Chapter 1: MOVING ON UP
My résumé was up to date, even though it was a lie, and I looked like a kickass ad writer on paper. While everything else in my life went to hell, I oozed pride in climbing the career ladder, fighting, biting and scrambling for new clients that would let me show my outrageous ideas.
In the advertising world of Rockville, Tennessee, I was 1985’s rising star, and humility was not my strong point.
After I discovered my husband Andy’s affair, our separation was immediate but the official, legal divorce took place nine months later – not that it stopped me from moving forward with a love life.
The problem: from the get-go, the redheaded bitch Ella Perkins was now a part-time mother of my son, living with my husband in my house.
I was single and struggling to be stable and sane. The struggle was rocky because my focus was off-kilter. And because vodka was my best friend.
On the outside, I looked like a million bucks, arriving at the monthly Marketing Association networking meeting in a new, bright-magenta suit and wearing a double-squirt of confidence like expensive perfume.
Over cocktails, I got a lead on a job at a young and growing company called 14-24.
“Why do they call it 14-24?” I asked, highly intrigued but trying to act uninterested. The ad agency exec flashed a smile.
“It’s their target audience. Ages fourteen through twenty-four. You know… the trendsetters.”
“Ah! Of course!” I chuckled as if I had known the answer all along. “They’re doing in-house advertising or I’d be knocking on their door myself. Thankfully, my position is pretty solid.”
“You’re James, right? At Sturbridge?” I reached out to shake his hand. “I’m Lela Fox. You’ll be hearing my name quite a bit, for a long time, and you can say you knew me when.”
James’ handshake was firm and his chuckle came with a charming sideways grin. “I’m James Webb. And it’s nice to meet a creative who has stayed humble.” His deep, brown eyes charmed me. And it looked like my own brand of charm had found a sucker.
My inner problems were a constant interference though. I always seemed to overshoot the runway with cocktails at those networking meetings, so I had a “standing babysitter,” my buddy Marla Brown. Marla was the writer/creative director at the agency where I had interned just a few years before. As I stumbled toward the bar for the fourth time, she elbowed me in the ribs. “Slow it down, Lela.”
I knew I could trust Marla, and that I couldn’t trust myself. At my first networking meeting, when the open bar screamed my name, I downed a half-dozen vodka-tonics and threw up in the bathroom. Then I, literally, showed my ass in the banquet line.
That wasn’t the first time she “strongly suggested” that I slow it down, but ten minutes after the servers whisked the plates away, she “strongly suggested” that I get the hell out of there. I guess I had gone two steps too far, maybe three, based on Marla’s frown and glaring eyes.
When Marla insisted, I left in a hurry, saying my farewells to the ones with the power to help my career. That’s why they call it networking, right?
It was my son’s weekend with his dad, so I stopped at Applebee’s for another vodka-tonic at the bar. To appear more approachable to the casually dressed party crowd, I took off my business jacket. I paid for two drinks myself, ten minutes apart, then a good-looking man sat at a stool next to mine. “Can I buy you another?” he asked.
“Naw, I’ll just take the money.” Like always, the man didn’t know if I was joking or not. They say men study long and hard to perfect their pickup lines, but that was mine, and I used it repeatedly. Worked like a charm, every time. I only took the money twice, from men who didn’t approve of my joke.
The next day, as soon as I sobered up, I wrote a killer cover letter and scheduled a courier for résumé delivery to the Director of Marketing at 14-24. The job opening was for a writer of direct mail brochures to “sell” the free, advertiser-sponsored educational magazines that 14-24 produced.
For instance, the U.S. Army sponsored Careers magazine, a slick publication for high school juniors and I would write to guidance counselors, convincing them to provide the freebies for their students. If the counselors didn’t object to the influence of advertising on a young student’s mind, it was an easy sale. Circulation was in the hundreds of thousands and Army recruitment was up among the subscribers. Everybody won.
Seagram USA sponsored a similar magazine called Table Manners, with articles to help restaurant servers up the average tab, thus upping their tip. For that magazine, I would address ads and brochures to restaurant owners.
The job interview was casual, with a scrawny older lady named Marilyn. True to form, I laughed and joked when I was nervous. That day, I teased about how she was the polar opposite of the Monroe of Marilyns.
