Sample text for Me times three : a novel / Alex Witchel.

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Counter 1

I knew nothing about art.

That wasn't a bad thing, necessarily, except that it was 1988 and art was a spoil of war for Wall Street and Madison Avenue guys in Armani who made up the bulk of our eligible dates. Their staggering bonuses had already purchased new duplexes with marble bathrooms and climate-controlled wine closets, where they could properly store their requisite cases of Château Margaux. One guy I knew liked to make a ceremony of opening a prize bottle, then chugging it as his friends cheered him on. You could just imagine what he'd be like in bed.

More important than owning wine, however, was owning art, preferably a major piece by a hot SoHo star--though it would be useless, of course, unless it matched the custom-made couch. Those details were left up to the decorator--that's what the guys were paying her for, after all. She would buy all the right things and then tell her clients what they were, so they could tell everyone else at cocktail parties. It didn't take me long to realize that knowing nothing didn't look half bad when set upon a landscape of cash.

Besides a lack of cash, my immediate problem was that after two years of hard labor at Jolie! magazine--fetching coffee and telling the publisher that the senior editors were in meetings when they were really at the Plaza, in bed with the guys from ad sales--I had become the leading candidate for the position of Arts and Entertainment Editor.

These days it seems that Jolie! has been around forever, but it only began in 1986, the new thing, fresh from Paris. Apparently, pictures of models jumping in the air wearing five-dollar T-shirts and three-thousand-dollar organza skirts were just what the world had been waiting for, and Jolie!'s instant success sent editors at the other women's magazines into a competitive frenzy.

We were off base in one way, though, and that was the reason why someone who knew nothing about art was being considered for the position of Arts and Entertainment Editor. Unlike other fashion magazines, Jolie! had a policy that kept movie stars off the cover--we used models only. This was because Jean-Louis, our art director and an aesthetic heir of Roman Polanski, decreed most female stars over twenty-one to be "old and ugly." Banned from cover consideration, none of the big names would come near us, which meant that the editor with the fancy title would spend many miserable hours on the phone each day listening to desperate publicists pitch star wannabes for a measly three paragraphs and a head shot.

To be fair, I hadn't really spent my entire time at Jolie! fetching coffee, though it often felt that way. During my second year I was promoted to assistant editor (on the same day that Les Misérables opened on Broadway, which I tried not to take personally). This new job meant that someone else scraped the curried chicken salad out of the seams of the conference table after the lunchtime story meetings while I started dealing with writers and "the words." This was a fearsome concept at a fashion magazine where the pictures ruled, so I learned fast that the fewer words there were the better everyone liked them, and when Susie Schein reviewed the results--most of the time, at least--she approved.

The words at Jolie! were supervised by Susie, the number two editor and my boss. Just as I had worked all my life to please my parents and my teachers, I now worked to please Susie Schein--which was a little like trying to cuddle up to Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Unlike most of Jolie!'s staff, who seemed to view life as an endless Mardi Gras, dressing in everything from pastel Chanel suits to tiny black rubber dresses, Susie wore gray pants, a white buttoned-down shirt, and no makeup. Every day. Her contacts never fit properly, so she almost always squinted. And rarely smiled.

She was pushing fifty, I knew, and had been married once. I also knew that more than one person had seen her at clubs making out with Norma Wilder, an editor at a downtown art magazine. Susie never mentioned Norma Wilder, probably because she was a world-class denier about anything having to do with pleasure. Bagel, no butter. Chicken, no skin. Susie Schein was one grim broad.

It was she, for example, who instituted the policy of signing in and out each day. I tried explaining that the reason I was coming in past nine each morning was that I needed to stay until eight most nights, since Hollywood was three hours behind us and no one in the movie business returned calls until they got back from lunch, but Susie was unmoved. She herself worked twelve-hour days, though she seemed to occupy most of those hours filling her date book with appointments she almost always canceled.

Be it a cocktail or a comma, Susie had a problem with commitment. She would read a piece I had edited and remark distractedly, "Oh, yes, very good," and then two hours later, after canceling a lunch so that she could read the piece again (while eating only half of a hastily delivered portion of tuna packed in water, so that at five o'clock she could fall on the remains like a starved wolf), she would come back to me and say ruefully, "Well, you know, maybe this could use some work." By the time the writer and I had gone back through all of Susie's "maybe"s, we didn't even remember the original assignment.

Unfortunately, I had little skill at hiding my irritation every time she wavered. Since the first grade, when I got a "Needs Improvement" in the "Following Directions" category of my report card, this criticism had remained a sore point with me. I would try to be conscientious about doing my job correctly, and so would the writers, but the first round of Susie's directions bore no resemblance to the third round, or the fifth. Sometimes I would catch Susie looking at me during one of our editing sessions, studying whatever my face was saying as if she were trying to remind herself why she had hired me in the first place and considering whether I should be allowed to stay.

Then, as if to test me, she would mention some other writer whose work I should know, a genius among women everywhere whom I had invariably never heard of, an expert on rape in Haiti, say, which, of course, was exactly the kind of article you wanted to read in a fashion magazine. If Susie had been a man I could have turned my inexperience to my benefit, playing just dumb enough so that she could, for the sheer rush of hearing herself talk, explain why that writer was so important. But being a woman meant the opposite of sympathy. "If I've worked hard enough and long enough to know all this," she implied, "then you should too, and now." The only thing that kept me calm at those moments was knowing that the possibility of Susie making a lasting decision about my future at Jolie! (or about anything else) was not on the agenda in my natural lifetime.

I eventually grew accustomed to the fact that I seemed to truly bother her. If it wasn't my editing, it was my smoking, which she loathed. And if it wasn't my smoking, it was the way I dressed, in clear violation of her "few good pieces" philosophy, which was that even though her inevitable gray-and-white getup might resemble a prison matron's, it was made of the finest materials and cost a fortune. I, however, was of the "many not-so-good pieces" persuasion, so that I wouldn't die of boredom.

