Isabelle Norman’s skin was the color of uncooked meat, and her green eyes glistened with panic. She ran toward me, a Usain Bolt in heels.
She had just sprinted out of a closed-door meeting with our newspaper’s editor in chief, Mark Upton, and she looked about as happy as the fat girl picked last in gym class.
When she stopped at our group of plastic desks in the very back of the newsroom, I saw the lines of tears covering her pretty oval face.
“I’m going to get fired. Immediately,” she bleated, grabbing my arm, leading me toward a bank of glossy white elevators and collapsing onto a bench. “I’m—I’m a—I’m going to get fired for being an incompetent fool on CNN! Of all the networks out there, I had to be an absolute dimwitted idiot on CNN!” Her tears started to fall faster. She put her head between her knees and let her wavy blond hair fall into the pleats of her magenta silk skirt.
I wanted to wrap her up and take her directly to the Four Seasons for a large tequila and a shiatsu massage. But instead, I just watched her sob in a building with the privacy of a maximum-security prison.
What was she doing on CNN again? Wasn’t she doing a hit
with that scary White House reporter Olivia Campo? A woman so pompous she made Hosni Mubarak look humble.
“Were you on with Olivia?” I asked, smoothing her sweaty hair down. I tried to speak in a buttery, soothing voice.
“Yes, I was on with that little termite,” shrieked Isabelle, clearly not responding to my lullaby tones. “And guess what? She stole everything! She stole all of my talking points! I sat silent on CNN for twenty entire minutes. A third of an hour. Someone called the network and asked if I had facial paralysis!”
That last part had to be made up.
She looked me square in the eyes and said, “That last part is not made up.”
“It could not have been that bad,” I lied. I tried to sound calming and nurturing. The Mother Teresa of colleagues. “You are so charismatic. And smart!” I offered up. “I’m sure the majority of it went swimmingly.”
She looked up at me with the pain of an abandoned child. “Swimmingly?” she repeated. “No. Not even a little. Not even a dog paddle. I drowned, and I’m going to get fired. It was a quiet death, at least. I was mute,” she said, wiping away her tears. She took a coffee filter from the side table and patted her face with it.
“My mother texted me and said she’s praying for both my sanity and continued employment. She said she’s overnighting my white Confirmation dress, because it made me look so innocent. I’m going to wear it to work tomorrow.”
Confirmation? Wasn’t that a rite of Catholic passage dedicated to tweens?
“But didn’t you wear that like thirteen years ago? It might be a little tight,” I advised.
“Adrienne! Be realistic! Drastic measures must be taken.”
“No one watches stupid CNN anyway. Their ratings are way
down,” I said. “Think about it. The only time I tune in is to see the rise and fall of the Asian markets. But that’s all. I bet like five thousand people were watching, tops.”
Isabelle shook her head no. She motioned for my mohair cardigan. I placed it in her shaky hand, and she rubbed it on her cheek and clutched it like a security blanket.
“This wasn’t some Washington-only program,” she assured me. “It was CNN. Hundreds of thousands of people saw me. Maybe millions!” she wailed, sounding muffled through the fabric. “And it was the international edition. I’m going to kill myself.”
That sounded bad. Had people from other time zones called in? Was the woman who asked if Isabelle had a mummified face ringing up the CNN hotline in New Delhi?
“How could Olivia have possibly stolen all your notes?” I asked. “Did she write them all on her palm? Can we have her ejected for verbal plagiarism?”
“There are no rules in television!” Isabelle screamed. Her voice bounced off the glass walls surrounding the bank of elevators and the smoky gray marble floors. “Plus,” she said, cracking all her knuckles one after the other, “it was all my fault. I should know that every single person at the Capitolist is a self-serving, self-righteous prick.”
After she had soaked two coffee filters with her saliva and tears, she balled them up, handed them to me, and explained what had led to her anguish.
“It was around eight P.M. last night. We were just sitting in the greenroom at the CNN headquarters in Northeast before our segment on the president’s upcoming vacation to the Gulf Coast. I was fact-checking a few things online and making small talk with Olivia. I’ve known the troll for a year, after all. And for some reason, I was pretty nervous. You know, I do a lot of
TV, but it was a forty-minute segment, twenty minutes each. That’s a hell of a long time to be live. But I was prepared. I spent all weekend writing notes, everything organized and written in black and red fountain pen.”
I nodded encouragingly. It was always a good idea to have executive-looking pens.
“And then in the greenroom, while I drank a triple espresso so that I would be extra peppy, Olivia asked me what I was going to talk about, so we wouldn’t overlap. I viewed it as a perfectly normal team-player kind of question, so I let her look at my notes.”