The joke bordered on offensive because Marilyn was flat-out ugly, with dark wispy hair and a sharp, crooked nose. She sat back quickly with shock at my comment, but when I tinkled a laugh, she smiled. Her brow, however, stayed wrinkled in confusion.
The 14-24 office was downtown, on Marshall Square, which overflowed with people – all varieties of young, old, professionals, students, and families. Marshall Square was the hip place to be.
With a unique product and aggressive sales team, 14-24 had grown like a virus, first occupying one floor in the Walnut Building, and now six floors. This quarter’s growth had sent the editorial writers and designers to occupy five floors in an adjacent building, leaving six floors in the Walnut Building for support staff like the Marketing Department.
“You’ll find 14-24 to be a ‘melting pot of cool creatives,’ I’ve heard it called,” Marilyn said. “The majority of employees are writers and artists, plus the ultra-casual dress code and lack of picky rules reflect that creative attitude.”
We talked more about the specifics of the job. In my previous places of employment, direct mail advertising had been my specialty. “Marilyn, I have the ideal work experience. I’ll hit the ground running, so I just need to know when I’ll start.”
Maybe it was my confidence, or my lying résumé, or the new funky shoes I wore, but she hired me on the spot – at a salary that beat my current pay by fifteen percent. I would start two weeks from Monday.
I stopped in the lobby to use the phone. How forward of you, Lela! To act like you belong here already. I called Mom and Dad with the news. They had moved back to my hometown of Burgess, Tennessee after a few years in the Armpit of West Virginia, and they cheered me, saying all the right things. Daddy erupted with another of his meaningless lines, the ones that still brought a smile. “Hooray for our side!” he said, and “Never fear, Lela’s here!”
Approval from my parents drove me. Literally. I had pushed myself hard to become a “responsible adult” and earn their respect. And I had to make up for a lot of lost time. When I wasn’t pretending to be a responsible adult, I was drunk. It happened often, without my intention to do so. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. That night, I toasted myself. Good job, Lela! Moving on up, girl!
It doesn’t snow much in East Tennessee, but it did on the day I started at 14-24. Though the city usually shut down on snowy days, I felt obligated to show up and show up on time.
The hill leading to my apartment would be ice-packed in the morning, I feared, so I parked at the bottom before the storm hit. I delivered my three-year-old son Bo to his dad’s, eliminating any complication on that front.
Early in the morning, bundled in layers, I slipped and slid down the hill on my butt, sliding toward my Chevy Monza at an alarming speed. Fingernails grasping the back tire stopped my slide. The car started, and I shivered as it warmed up.
My thoughts were in great conflict: happy for the job, scared to drive in the snow. Debating, I thought about walking back home, but bravery won and I put the car in gear.
It was iffy getting there, but once I got to the I-40 East ramp through town, the roads were clear. The ramps to downtown were also plowed, and with only one terrifying moment turning left onto Main Street, I arrived to park in the garage as instructed. The empty garage echoed noisily and I took the first available space.
The Walnut Building also resonated with silence. Just a smattering of people milled around, laughing in small groups. The elevator opened and I pushed the button for the fifth floor. An empty set of office cubicles welcomed me. No, there’s somebody! A man in a T-shirt and jeans looked at me with wide, brown eyes, surprised. “Can I help you?”
“This is my first day of work. I’m Lela Fox.”
“Oh, bless your heart! What a terrible day to start a new job!” He introduced himself. “Phillip Johnson, nice to meet’cha.” Phillip led me to the coffee pot and suggested I grab a few of the company’s publications to read until the other employees showed up. “But probably nobody will show. A snow day is like a day off around here.”
“But will Marilyn...”
“Yeah, maybe Marilyn. She may think you’ll come... well, you did! So she may show up. Either way, just chill.”
I sat in the atrium of the refurbished Art Déco building and read the variety of magazines 14-24 published. Around two o’clock, the marketing people began a parade, stumbling in one-by-one. Lauren was the first to arrive. Until hiring me, she had been the only copywriter in the department. Lauren was a redhead. Another one! I fought the comparison to my ex-husband’s girlfriend.
As Lauren grabbed papers from a stack in the corner of her office, she said, “Here are brochures and stuff we’ve done in the past. Did you see Table Manners out there?”
“Yes, I did.” “This is the direct mail piece we did, with another version for the large franchises.”
