republic took up the entire top floor of a downtown building, and the first thing people usually noticed were the floor- to-ceiling windows, complete with window seats and decorative pillows. “Take it to the windows,” in PR speak, meant to take a break from whatever earthly problem or disagreement you were wrestling with. There were little shelves of organic snacks by the windows, and at the end of the day we often kicked back there with a glass of wine from the well-stocked Sub-Zero. The refrigerator and pillows and snacks—not to mention the couches and dart- boards and graphic prints on the wall (my favorite one said i like you), plus the sound of people bouncing tennis balls, deep in thought, on the concrete floor, and the whimsical doodles on the whiteboards—were all of a piece that added up to this whole idea that we should feel at home while we were at work. Or really that there was no difference between home and work—that work was fun! This is what we loved to brag about to our friends the most, friends who were stuck in less exciting jobs, slogging through Excel spreadsheets or legal briefs or outdated software at a non- profit that had seemed noble at twenty-two but at twenty-eight seemed poor and sad. We got to go to work wearing artfully ripped jeans and scribble on Post-its and stick pictures of reality TV stars to movable felt walls! And we got paid for it! In fact, we got paid quite a lot!
Lindsey, Jack, and I made jokes about being sellouts when we went out drinking after work, which happened frequently: the joking and the drinking. I guess we wanted to prevent someone else from saying it first, something we all feared. For me, that someone was my best friend Susan. We’d both been English majors in col- lege, where we met, and even now, almost six years after gradua- tion, I could feel her accusations boring into my skull. This? she’d say with her relentless blue eyes. This? We stayed up till three every night talking Marxist-feminist theory, and you’re writing campaigns for slimming underpants?
Susan was the kind of friend where all she had to do was say “underpants” a certain way and I would double over laughing. I loved Susan more than anyone else in this world. Before I met her, I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily—I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies—but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hiss unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world prop- erly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.
Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend that static doesn’t exist. That was right around the time I started partying, and exercising all the time.
But when I met Susan I swear I could hear a low hum from somewhere deep below her rib cage that precisely matched the one in mine. I was eighteen years old, and it was the first time I under- stood what it meant to be kept company. From the inside out, I mean, not just a warm body thing. I feel sad when I think about that sometimes, that it took so long, that my whole life I’d been lonely and didn’t even know it. But there’s joy in that too, a kidlike joy, like when you run home crazy thirsty after playing outside all afternoon and glug down a glass of water. You think, Jesus Christ, why’d I let myself get so thirsty in the first place? And also: what a relief.
“I bet Ellen’s a bitch,” Jack said. He was lying on his back on a window seat, knees knocking, his hands resting on his stomach like a Buddha. “On the show she’s such a bitch.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “She’s not a bitch. She just doesn’t suffer fools!”
“I don’t think they’re fools. They’re lost, you know?” Lindsey said. She sat cross-legged on a bright blue ottoman, opening a fresh bottle of kombucha. “Like, in the culture.” She took a sip. “Wait, she’s the one from New Jersey?”
Annie’s face brightened because she knew the answer. “Uh- huh. She came here because her ex-husband got a job as CEO at—” “Blah blah blah,” I said impatiently. “And they got divorced, there was a prenup so she didn’t get any money, but thanks to her hard work and beauty and brains she managed to claw her way back up from nothing.” I didn’t know how anyone could not know the story of Ellen Hanks. Besides the minor celebrities who stuck around after going to rehab at this glitzy place outside of town, there weren’t that many ambitious people in this city. I should know. In my work at PR I’d tried to curry favor with all of them—and foist myself on more than a few.
Ellen, however, was an exception, maybe because she was often flying to New York or L.A. or wherever it is people jet off to when they’d rather live somewhere else. I never saw her around town, which bummed me out, because after watching two seasons of her show I’d developed what I guess you’d call a girl crush on her, that weird feeling of wanting to touch another woman’s hair and press her cheek to your cheek and tell her all your secrets while maybe kissing her a little, just maybe, or maybe even more than that, maybe even smushing your face in her breasts, but then again, maybe not, I dunno, it was hard to say.
“You know, you guys kind of remind me of each other,” Jack said. He was scrolling through Facebook, absentmindedly “liking” this post and that.
“Hello,” I said, “you just called her a bitch!”
“You’re a bitch too,” he said. I gasped, though I was not in the least offended. He craned his neck to look at me. “Lovable bitch,” he explained.
