Once upon a time, I read Steven Tyler's autobiography. You know what stood out? His refusal to have something to fall back on — that guy was going to make it as a rockstar or bust. No other option. I wrote this story years ago when I hadn't written a single full-length anything. I found it again and its words swiped a gut punch.
“I’m gonna make you a deal, right?”
The last of the summer sun beats down, bloated on long days and short nights.
“I’m listening.” She’s wearing jeans with studs that ride up into her backside as she sits on the concrete steps outside her rented apartment. She schlurps her Coke with a straw, watching the bubbles rise.
I’m armed with the want ads - rows and rows of black ant type looks for accountants, regional managers, and first grade educators with basic math and science. “What say I do something that’ll pay the bills? Just for a bit. Not forever. Just until I’ve got back on my feet again?”
She takes a sip. “No jobs for writers then?”
“Not today. Not most days.”
She can’t feel the pit of anxiety chewing away in my gut. Heck, my gut’s somewhere near my teeth, gnawing away.
“You’ve still got some retrenchment money”, she points out.
“It’s for rent. And food. And petrol. Important things.”
Acid reflux starts slithering upwards, poised to strike at the back of my throat.
She flicks the straw with her teeth. A rogue ant mountaineers up her arm. “You could start freelancing. Or writing short stories. Or start that book.”
I dismiss her suggestion. “Writers are people who look chic in hand-made smocks and know what to say at art exhibitions.” I abandon the paper. “Now. Where did I put that fallback career?”
She rolls her eyes, and points back towards my apartment’s front door. “It’s where you left it. Under the photo of your graduation.”
I head back inside and pull it out of its safe place.
It’s knotted up with rope. It nestles in cardboard packaging, a box that can be kept for storage of knick-knacky things, or knitting wool, or even some remnants of the scrapbooking craze. The rope can be used again, too. Sturdy. Taught. Good for camping even, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Opening the box, is not unlike the reverse of Christmas. The absence of glitter, red bows, and expectant butterflies in my heart. No carols. No singers. The sound of something sensible rather like Aunt Mildred’s Hush Puppies shoof-shoofing on the carpet — dark beige and lace-up.
She’s followed me in. Whoo, schlur, whoo, schlur as she sweeps the straw round the bottom of the can, and vacuums up her Coke, no drop remaining.
I lift up the lid, peer in, and prepare to swallow my dreams.
She crushes the empty can in her hand. “So, what do I gain in this?”
I ignore her.
The fallback’s the way I remember it: wrapped up in my parent’s fears, cloistered in their expectations, and a bit bent out of shape from the battering it took in its last wearing.
She continues. “A deal’s gotta mean that you and Ibenefit right? Win win?”
I pause. “If I’m able to go and get a job doing this, I’ve got time in the evenings — and money — to do the things I really want to.”
The serpent in my throat weaves back down. Just.
She looks through me with eyes that can see into the future. “Remember last time?”
“That was different.”
“It was the same. If you get sucked in, you don’t listen, and when you don’t listen, you make me wait and wait and wait and wait. You think you get forever or something?”
“It frequently does. I’ll give you six months.” She spits on her hand and offers it to me. “Deal?”
“Are we at school or something?”
She repeats. “Deal?”
I spit and shake.
First day on the job.
I meet the PAs, the AMs, the ADs, the AADs, the GMs and HR. My cheeks ache from pinning my smile up. My stilettos bite into my heels as I smooth down the lines of my skirt. Pin-striped. With a matching jacket.
“Wow, will you look at that. A whole metre squared just for you.” She slumps against the partition made of upholstered boarding. “Pity your back faces the balcony door.”
When she’d first seen the balcony, she’d hollered about how she wanted to race out and over into the parking lot below, clamber into her car, ram it into first gear and belt like merry hell in the opposite direction.
“I can’t believe they let you in.”
She runs her hand over the plywood desk’s smoothness and shrugs. “I smiled nicely at security.”
Perched on the edge of my desk, she admires my computer’s view out into the green wide open.
The IT man with hooded eyes comes by and hands me a slip of paper with my access codes, passwords, and email address.
She notices me noticing him. “Sure, he’s cute. But wedding ring tan, knowing smile, smooth patter. Lady killer.”
I remove my jacket and reach below the desk and switch on the hard-drive. Whoosh. A faint buzzing sound joins the rest of the drone in the open plan. A soft warm whispering on my ankle reminds me that the computer will heat up as the day progresses. The air conditioner sign reads, Out of Order.
She’s still sitting there. On my desk.
