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“Your dress is beautiful,” Misa said.
“Thanks. I’m mostly stoked that it has pockets.”
Misa checked her reflection in my full-length mirror and frowned at what she saw. “This dress is the worst,” she said with a pout. “I mean, it looks homemade.”
I peeked over her shoulder and glanced at her reflection. “Well, to be fair, it is homemade.”
“Our first homecoming dance and I’m in a homemade dress that makes me look like Wednesday Addams.”
“Umm, high collars are in,” I pointed out.
I slipped large silver hoops into my ears and grabbed my charm bracelet from my desk. When I turned, I found Misa slumped on my bed, surrounded by rejected dresses and rumpled lavender sheets.
“It doesn’t matter what you wear, I bet Mark Miller will still ask you to dance.”
Misa rolled her dark eyes, tucking straight black hair behind her ear. “Oh, joy.”
“Come on,” I said, standing before her. “You don’t want to be stuck hanging out with me in the dark corner of the gym while I judge everyone, do you?”
“You know better than that,” she said. “By the end of the night, you’ll be involved in some kind of crazy antics that I’ll probably get grounded for. Even your mom says you’re made of chaos and spice and everything nice.”
“You know me. I like adventure and it likes me back. I’m sorry you get dragged along for the ride sometimes.”
She shrugged. “Best friends stick together. Misa and Penny’s Rules #7.”
“And we will.” I held two fingers up and kissed them, just as Misa did the same. We pressed our fingers together, completing our rule book ritual. “You know I honor the code. Besides, you look fine.”
“But look at you,” she said. “You’re so…” She stopped and stood to face me, just inches away, looking into my eyes. Misa’s hands reached for mine and there they dangled between our bodies, entwined.
My mouth wanted to point out that she was not even looking at my dress. But for the first time in my extroverted life, I remained quiet. Because there was something in the way she was looking at me—something quiet and deep and burning. It sparked a curious feeling inside, one that I wanted to hold on to.
I stand at the corner of Broadway and West Houston Street waiting for the signal to change.
“That dress bright enough, honey?” some guy asks. He’s grinning as if he knows he’s charming and funny and the world deserves to hear his opinion. “I bet they can see you from Jersey.”
“If I wanted your unsolicited opinion about my wardrobe choices I would have fucking asked.”
“Whoa. You kiss your mother with that mouth, Red?”
“No. I kiss yours,” I say with a wink.
He turns away and faces the street, probably unfamiliar with people calling him out. My yellow dress is reflected in a shop’s mirrored storefront window. Twisting back and forth, I watch how the skirt lifts and billows before settling again. Sensible flats with embroidered purple flowers on them and a vintage cardigan complete the look. It’s my first day at a new job and this is as professional as I get.
The signal changes and I hurry through the crosswalk. A woman slides up alongside me and says, “Well, I love your dress.”
“Thanks! It has pockets!” I say. And that pretty much defines New York. For every crude comment, there are equal and opposite compliments.
This is the third person I’ve mentioned my dress pockets to this morning. Two were in response to compliments and one was just an announcement on the Q train because I felt like in the event of an emergency, everyone should know.
Of course, this was in between scouting volunteers for the youth center I volunteer at. The Oasis Center is my home away from third-floor walkup. It’s a safe space for queer youth and holds a large chunk of my heart. As head of volunteers, I’ve made it my mission to recruit as many new volunteers for the Center as possible. The Q is the perfect place for this. I’ve got an audience that literally cannot escape. Thank you, Metropolitan Transportation Authority and people of Brooklyn.
I check the time and am grinning when I hit the sidewalk again. This city—the steel, the concrete, the veins of sidewalks and moving pedestrians–gives me life like no other place in the world. And I’ve seen a lot of the world. There is something about the magic of New York that can’t be duplicated. It’s got life, a throbbing pulse that keeps in time with each step of the joggers in Central Park and each hiss of city bus air brakes.
The buzzing excitement in my belly reminds me that time is moving, so I better get moving, too. My nerves seem to settle and dissipate as I enter the building where the agency is housed. I’m used to walking into the unknown. I embrace it. A new adventure.
I pass through security with my temporary ID and pile into the elevator with the normal morning crew. I mean, I assume this is normal. But what do I know of normal? Up until two months ago, I’d been in school and before that, a nomad traveling the world.