“Couldn’t you guys see Casey on TV?” Lindsey said. The kombucha was reviving her. She sat up a little straighter on the ottoman.
“Oh my God,” Annie said. “Totally.”
“You guys, stop it,” I said, but they all knew I meant continue please.
“Seriously!” Lindsey said. Lindsey loved saying nice things to people. It was one of her best qualities, but also weirdly the most irritating. I think she thought it would make us love her better— she’d had a difficult childhood, bad stepdad and whatnot, and seemed to think her full-time job was to try to make the rest of us happy. Sure, I liked all the little presents and handwritten cards, the affirmations on the hour, every hour, but sometimes they were exhausting. Sometimes I wanted to pull her aside and tell her: it’s okay, don’t you see we love you a whole lot already? But you couldn’t say that sort of thing to Lindsey. She crumpled easily.
“Seriously,” she said again. “You’re both super funny, super sexy, super, like—”
“Oh, I don’t know about all that,” I began. “Bitchy,” Jack interjected.
“I was going to say driven,” said Lindsey. She took another delicate sip of kombucha.
We didn’t come up with much else to tell ellen before she arrived that afternoon. It didn’t matter, though. We were in new territory—a person, not a company, asking us for branding advice— and the most important thing was to make Ellen feel comfortable. For her to get to know us, and for us to get to know her. How could we create a brand campaign for a person if we didn’t even know the person? Or anyway, that’s the sort of thing we told ourselves while we snacked and gossiped and tumbled around the Internet check- ing Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, avoiding work and taking what I liked to call the modern cigarette break. I didn’t make that up, I stole it from somewhere, but I didn’t tell people that because it was nice to feel like you were the person with all the good ideas.
Celeste Winter, my boss, and the founder of People’s Republic, tended to like my ideas. I was considered, not unbitchily, to be one of her favorites. Which was, I thought, also not unbitchily, fine by me, seeing as this favoritism was the direct result of my hard work, not to mention raw talent. Celeste was one of those bosses who was notoriously difficult to please, and who took pleasure in this fact. She’d been a hot young public relations girl in New York in the early nineties before cocaine got the better of her. She’d come here for rehab, then stuck around here to relaunch her career.
The fact that Celeste was hard to please only made me want the job more. I chalked this up to my childhood. People my age were very interested in their childhoods. Our parents shouldered a lot of blame. We worked through our childhoods and against our parents using therapy, self-help books, and light-to-medium Buddhism from apps and meditation tapes. From my own journey of self- discovery I came to understand that even though my mother, Louise, wasn’t an alcoholic, her mother was, and this stuff trickles down in families like water in old buildings. For example: when my grandmother wasn’t drinking, she’d get so obsessed with cleaning that she made my mother tiptoe on the edges of carpeted rooms so as not to mess up the vacuum lines. My mother wasn’t that bad, but every Saturday morning she’d still haul me out of bed for chores and make me clean for hours until the house was up to her specifications. Which is how I learned that a large chasm exists between a child’s skill and a mother’s specifications—a chasm that, so far, had yet to improve with aging.
I’d applied for this job right out of college. When Celeste sat back in her chair during my interview, arms crossed, her face primed for disappointment before I’d so much as opened my mouth, I wasn’t surprised; I felt right at home. Mama! It’s like that experiment I read about in Psych 101. When baby chimps, removed from their mothers at birth, are given bare wire hangers in the laboratory with bottles attached, they automatically turn the wire hangers into mothers. It’s pretty cute, actually—they snuggle the hangers at night, play little games with them, et cetera. But the funny thing is, even when scientists remove the bottles from the wire hangers and attached them to other, more comfy, cloth-covered hangers, the baby chimps always prefer the wire hangers. In fact, they prefer them so much that they basically starve to death.
Anyway, instead of talking about my qualifications in the inter- view, which I’d assumed would impress Celeste about as much as a baby chimp could wow a hanger, I’d done a little emotional ju- jitsu. Celeste was closed to me; I wanted her to open. But how? In jujitsu, you use the energy of your opponent against them. If Ce- leste were a stone, I would be . . . the dynamite that blasts apart the stone in a rather haphazardly controlled detonation.