No-one looks up as we leave the cubicle. Corridors of tight-piled carpets with coffee stains. Static shocks. In-trays overflowing. Blackberries without an ‘off’ button. Meetings that start after hours. Eyes held open with invisible match-sticks decanted from the coffee machine.
She catches the look on my face. “Remember the story of the editor who died at his desk. No-one noticed for five days. Five days.” “What-ever. Six months. I’ll be on my feet by then. Promise.”
The coffee machine heats up.
Tinsel and fairy lights go up, come down. We drink to Auld Lang Syne. Easter hops in and hops out again on a surfeit of chocolate covered tidings.
She visits, holding an idea in her hand. “You should eat some more fruit. Here! Look at this!”
I barely glance back from my screen. Deadline. Comms strategy. Big client. Big retainer client. Possible promotion.
“Six months are up, I believe.” She tucks the idea behind her and bats flirty eyes, before admiring the curve of her legs in her polka-dot high-heels.
“Already? Can’t be.”
I try not to look at her closed hand. But. I do. “What is it?”
She reaches over and picks up the reading diary I harbor in my in-tray. “You sure? I know you’ve got a lot of work to do. Important work. For clients. Fee paying clients. With deadlines. And CEOs. Very important.”
“Just shoot already.”
“But aren’t you committed to your fallback?”
I pause. “Yes. And no. Yes. Well.”
She puts the reading diary back down. And picks up my journal. And my English usage dictionary. “Pretty sure this comes in handy,” she waves the dictionary about, “for strategy and business meetings, and all that kind of thing.”
I rip the dictionary out of her hand and settle it back in my top drawer. “The idea?”
She glances round the office, leans forward and stage-whispers in my ear. “How about a story about a young woman who’s a hit maker. Only she’s down on her luck. Last few songs bombed.”
“Riches to rags?”
“Kinda.” She wanders over to the balcony door. “You gave up with the view, I see. We should go out there. We can now. Six months of corporate hell done with. Might be nice to sit under the sun instead of the fluorescent, right?”
I hesitate. “Nah, the boss might see”
“Ooo, shall I alert the media too?”
I raise my eyebrows, she continues. “So, the last few songs bombed, but she meets this cute guy”
“Right. You sure you don’t want to go outside, there’s that nice guy from accounts out there.”
She points towards a willow tree that sways from side to side. “He likes to sit outside there every lunchtime you know.”
“I know. Not my type.”
“But Mr. IT was?”
“Married, would you believe.”
“Did try to warn you.”
I watch her stilettos sink into the carpet. She continues. “So, she meets this cute guy. And badda-bing, badda-bong, lightning strikes, heavens sing a hallelujah chorus, but hold up just one second - he’s from the wrong side of town.”
“Dodgy past he’s trying to escape?”
I lean back in my chair. The blank screen titled ‘communications’ strategy’ winks back at me. I point to the screen. “Don’t suppose you have any ideas for this new account?”
“Clean out. Should we go outside?”
I can feel my feet moving in the direction of the door, my heart twisting round towards the open space of the future. Towards the blank pages of the story that has yet to be written.
I turn back towards my strategy. “Nah. I’ve really gotta finish this.”
“Your six months. Are. Up.”
“Six months more. Just six more. Then I can get this promotion and then I’ll be a Senior Account Director, and I’ll be able to make partner. Then I can buy my apartment outright.”
She bristles. “And me? What about me? When do I get to do what I want to do?”
“Just another six months. That’s it, I swear.”
She dumps the idea down on my desk so hard it shatters. As she stalks out, I can feel the urge to follow. It begs me, pleads with me, tempts me and taunts me.
It smells like chocolate fudge brownies seconds before you break your diet.
Just another six months. That’s. It. I. Swear.
I make partner. The bags under my eyes could fill buckets of blue paint. I never did meet the man from accounts who sits under the Willow tree every lunchtime.
She stopped visiting a long while ago. My fault. I didn’t answer her calls. I stopped replying to her emails. Anytime I heard her voice, I tuned her out.
In fact, I thought she’d gone for good.
And then I recovered one of her ideas she’d dropped off — the one about the lyricist or music guy or something. It lay abandoned, tucked in my in-tray. I stuffed it into my workbag and brought it home.
That night, the doorbell rings. She stands there wearing red stilettos and a red velvet dress that winds round her. “About bloody time”, she says, as I let her in, “You know why they call it a fall back don’t you? Cos every time you pick the darn thing up, you fall back — fall behind — on completing your mission. Now. Are. You. Ready. To. Start? Or are we gonna have to do this all over again in a few months’ time?”
“Nope, I’m ready.”
“Good. Now I’ve got this idea…”
Whoop. She settles back into my heart.