Returning home almost felt like turning my back on adventure, but my best friend, Ross, convinced me that it was time to think about a career and my future. As he so lovingly put it, “Get a job, Miss Free Spirit.”
I entered art school and found myself inspired once again. But I realized that even being tethered to one place…every moment, every person, every experience has adventure potential. It’s all in your approach.
I take a deep breath and the smile falls off my face. I wish someone in this elevator would have had an adventure to buy some deodorant this morning.
“Twenty-eight, please,” I say. No one moves. I squeeze through two people and wedge myself next to the panel, pressing the button for the twenty-eighth floor exaggeratedly while looking each person in the eye. “Thanks so much.” At least they all have the decency to look embarrassed.
We stop on almost every floor on the way up, and I think I’ll have to factor elevator time into my morning commute if this is the situation. When we finally reach the twenty-eighth floor, I am left with one other person. He exits with me, and we both approach the front desk of Create Slate.
A middle-aged woman sits behind the desk wearing a headset and a hairstyle older than my mother. The nameplate on her desk says Rena. She wears a lot of makeup, and her thick eyebrows curve over severe brown eyes. Her resting bitch face makes me wonder if she is unhappy or indifferent about our arrival. Holding a finger up, she indicates that she’ll be right with us.
The guy next to me looks young in the way that Macaulay Culkin will never really look like a grown man to anyone who watched his childhood movies. He’s wearing an oversized suit and carries a briefcase with initials monogrammed onto a gold plate near the handle. Another lemming following the masses up the mountain and over the cliff. No thanks. I’ll stand back here and enjoy the view while you plummet to a trophy wife and sensible retirement.
I notice that it’s completely silent now and turn to see Rena staring at me. I stare back. Is she still on the phone, or is she waiting on me? How am I supposed to know when she’s wearing a 2004 Britney Spears headset? My imagination immediately places her in a plaid skirt and pigtails, and I’d never let her “Hit me, baby, one more time.”
“What can I help you with?” she finally says. Though this is the first time I’m hearing it, it’s said in a tone that implies she’s already asked three times.
“Oh. Me?” I ask, placing a hand on my chest. “It’s my first day.”
“Me, too,” says the eager beaver next to me.
“Department?” she asks.
We fire back at the same time. She sighs, already over our enthusiasm. The finger comes up again, and I’m beginning to resent that wide-knuckled, red-lacquer-nailed motherfucker.
“Andrea? You have a new hire at the front desk.” When I hear the receptionist say my boss’s name, I’m immediately grateful because it turns out I have been saying it wrong since reading over my job offer paperwork. It’s Andrea with a soft A instead of the long A I’ve been practicing handshakes with in the mirror at home. At least I won’t say my boss’s name wrong to her face now. Thanks, Bitchy Receptionist. I’ve decided you’re cool today.
Rena snaps her fingers in front of my face, pulling me out of my head. And there went her cool. “Name?” she asks.
“Penelope Winters, but call me Penny.”
“Penelope,” she says with a frown after rolling her eyes.
“You know I can see you, right?” I ask.
She ignores my comment. “Andrea will be right up to fetch you,” she says.
“Super. I’ll just wait over—”
“Your name?” she interrupts, looking at Mr. Briefcase.
“Here,” I finish, taking a seat in one of the boxy white leather chairs in the lobby. While it looks like a sturdy, firm chair, I find out that looks are deceiving when I sink into the cushion so far that my ass is practically on the ground in the malasana yoga pose. But I’m already here, so I decide to own it. Stacking one leg over the other in the most awkward leg cross of all time, I swing my foot back and forth like I am not even a little concerned with first impressions.
A girl passes through the lobby, and when she smiles my way, I am reminded of a sweaty, satisfying night in Nepal. Waking up in a stone hut in the Himalayas wrapped around Binsa had been a highlight of my time there. Her lips were wide and full, the kind that pinch in on the corners like cartoon drawings. Those lips were perfect for kissing and whispering dirty words in Nepali that I didn’t need to translate to understand. After a round of salty kisses and three orgasms, I’d shared my breakfast of roti, fruit salad, and milk tea with a white yak holding up in the shade of the hut.
A cough and I am brought back to the present Manhattan advertising agency with bamboo floors and artwork trying so hard to be ironic it’s irrelevant.
Deciding that I should be standing when my new boss arrives, I use the leverage of the chair to haul myself up and go flying right into the arms of Mr. Briefcase.