So I decided on the element of surprise. Instead of listing my extracurriculars or five-year goals, I’d embarked on a stream-of- consciousness think piece about the previous night’s episode of Survivor. I told her that, if I were on the show, I’d start by wearing my tribe bandanna as a bikini top so everyone would underesti- mate me. “Then,” I said, leaning forward, “just as they start mak- ing nice, letting their guards down, because they think big whoop, who cares, I’ll be voted off anyway, right? BAM! I’ll get immunity in a physical challenge thanks to my high-intensity interval train- ing and exploit all their weaknesses in my alliance-building.”
When I was done with my exultations, Celeste had uncrossed her arms and was tapping the pads of her fingers together. “Fasci- nating,” she’d said in the voice I now know means that she can smell money. “Tell me. How would you describe yourself?”
“A real bulldozer!” I’d said.
Celeste hired me on the spot. She said that we were going to hone that skill, capitalize on it. And we did. Which is how I became the youngest creative director at PR. Authenticity and innovation were fast becoming buzzwords, and apparently I had both in spades. While my colleagues went off to silent retreats, hired life coaches, and joined soulful gyms in order to quote-unquote tap the strength within, I could no more untap myself than Zeus could prevent Athena from springing out of his head. That’s what ideas felt like when they came to me: it was involuntary, occasionally painful, and a lot of times it was all I could do to get to a pen and paper fast enough to scribble it down before another one was shooting through my synapses like cannon fire, ready to spring out of my head again.
It didn’t take long for this quality to shine through at PR. We had a client, early on in my tenure, who sold backyard equipment and trampolines. Trampolines had been getting a bad rap for years in parenting magazines, and the company wanted a campaign geared toward the discerning, safety-first mother. Something cheeky, they said, but classy. The ideas being thrown around were literal to the point of being excruciating. Take the leap. Jump high— all bland inspirational mumbo jumbo. Then I said, “What about something like, ‘Ladies, meet your tramp’?” And all eyes turned in my direction.
I took over that account soon enough, and others. I was compli- mented on my “freshness.” I became a praise-seeking missile. It wasn’t hard to hit the targets, because it turned out advertising was full of people trapped in some awful purgatory between expression and repression, and while a good many of them did their best to unravel whatever was trapping them so they could, you know, come up with their own ideas or be themselves or whatever, others seemed perfectly happy to live this weird half life, half-ass their work, and bide their time. Though of course, that being said, other people are always more complicated than we make them out to be.
Iheard the elevator ding and looked up from my computer, where I’d been toggling between websites dedicated to eating naturally, decorating minimally, and spring fashions I desperately needed, and social media. I’d posted a photo on Instagram of my and Lindsey’s shoes—we were wearing the same brand, but different styles—and added a ton of hashtags, but so far only three peo- ple had liked it. Three people! It was rude, the lack of attention. But these apps were designed to addict you. Like any addict, I loathed my dependence just as desperately as I craved a hit. I kept refreshing every few minutes, toggling between despair that no one liked me and the hope that soon they would so the post might, algorithmically, ascend atop the heavenly news feed. Sure, this emotional yo-yoing was kind of tiring, but what else does one do at three- thirty on a Tuesday?
Celeste and Ellen stepped out of the elevator, both shortish bru- nettes in towering heels. The difference between them was that Ellen looked like she belonged on reality TV. Her hair was blown out—I think she might have had a weave—and even at a distance I could see the layers of painstakingly applied makeup on her lips and eyes. Everything she wore was tight: tight jeans. Tight silk blouse, tight leather jacket, casings for her tightly wound interior. Tightly wound in a fun way, though, like one of those pistols in cartoons that only shoots bouquets of flowers from the muzzle. She was so skinny her head looked like it was the wrong size. So did her purse, which was leather and the size of a tent.
Celeste, on the other hand, dyed her hair so brown it was al- most black. She only wore black, too, billowing tunics and tailored pants. Her hair was air-dried and tucked behind her ears, and she wore no makeup. I guess when you’re successful enough you can stop caring so much what you look like—that is, unless you be- came successful because of what you look like, as Ellen had. The thing to know about Celeste is that she wore a gold rectangular pendant every day that was secretly a switchblade. She’d cut anyone who messed with her; I should know. I’d seen it, metaphori- cally of course, all the time.
Jack, Annie, Lindsey, and I were all at our desks, which was actually just a long, shiny white table that held our computers. PR didn’t believe in hierarchy, or privacy, or personal space. The only person who had an office-office was Celeste, and even that had glass walls. I liked the open layout, it made me feel like I was a part of something, like movies set in newsrooms, where everyone’s sit- ting on top of desks, one foot on the ground, all pleated khakis and rolled-up sleeves, trying to figure out how to take down the big guy. The difference between those movies and my office was that we had much nicer furniture, no one would be caught dead in pleated khakis, and we offered up the best parts of ourselves as choice meat for the big guys.