More staffers arrived. I met an art director, Porgie, also a redhead. What’s up with the redheads? Should I dye my curls to get ahead in the corporate world? Porgie was a sassy, petite woman with purple frames on her oversized glasses. She looked like the consummate creative person, complete with spiral-permed hair and no makeup. Her chime of a laugh seemed friendly but I stopped short when hearing her introductory remark. “Here’s a warning, Lela: they say I’m difficult.” Turns out, she was as honest as she was right.
Fifteen minutes later, Lauren introduced me to the other two art directors as they arrived in the same elevator. “This is Brenda… and Jay.
Direct eye contact was obviously hard for the shy Jay; he offered only a weak wave. Blonde-ish Brenda wore a beaming smile atop an ample body and gushed about the info she had gathered for me to review. An instantly likable woman, a few years older but with a young and cheerful demeanor. I looked forward to becoming her coworker.
Marilyn was the last to arrive, around three o’clock. In her fluster, she seemed surprised I was there, then disappointed that I had already met the team. She unwrapped herself from coat, boots, scarf, mittens, and called a meeting in the conference room upstairs.
The ultra-casual meeting included plenty of laughter, furthering my feeling that I had landed a job in the right place. The marketing department at 14-24 was a good fit; it felt right. I liked the people and felt the excitement of unlimited opportunity in front of me, confirmed by Marilyn and the rest of the team.
After the meeting, Marilyn set me up in an office with a view of the square. Wow! Not the corner office, but a window! Give it time – you’ll be the boss in a matter of a few years. Brenda’s office was across the hall from mine; our desks faced each other. At least once an hour, I made a funny face or stuck my tongue out at her, being silly. She replied with the same.
On the third day of work, a large project landed on my desk and my assigned creative partner was Brenda. The two of us sat down for a brainstorming session, promising an open mind on both ends. My nervousness evaporated quickly.
The two of us joked about our role in creating junk mail, the hated mailbox clutter, and laughed at the way mailing lists twisted names and addresses. Her last name was Bebbing. Yes, Brenda Bebbing. Definitely an odd name, and usually misspelled, she said.
“In fact, I have a file... it’s all the junk mail where my name is wrong.” She flipped through a folder in her bottom drawer, handing me random pieces. “Oh! Here it is! This is the best one ever! Babbas Bean.” I cracked up; we both did.
From that point forward, I called her Babbas.
I also believed she was the best art director of the bunch. Babbas never let an opportunity to be creative pass her by. I had the same attitude and mutual respect created a loud, unspoken affection.
Babbas’ ingenuity came in handy in many situations, some beyond the scope of marketing. Like when she came through with my first date, a lunch date just a few days later.
Chapter 2: BROCCOLI AT BAILEY’S
I hadn’t dated since the divorce; I wasn’t quite ready to wade back into shark-infested waters. But I wasn’t bitter about men in general, despite how I’d been duped. The problem was that I hung out at bars, so, of course, more than a dozen men had put the move on me. Mostly, I kept them at arm’s length during the separation and recently divorced months, but… maybe with the new job comes a new opportunity?
I vacillated on the answer to that question, back and forth on an hourly basis. Phillip, the one who greeted me on the first snowy day of work, had been flirting with me. He was cute, goofy in a way, and showed his interest in me so obviously that I couldn’t ignore it.
Babbas was happy about it and urged me to flirt back. “He’s a nice guy, Lela, and you’re a catch. Give me one reason why you wouldn’t go out with him.” I had no answer, still switching from “why not, Lela?” to “lots of reasons why not, Lela!” in the snap of a finger.
On a “why not, Lela?” day, I agreed to his lunch invitation. Though he was muscular and fit, he wasn’t perfect and I focused on the negatives. Notably sharp incisors accented his smile, pointing to a pale and cracked bottom lip that quivered. And he always had a ring of wetness around his armpits, like he’d just come from a workout. The deep marks were more curious than gross; he didn’t stink but my mind concocted a rain forest surrounding him, recycled moisture dripping from the trees overhead, and mucky peat moss at his feet.
“So I’ll knock on your cubicle around noon, okay?”
“Sure. I’ll be ready. Thanks, Phillip.” I dashed into Babbas’ office, and finding three other team members there, I announced my date. With the memory of the morning’s mirror-check, I added, “Oh, no! I forgot earrings today! I can’t go on a lunch date without earrings!”