“Oof,” he says when I collide with his chest. His hands grasp my forearms to keep me upright. His surprised expression morphs into a sly smile. In any other circumstance, this would be an adorable boy-meets-girl intro to a sweet office romance. But here, he’s barking up the wrong lesbian.
“Penelope?” I turn to find my new boss, Andrea with a soft A, giving me a long look. Remembering where I am and that his hands are still on me, I remove myself and dust off my dress as if he were covered in dirt.
I extend my hand, and Andrea shakes it with a grin. “Nice to finally meet you in person,” she says. “I was on an extended vacation when the last designer quit, so I had to depend on my assistant to do the hiring.”
I tug my bag higher onto my shoulder and try to keep up with her quick steps. “Barb was super nice. It’s great to meet you, too, but actually, I prefer Penny,” I say.
She keeps walking. We move past frosted glass offices and rows of cubicles. “Fine by me. Just so you know, office relationships are frowned upon.” She motions back toward the lobby.
“Uh, no worries there.”
“So, first I’ll let you put your stuff down at your desk. Then you’ll go to HR for paperwork. After that, I’ll give you the tour and introduce you to the rest of the art department. We’ll dive into training after lunch. Sound good?” I open my mouth to answer, but she keeps going. “You’ll be sitting with Barb for training, so I hope you two hit it off.” Andrea finally stops and faces me. “Here’s your space.”
It’s not the dreadful, crushing corporate space I envisioned. It’s a group of four desks pushed together, each one holding a large Mac computer. There’s a wall of art and books, along with a light box, drafting table, rulers, paints, and every drawing tool imaginable.
“Not what you were expecting, right?” Andrea asks, crossing her arms while wearing a grin. “Slate is not your standard agency. We really embrace the artistic side of advertising and want to make sure you guys stay inspired. I think you’ll be a perfect fit. You seem…spirited.”
“Spirited?” I say with a laugh. “Everyone else calls it annoying, but I’ll take spirited.” I drop into my chair and wiggle my ass. “Yep. Perfect fit.”
She nods her head toward the hall. “Let’s get you to HR.”
Over an hour of my life is taken up filling out forms and scribbling my name so many times I’m pretty sure I signed my soul over to a crossroad demon in exchange for casual-dress Fridays. Only time will tell.
One highlight of my time spent in the very gray and very sterile HR department is getting to witness Mr. Briefcase Chest Bump being trained. He sits in on my session and scratches detailed notes onto a large yellow legal pad. This guy—whose name is Chad—is wound tighter than a corset on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I’m so relieved when Andrea comes to get me that I jump out of my chair and knock over a cup full of mints from the desk in front of me.
“Shit,” I say before slapping a hand over my mouth. “I’m sorry.” I turn to Andrea. “I didn’t mean to say shit on my first day of employment in front of my new boss and the head of HR.”
Briefcase clears his throat.
Andrea chuckles as I drop to my knees and start shoveling the mints back into the bowl. “It’s fine,” she says. “We’re all adults here.” I want to question Chad’s place on the adult spectrum but instead tuck a handful of mints into the pocket of my dress. I place the bowl back on the desk and give a wave to the whole human resources department as I follow Andrea out.
“That was awkward,” I say mostly to myself.
“Fond of mints?” Andrea asks with a smirk.
“I’m craving chicken shawarma for lunch. It’s a preemptive strike.”
She outright laughs and slaps my shoulder. “I’m sure Barb will appreciate that.”
Andrea shows me around the office, making note of the gender-neutral bathrooms (+4 points); the break room with free coffee, snacks, and a refrigerated vending machine that takes debit cards (+3 points); and the CEO’s office which is presently clouded with cigar smoke (-5 points).
“We’ll come back to him later,” Andrea says. “But I’m sure you’ll love Rupert. He’s pretty easygoing as far as bosses go. Except for the office romance thing.” She trails off and seems to get lost in her head. “There was an incident.”
I’m intrigued but decide not to press her.
I am introduced to the art team first. Juan sits next to me, while Kendra and Thomas sit across from me. They all seem friendly, though there’s a look in Kendra’s eyes that says I don’t know what I’m in for. I’ve seen that look many times from many people who underestimated me. My smile replies with a wait and see, girl.