Celeste signaled to us without looking—just an arm in the air and a snap—and we knew to gather our things and meet them in the conference room. Which wasn’t a room at all, just a cordoned- off area with raw wooden beams, like the frame of a house under construction. It was furnished with sofas, very square armchairs, and a reclaimed-barn-wood coffee table. When I got there, having speed-walked the way you did in elementary school right after a teacher yelled at you to stop running, I saw Ellen tapping away on her phone like her life depended on it.
“Ellen!” I said. “Casey Pendergast. Creative director, Real Housewives devotee, and huge fan of the Shape UP.” I lifted up my shirt a little, to show her I was wearing some. “Huge fan of you in general. And just so you know, if Monica had come to my house and accused me of trying to come between her and Jacqueline, I totally would’ve started a fight too.”
Ellen looked up. “Jesus Christ, finally!” she said in her Jersey accent. “Someone sees it from my point of view!”
Turned out Ellen was just like me: she could strike up a conver- sation with a stranger as if she’d known them forever. While Jack, Lindsey, and Annie filtered in, and Celeste returned with a Venti- something from the Starbucks on the building’s first floor, Ellen and I talked a lot of shit about Monica and how unfair it was that the producers got to cut and splice whatever they wanted in the editing room. “I swear to you,” Ellen said, “I swear on my mother’s grave, it was Monica who pushed me first. Do you believe me? It wasn’t my fault! You don’t push a girl from Jersey, anyone could tell you that. What’d she want, a peace treaty?”
I could feel Celeste’s eyes on me as Ellen and I chattered on, could feel that she was pleased with my performance. If I won Ellen over, Celeste might even compliment me after the meeting. A compliment from Celeste was like Genghis Khan telling one of his conqueror-minions that he hadn’t done that terrible of a job lighting that village on fire. It meant a lot, both because a compli- ment was hard to come by and because he had the power to kill you.
“All right, let’s get going,” Celeste said when Lindsey had finally returned after she had forgotten her crystals and had to run back to her desk. I could see her fingering them in the pocket of her blazer, finding a solace in them that made no sense to me. You can’t squeeze love from a stone! I wanted to tell her. But Lindsey, as I’ve said, was a sensitive being. Once, when I joked that her purse sounded like maracas when she walked because of all those sup- plements she carried, she excused herself to the bathroom and didn’t come back for twenty minutes. When she did she was red- eyed and quiet for the rest of the day. I felt so bad that I texted her that night to apologize. i was being stupid, I wrote. overcaffeinated and punchy. Lindsey, being Lindsey, not only forgave me immedi- ately, but had a vial of something called Rescue Remedy waiting for me the next morning. “For your anxiety,” she said.
“Everyone, Ellen. Ellen, everyone. Casey you’ve already met, it seems, but this,” she said, going in order around the table, “is Jack, Annie, Lindsey. Senior art director, copywriter, art director. Oh, and this is Simone.”
Simone, Celeste’s assistant, whom I loathed, appeared behind the Eames chair Celeste had brought in to avoid the indignity of a couch. Simone was tall like me, but two sizes smaller, because she ate raisins and Diet Coke for lunch. “Pleasure,” Simone said. Her voice had the sweetness of a rotten peach. Simone’s family was rich, which made her careless, insouciant. She didn’t care about paychecks, and it showed. For whatever reason this made Celeste like her, which in turn made me want to destroy her. Plus Simone had a terrible habit of walking into the kitchen right as I was trying to eat junk food secretly.
Celeste tucked a piece of hair back behind her ear. “I want to keep this short and sweet. Ellen has somewhere to be, I have some- where to be, and nothing ever gets done after a half hour in meet- ings.” She waved a hand toward us. “Tell her what you’re thinking. I know it’s only been a couple days, but you’ve been working hard.” She looked at Ellen. “I work all my girls hard. They don’t like work- ing hard—they can leave.”
Jack opened his mouth to speak, but I caught his eye: Leave this to me. “Ellen,” I said, “we are all dying for this campaign. Dying. DY-ING. I don’t even know how many hours we’ve spent so far, hundreds maybe, imagining where we might take this. So far we’re really committed—I mean, literally obsessed—with using just your face as the image. Your face in Times Square, your face along Mul- holland. Billboard size. Your face on the back of Us Weekly. Ellen Hanks, Ellen Hanks—everywhere you go, there you are. People can’t escape you, you’re gazing down at them, looking up at them, you’re all around them, you’re everything they see. You’re everywhere, they can’t escape you, but they can’t get enough of you either.”