Jay laughed, turned red, and slipped out of her office.
Porgie pissed me off with her snotty attitude. “How childish that you would get nervous about a simple lunch date.” She flipped a curl of strawberry blonde over her shoulder with a smirk. I stared her down, thinking so loud I feared it was audible. Bitchy whore, you disgust me with your better-than-thou attitude. I, for one, think you’re a piece of lousy fucking shit. I hope your babies are born blind.
I turned to Babbas, wringing my hands. “Can I borrow your earrings, man?” “No way, you need anything but gold. Your skin is too yellow to wear gold – ever. Remember that. Today you need silver, or maybe white.” Her next look was comical, an “aha moment” played by a bad soap-opera actress. Then she performed her miracle without comment. “These are perfect! Wait, let me do it for you.” Babbas had placed double-stick tape on two Tic-Tacs and pressed them against my lobes. Ta-da!
In her hand mirror, they looked like real earrings and the matte finish matched the muted weave of my top. I couldn’t have bought a more-perfect pair.
At ten ‘til noon, I dashed to the bathroom to touch up my face. I looked in the mirror and smiled at myself for the first time in months. Maybe I’m okay, maybe this is what I’m supposed to do. The final dot of lip gloss created the exact look I hoped for. Go, go, Lela-girl. You’re doing all right, kid.
It had been over a year since I had seen myself as anything close to attractive. Andy and I never resumed a suitable sex life after the baby was born, to be honest. Another red flag I should have noticed, I guess.
Sex was a non-issue now, completely absent in my life. It had always been a pucker-worthy topic, considering I’d been raped – not once, but twice. At age sixteen by my brother-in-law, and again at age eighteen by an ex-con who slipped me a date-rape drug. I rarely thought about it, managing to squash the shame down with enough alcohol to let me move forward.
Thinking about sex for the first time in a while, I realized something shocking, and whispered it aloud. “Hell, I didn’t even masturbate anymore.” Maybe I could start now.
“Knock, knock!” Phillip entered my office with a flourish, taking a deep bow. I laughed, play-punching him in the bicep. Wow. That’s one helluva bicep. He’s ripped! Then I noticed his abs, the push of muscular thighs on his jeans. Hmm. And nice, strong forearms… you can do this, Lela.
“Is Bailey’s okay?” he said, referring to the always-busy diner on Marshall Square.
“Sure, I love it! Especially the veggie plate, home-cooked like my Momma’s.” I smiled.
“Bailey’s it is, then.” A broad smile brightened his face as we entered the elevator, going down. We were alone for two floors, and then a group joined us for the ride to the lobby. Everybody was loud and laughing. These 14-24 people are fun! I’m lucky to be surrounded by happy, creative people.
But Phillip wasn’t a creative; he was in Accounts Receivable. I never imagined we could have something in common but, surprisingly, we found many topics to discuss. His upbringing was almost identical to mine, but with two brothers instead of two sisters. He had just divorced, too, and had only dated a few women, each for a short amount of time.
I tried not to talk about my divorce or that Andy had cheated on me, but he offered that his wife had done the cheating on him. So I opened up to him a little. His reply: “Andy must be an idiot to cheat on you, such a wonderful woman!” I
turned bright crimson. “And you’re cute when you blush like that.” My reply was silence. Dammit! Quit!
Phillip and I walked back to the Walnut Building after an extra-long lunch hour. “Uh… this is great. I like you, Lela. Dinner tonight?” I froze. Oh, shit. Way too much, way too soon, dude. I like you, I guess, but mostly, you were just an experiment in having a date after so many married years. So I lied.
“Well, I have my son tonight, Phillip, and I promised him McDonald’s. Joy, joy!”
On the way in, I stopped by the bathroom to check my teeth for broccoli remnants. “Oh, no!” I said to the mirror. No broccoli, thank goodness, but I had lost the right Tic-Tac earring. “Probably fell in my green beans.”
Though I would have felt embarrassed if I’d known I was half-accessorized, I was proud of myself for going through with an uncomfortable situation. So I added lip gloss and kissed the mirror. Stepping back for a head-and-shoulders shot, I said, “Why not?” and ate the left earring.
Then I ran to tell Babbas about my date.
END OF SAMPLE