At this point, she started to cry again, as if her puppy had just been microwaved.
“Adrienne, I swear, I didn’t know that red-haired narcissist would steal everything! I mean, who has a memory like that! If she’s so smart, why didn’t she just make her own multicolored notes!”
Her facial paralysis seemed to have been cured: she had dropped the cardigan and was scrunching up her button nose like a Shih Tzu.
“Well, you should say something,” I suggested. “Rat her out. Tell Upton that you were more prepped than the president but Benedict Arnold swiped your notes!”
Isabelle sighed. “They won’t believe me. Or care.”
“Show them your talking points,” I urged. “Give them irrefutable proof.”
Isabelle reached for another coffee filter. “You know how this place works, Adrienne. No missteps. No mercy! They’ll just say I’m totally stupid for having to prep that much. You know them. They think you should be able to recite the entire history of American politics on cue, like a dancing monkey. I just don’t think that way. I have to prep.”
She was right. I had only been at the paper for three weeks,
but I knew that. You walked in the door, and they gave you a phone and a computer and said “go.” That was it. From that moment on, you had to get everything right.
“You should talk to Upton anyway,” I said. “That’s so morally wrong. Maybe they’ll actually listen to you and fire her.” I knew they wouldn’t. They didn’t care how you got your info, as long as you didn’t plagiarize it and you presented it with Napoleonic confidence. But I had to say it anyway.
“Fire her? They love her,” said Isabelle through her sniffles. “God, I wish she would just disappear to the mountains of Papua New Guinea. Are there mountains in Papua New Guinea?”
I shrugged and looked at her blankly.
“Maybe someone would eat her. Or maybe she would contract a horrific case of syphilis like Paul Gauguin and die a slow and painful death.”
“I think that happened in Tahiti.” I was standing in front of her, trying to shield her from curious colleagues who might suddenly jump out of the elevators.
“Whatever. Tropical island teeming with germs, STDs, and cannibals,” said Isabelle. “That’s where the little thief deserves to be.”
I was ready to share a hearty laugh and invent a few more ways for our amoral colleague to die, but Isabelle had succumbed to further crying.
“You must have answered a few questions. I don’t believe it was all that bad,” I said. I had seen Isabelle do plenty of TV, and she was photogenic and great on camera. That’s why our media bookers had dared to put her on CNN for twenty long minutes.
“I didn’t answer a thing,” said Isabelle. “I sat there, frozen, like those ice people they found perfectly pickled in Nova Scotia. Whiskers and everything.”
“I think you mean preserved.”
“Whatever! I looked like I was born without the ability to smile,” she said, sniffling. “Oh, and as a bonus, those horrific media training girls marched right in to my Upton meeting. That girl Gretchen, the one who always eats papayas with a steak knife, she analyzed the footage for our dear editor and guided him on a master plan of damage control. She watched it ten times!”
Wow. Ten times. That seemed excessive. The only videos I had seen ten times were Love Actually and this night-vision sex tape I made with a Parisian bartender in college. Both did get better after multiple viewings but I doubted the same rule applied to Isabelle on CNN.
“What did Gretchen say?” I asked cautiously.
“Oh, well she was an absolute dear. A real chum. She said I was too thin and mannish and not meant for the screen.” Isabelle’s eyes started to tear up in a soap opera kind of way. “She brought the video into the meeting and forced us all to watch it together. While I was making this terrible blank face, she smacked the pause button and sucked in her breath through her teeth. It made this sound: ahhzzzzz. Then she looked at me and said, ‘Isabelle. Let me say something to you woman to woman.’ I thought she was going to compliment me on my skin-care regime or something equally chickish, but she didn’t. Oh and of course Upton was right there. Woman to woman, my ass. So while I sat on my hands to keep from punching her in the jaw, she said, ‘I look at that video, and I just can’t stop thinking, Ron Paul. Ron Paul. I’m looking at the female Ron Paul.’ Can you believe it? Ron fucking Paul!”
“Wait, what?!” I exclaimed. “He’s like eight hundred years old.”
Isabelle shook her head. “Well then that’s what I look like, too. Because according to the media witch, I am the spitting image of United States representative Ron Paul. Never mind that he’s very old and a man.”
“He is a doctor and a committed Libertarian!” I pointed out. “And a Texan.”