“Huh,” Ellen said. “I’m listening.” She leaned forward and re- crossed her legs.
“So what draws them in is the face. Your face. Your face be- comes even more of a household name—well, household some- thing, faces don’t have names I guess—anyway it becomes even more famous than it already is. The more familiar it becomes, the more they like it, they warm up to it, they forget that you broke Monica’s nose—”
“Barely broke it,” Ellen muttered.
“—and got indicted for tax evasion. And then,” I said, pausing for a breath. I was making this all up as I went along, following my instincts, which is generally how I did my best work. “Then what we’ll do is consolidate and streamline all your brand logos—the vodka, the nutrition stuff, the shapewear, whatever else—”
“Hello, don’t forget my skin care!”
“Right. Your skin care—so they’re all complementary. Jack here”—I motioned to him—“has a better eye than anyone I’ve ever met, and he is determined, DE-TER-MINED, to give you some- thing better than these girly silhouettes and cursive writing that these other Housewives are using. The brand logos will go in the corners of the page, or billboard, sort of like a playing card. The fine print at the bottom shows all the retailers where the brands are sold. We just feel that you’re so beautiful,” I said, leaning forward and looking her in the eye, “and so popular, that anything else will just get in the way.”
Ellen smiled involuntarily, the way a person smiles when some- one tells them something about them they already know to be true. “But we have to come up with a tag,” I said, “something that lets the consumer know that it’s not just your brands we’re selling, it’s you we’re selling. Because, hello, people want to be like you, they want to be your friend, and it’s our job to make them feel that’s possible. So whatever it is we come up with has to really, like, rep- resent who you are. What it is that’s so unique about you that peo- ple should not only be buying, but emulating. We already know,” I said, “that you’re an amazing businesswoman, a white-hot MILF, a reality star, a badass Jersey girl—and that might be enough for some people. But what those other people want?” I leaned back and settled against the couch, opening my arms in welcome. “Is you. The real you. The Authentic Ellen Hanks. The you The Real House- wives doesn’t let us see. And we believe that if we can get our cus- tomers to see that, you will have a very lucrative—not just fan base, but brand base.”
It surprised me sometimes, how moving I could be. Some- times I even gave myself goosebumps. I felt in that moment that I had been charged with very important work—not just for Ellen, but for society. By helping Ellen reflect her core values to the world, we were, by proxy, helping all women do the same. They would see her face everywhere, and it would empower them. Women are tak- ing over the world! they would think. Yes, it was very valuable what we were doing. Female empowerment was a cause I cared about deeply.
“So tell us,” Lindsey said. She stopped fingering her crystals and reached across the table to grab Ellen’s acrylic-nailed hands. “Who are you, really?”
Her words hung in the air for a second. Annie was busily taking what I assumed were minutes on the awkward keyboard of her iPad. Jack fiddled with his bow tie and sniffed, miffed, I was sure, at how little he’d been allowed to speak. Jack thought that just be- cause he’d been bullied in high school he had the right to bulldoze over us girls in meetings like every other guy I knew. Over the past couple years I’d corrected that assumption.
Finally Ellen turned to Celeste and said, “Holy shit, I’m, like, crying right now.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a Kleenex. She dabbed her eyes. “I’m fucking crying right now and I don’t even know why. I love it. You guys are amazing. You’re fuck- ing geniuses. Let’s do it.” She turned to Celeste. “I thought you were full of shit when you said you invested in your clients, but now I know you do.” She blew her nose. “You really do.”
Celeste looked over at me and nodded imperceptibly, code for well done. My heart soared. I felt, as I always did in such moments, as if I’d been offered a rare jewel, which was, I guess, true, since nothing is more rare than a withholding person’s admiration. Once in high school I’d approached my mother after my friend told me her parents gave her twenty bucks for every A she got. It had got me thinking, or rather stewing. “Why don’t I get rewarded for good grades?” I’d complained that evening. “I got an A last quarter in every class except drawing.”
And Louise, without even looking up from rubbing Curél into her hands, said, “Because good grades are what we expect from you.”