Despite her prevailing dismay at finding me on her staff, there were some occasions when Susie did seem to like me. Or, more to the point: After two years of trial and error, I had learned some tricks about dealing with her. Mainly concerning story ideas.

"A writer in Texas called to say that there's an old Hispanic woman there called Pastor Brico who runs a church out of a parking lot near her house," I announced one day, stepping into Susie's office.

She glanced up from her ink-smeared, indecipherable date book and squinted, waiting for the payoff.

"When she's not running the church, she's a psychic, and people line up for hours in the parking lot to see her. She also does readings by phone."

Susie snapped to attention. She was obsessed with psychics. She always had a call in to yet another one, desperately waiting for word that her life was about to begin. "She does? Is she expensive?"

"Well," I went on, glorying in the rare spotlight, "I understand that after a reading, she asks for a donation to her church, and most people send one because they're afraid she's going to put a hex on them otherwise."

"Do the piece," Susie ordered. "And get me her number."

A few hours later she summoned me to her office. She was so animated, there was even a hint of pink on her forehead.

"She told me she saw an arm," Susie said breathlessly. "My mother's been having trouble with her arm and needs an operation, and it's been on my mind. The pastor picked up on it immediately!"

"Wow, that's incredible," I said, though secretly I was disappointed. I had been hoping that Pastor Brico would encourage Susie with visions of a career change--shouldn't someone get down to Haiti and help that expert? But Susie was an immediate convert, and for at least a month I could do no wrong.

The two of us soldiered along in this delightful pas de deux until the day the one other hardworking assistant editor, who had been there as long as I had, quit after it was revealed that she'd been routinely vomiting her lunch in the ladies' room on the floor above ours. The women up there, less than enchanted, had asked her to stop, and when she tried the floor beneath ours, they had already been warned. The assistant editor was then reprimanded by the publisher, to which she replied, "Fuck this, I'm getting married anyway," and left with all the stocking samples she could carry. A bunch of the remaining staff, including two of the three assistant editors with whom I shared an office, gathered in the fashion closet to pick over those she'd left behind. The majority opinion was that she should not have said "Fuck this," because in a business like publishing you should never burn your bridges. What if the marriage didn't last? The stockings, everyone knew, mattered not at all.

A few days after the big blowup, Susie Schein called me in to say that Miss Belladonna, the editor in chief, wanted to have lunch with me. This was an especially big deal, and I knew that Susie must have engineered it, so I tried being extra-friendly and helpful, but she didn't seem to notice.

Miss Belladonna, whose first name was Giulia, although I never heard it said aloud, was the absolute opposite of Susie Schein. The first time I saw her, she was just in from Paris and wearing a hat that must have been four feet across. Her mouth was fire-engine red, her skin was as white as the orchids on her desk, and even though she wasn't as skinny (and certainly not as young) as the models, they seemed humbled, somehow, in her presence. She spoke her expert Italian and French in a throaty voice burnished by Bordeaux and Gitanes, and whenever any of the male executives from the business side barged into her office, she would cross her legs so that her stockings gleamed and they promptly forgot what it was they had come for.

Although Miss Belladonna's real job was to gallop the world with people like Valentino and Azzedine Alaia in Milan or Paris or down the Nile in the name of Jolie!, she always returned to New York to approve each issue, and it was usually just in the nick of time. As Susie reached the pinnacle of her holier-than-thou behavior, holding the sign-in sheet up to the light to see if anyone had faked her times, Miss Belladonna would appear, snapping her crimson-tipped fingers, and Susie would heel like some sad dog whose hiding place had just been discovered. Together they would go to face The Wall, as it was known, the surface on which the following month's issue was being laid out in preparation for closing. The bad news was that facing The Wall meant that someone was going to have to make a decision. Which photographer's spread would be bumped, if not enough advertising pages had been sold? Which writer's masterpiece would be cut in half (again), to save space?

And even though Miss Belladonna acted as if she knew everything, she still didn't want to be the one to make Jean-Louis mad, or Evan, the British publisher, madder, so she would wheel around to Susie Schein and demand, "Well, you tell me why we should do this." Susie would get even paler, if such a thing were possible, and while she dithered six o'clock would arrive, and no one on the staff was even allowed to sign out. My office mates, Coco Church, Pascal Reich, Pimm Sanford, and I would stay until midnight while no decisions were made except to feed us elaborate platters of smoked turkey and grapes.

The four of us were jammed into an office the size of a large dressing room, though the window did look out onto Fifth Avenue. Pascal Reich was the only male on the staff--well, the only straight male on the staff except for Jean-Louis--and he had taken a job at Jolie! to subsidize his work on the Great American Novel. After a childhood spent at Swiss boarding schools, his fluency in French, Italian, and German had gotten him hired, and he was the one who dealt with the European writers. His family's fortunes had appparently changed since his childhood, hence the searing inconvenience of having to get up every day and go to work, which seemed, for the most part, to consist of him hollering long-distance at odd hours.

Coco was one of those girls who had grown up in New York City, gone to private school, and seen it all. She was the kind of attractive that didn't appeal to other women but drew men like magnets--big brown eyes and perfect skin. Her blond permed hair was unkempt, and she was overweight, fashion-magazine standards aside. Still, she had a radiant smile and lots of energy and she was always sleeping with someone new or going somewhere fabulous for the weekend, dressing up in leather bikinis, happily spanking her dates. She also spoke perfect French and cooked with foie gras. Next to her I felt as if I'd spent my life in a convent.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Periodicals Publishing Fiction, Women journalists Fiction, New York (N, Y, ) Fiction, Young women Fiction