I meet the copywriters, accounting department, and finally the account execs. There’s a dude-bro named Adam who is super enthusiastic about everything. In a sixty-second conversation, he mentions the Mets, his cat, a new pizza place on the block, my red hair, and his brother’s mobile juice bar business. I just smile and nod and endure the intense handshake as he welcomes me to the team.
Next is Markus. He’s very chill and relaxed, not even dropping his feet from where they’re propped up on his desk when we enter. After the standard introduction, he stands, says it’ll be great having me on the team. I don’t tell him that’s a bold assumption but that he’s probably right.
When we get to the last office Andrea taps on the frosted glass door and waits for a reply. Unlike the other offices, there is a desk outside of this door manned by an attractive blond guy typing as if his life depends on it. His skin is flawless and he wears a bit of stubble along his strong jaw. This guy looks like the Ken to Malibu Barbie.
“This is Ryan,” Andrea says, waving a hand toward him. “How is she today?” He doesn’t look up.
Ryan hits a button on his laptop, and the theme song of the Wicked Witch of the West plays for a few seconds. I laugh. Andrea does not.
“Brace yourself,” she warns. “I saved the best account exec for last. And don’t look her directly in the eye—you may turn to stone.”
My eyes go wide and Ryan snorts as Andrea grins and pushes through the door. A woman stands at the wall of glass looking out over Houston Street with her back to us. Long, dark hair stops in a harsh line across the middle of her back. Her tailored shirt is tucked into her black pencil skirt with her feet wrapped in spike-heeled leather. She’s on the phone using harsh tones and demanding words. I feel like I should apologize for something and sit in time-out.
“Fine, but no later than two p.m. today,” she says, ending the call and turning to face us. “I apologize.”
In the silent space, I hear a tiny gasp. For just the slightest moment, I see her eyes widen and her lips part. I blink and all of that is gone. Did I imagine a reaction?
This is the moment when every organ inside my body tries to evacuate to the outside. My chest constricts, and the room is a vacuum, sucking the air from my lungs until I’m dizzy. There’s a shrill kind of squealing noise coming from my throat, like when you pinch the end of a balloon while letting the air out. I stop and swallow it down.
My head spins, my mouth bobs open and closed, and I don’t know what to do with my hands.
“You must be the new designer. Hello,” she says, holding out a delicate but rigid hand toward me. “I’m Misa.”
“No shit,” I mumble before sucking in a breath and pressing my lips together.
I feel Andrea stiffen next to me. “This is Penelope Winters, the new hire for your team.”
“But everyone calls me Penny,” I say, waiting, hoping to see some spark of recognition in her beautiful face. We shared ice cream at the beach, braided each other’s hair, wore matching pajamas, and I once peed on her jellyfish sting. Still, Misa looks me over and her expression gives nothing away. Suddenly my heart hardens into porcelain in my chest, a delicate and completely frail organ. With every second that ticks by a painful fissure forms there. Crack.
“I loathe nicknames,” she says. I want to snap back that her real name is Misato and Misa is a nickname, but I stay quiet realizing there’s more that I don’t know about her than I do know about her. I finally place my hand in hers, and Misa’s skin is soft and cold. I don’t recognize it. Crack.
“I loathe those little ribbons that are sewn into your shirts sometimes to keep them on the hanger. I forget about them and end up thinking there’s a bug in my shirt an hour after I put it on.” I turn to find Andrea staring at me, wide-eyed and confused. “What? Are we not just randomly naming things we loathe? I thought that’s what we were doing.”
Misa stares as well, no visible emotion. What am I supposed to say when all I want to do is throw myself into her arms and tell her how much I’ve missed her and that I still have my best friend key chain and I know she must remember me, too?
“If you’ll excuse me, I have a load of work to get to,” Misa says, her expression finally changing to one I recognize—boredom. Crack.
Andrea nods and takes a step back, but I don’t move. I’m frozen to the spot, staring, hoping, just needing something from her. There is so much distance between us, miles and miles of hurt and rejection.
I notice my reflection in the windows. There in that glass, my yellow silhouette stands next to her black one. I twist my arm and extend my fingers out enough so that our reflections connect. But it brings no relief. Crack.
Misa turns her back to us, facing the windows again. “Welcome to the team, Penelope.”
It’s three steps to her office door. Crack. Crack. Crack. In the carpet-lined hall, beneath fluorescent lights and in front of my new boss, my heart shatters as I kiss two fingers and press them to her door.
End of Excerpt