I sank farther into the couch and daydreamed about a future where Celeste introduced me to clients as her protégée and took me out for weekly lunch dates. “Just the two of us,” she’d say when she invited me. Meanwhile, Annie was tap-tapping away on her iPad as Ellen began telling her life story with the aim and accuracy of a sawed-off shotgun. This was Annie’s job as a copywriter: to pull the vague, half-formed ideas out of clients and knit them into a cohesive story, a story that could then be distilled all the way down to a tag. I heard bits and pieces of her childhood (“Parents hated each other. Of course they stayed together, they had no money, what else were they gonna do?”), her youth (“I don’t remember a lot of it, to be honest. Lots of cigarettes, though, a lot of chicken fingers”), and her marriage (“Scum of the earth. If it weren’t for that restraining order I would’ve set his house on fire”).
She must have talked for some time, I was daydreaming and only half listening. The next thing I knew, Celeste was tapping her watch and saying something about getting Ellen to her next thing. We all stood up, then, did that weird dance of trying to figure out if it had been a handshake or cheek kisses or hug kind of meeting. I personally went for a hug and kiss, because it wasn’t every day that I had the chance to meet Ellen Hanks. Her body felt like a hanging skeleton against mine, but I could feel the energy zinging through her like a live wire.
“You,” she said to me as we embraced, “are a fucking star. A star. Hey, Celeste,” she said to my boss, who had stepped outside the scrum so as not to bother herself with animal rituals of com- ings and goings. “You know this one’s a star, don’t you?”
“Oh, I know,” Celeste said. “That’s why I hired her.”
After Ellen and Celeste headed for the elevators, Jack, Lindsey, Annie, and I all congratulated ourselves, and each other. “Such great note-taking, Annie,” I said, giving her a hug, which made me feel very doting and maternal seeing as the top of little Annie’s head only reached my chin. I took Lindsey’s hands and squeezed them as earnestly as I could without ruffling my sense of irony. “You were so giving to her, I could totally feel you shining out all that positive energy.”
“I was really trying!” Lindsey said, as sincere as a person could be.
“And Jack,” I said, putting a hand on his checkered back, “I know I didn’t let you talk, but you know that was just for the sake of the company, right? Because I mean”—I smiled not unbeseechingly—“you know I love you. I cherish you.”
“Whatever,” Jack said, in that no-man’s-land between kidding and not. “Love you too.”
Which was true, so much as you can love people whom you don’t know well, or whom you only know in one setting. It was only four-something in the afternoon, and Susan and I weren’t meeting until six, but I figured I’d surprise her by showing up at her work, a photography studio out in the burbs, where she assisted a guy who specialized in senior pictures and family portraits—cheesy, Sears-style stuff. She claimed she hated it, but I’d always thought it was sort of perfect for her, as a way of paying the bills while she worked on her novel. It got her interacting with people, she got to play with kids, and it was so anachronistic, just like Susan. Who knew there was still an industry for senior pictures when teenagers were snapping a hundred selfies a day?
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow, yeah?” I said, rummaging around my workstation for the lipstick I’d stuck somewhere. When I found it, I swung my purse over my shoulder and blew them a kiss.
“You’re the best.”
“You’re the best,” Lindsey said, blowing me a kiss back. She was sitting at her desk, probably about to open Photoshop. That and Illustrator were what, as junior art director, Lindsey used to execute Jack’s so-called visions, but a lot of nights she stayed late to use the software for her own creative projects. Recently she’d taken to refurbishing old dollhouses and taking photographs of the rooms, before and after she wrecked them with razor blades and matchstick fires. I think if Lindsey had been living her best life she would have lived in a remodeled barn in the countryside and en- gaged in gentle activities all day, but Lindsey had $140k in student loans from RISD that were not going to pay themselves.
“No, you’re the best!” I said.
“We’re all the best,” Annie said from behind her computer. She was going to stay late too, most likely to try and come up with some tagline ideas. Sometimes I felt sad for Annie because she worked so hard but so often had very little to show for it, but I couldn’t get wrapped up in other people’s sadness. It derailed me. It’s why I had to stop watching the news. All the refugees, fighting, shootings— how can people stand it. Watching it, I mean, let alone living it. I’m not saying tuning out’s the best way to cope, but listen, some of us have got to keep our heads above water for the sake of sound gov- ernment, slimming underpants, and bustling commerce.
“We’re the best,” Jack said, motioning to himself, Lindsey, and Annie. “And you’re ridic.”
“So true,” I said airily, and headed for the elevators.