“Gretchen said that if I was going to put on this big California glamour act of mine, I needed more pigment in my face and more meat on my bones. It’s like she wants me to be a Maori rugby player! And male. Do you know how hard people work to be thin? Has she never seen Giuliana Rancic? People are supposed to want to be thin. I’m an athlete. I’ve been thin and muscular all my life! Since birth. I weighed five and a half pounds and was the only baby in the hospital with a six-pack.”
Looking from glass door to glass door to make sure no one was coming, Isabelle put her head between her knees again and said, “It’s too much. Please fetch me my pistols.”
“How about I just get us some lunch?” I asked, trying to sound upbeat.
“Fine, suit yourself. I might as well accept your charity since I’ll be out of work in the next twenty-four hours. They’ll probably choose lethal injection as my going-away present.”
Isabelle was afraid her CNN clip was going to go viral. That every reporter on earth would forward it to each other as what not to do when given a great television opportunity. Luckily, that didn’t happen. It racked up a couple thousand hits on YouTube and Upton joked about it in the next company-wide meeting, which had Isabelle eating Xanax for a week. But the wave never swelled into a tsunami. Of course, CNN stopped requesting her and the Capitolist’s media bookers struck her name from their telegenic reporters list—you didn’t get to make the same mistake twice at the paper. When Isabelle got her next television assignment, it was talking about presidential pets on a Maryland public access station.
I once had a dream that I was backstroking naked with John Edwards in a murky swimming pool in Washington, D.C. It was a bit like a swimming pool mated with a pot of soup. We were splashing around together, and every so often I would duck my head under and take a look at his baby maker. Besides us and the lobster bisque water, there was only one other thing in the pool: a huge inflatable football that we batted around like it was the size of a grapefruit rather than a Clydesdale. We just swatted and splashed, all naked and flirty, until I was woken up by the piercing death machine commonly known as the alarm clock.
While my trusty dream analysis book told me that my vision meant I would be pregnant within a year and could expect a large raise, I interpreted it to mean that John Edwards was going to be the 2008 Democratic nominee for president. Turns out I have the intuition of someone with stage 6 Alzheimer’s. John Edwards was not made of the stuff presidents are made of. He was a man whore. The whole disaster was a bit of a blow to my romance with politics, but it was more like a slingshot to the heart than a semiautomatic to the head.
I quickly forgot about baby daddy Edwards and gave all my spare change to Hillary Clinton. I could throw all my egg whites
in one basket for Hillary and not worry that she was going to get knocked up.
It didn’t work out. As we all know, the chosen one from Honolulu did the hula all the way into the White House, Hillary Clinton got her consolation prize, and John Edwards became everyone’s favorite voodoo doll. I wouldn’t have written history that way, but I was happy to be a tiny part of it. I donated, I voted, I embraced my born-and-bred-in-the-Washington-area status and went to handfuls of political events in duplex apartments in Manhattan. One time, I dressed as a donkey and casually ate a bunch of carrots at a debate night party. At twenty-five, I was proud to be more politically involved than your average American.
Fast-forward three years and my life revolves around politicians, all of whom seem to think that laws are as flexible as gymnasts. Before the sun is up, I start reading about politics. A few minutes later, I start writing about politics. And three hours after that, I start physically stalking the people who write our incomprehensible laws. Why? Because I work in Washington, a town where you don’t set up shop unless you’re ready to let politics control your life. It’s like 1984 without the overalls and mind control torture.
I didn’t succumb to Washington’s marble fist immediately. When I became the proud owner of a two-hundred-thousand-dollar college diploma, I knew I had to move to Manhattan, have casual sex, and spend my rent money on Italian-made clothing and the Hampton Jitney for a few years. So I did. I said goodbye to the sisterhood of Wellesley College and moved to a minuscule apartment in a really nice neighborhood with a view of Central Park. For a handful of years, I did what my Gen Y English major peers did and worked my way up at glossy publications in
Manhattan. It was very glamorous and terribly paid. It was also fun. (Really fun. Especially that one Dutch banker named Fritz who had hands like Sharper Image back massagers.) But even as my apartments and paychecks got bigger, I never thought I’d stay forever. I grew up in Middleburg, Virginia, a historic town just outside Washington. I canvassed for a congressman in college up north and always thought politics would be part of my future. After so many years in New York’s luxury media world, I realized that I missed breaking affordable bread with people who loved Capitol Hill.
When I was ready to bite the bullet and say goodbye to heiresses with the last name Getty and say a stern hello to hard-hitting news, I put out some feelers.
At the end of July, when New York was in its summer slowdown, I started reaching out to my Washington contacts and was told that the place to be was the Capitolist. Both the fast-moving website and the daily print publication were dominating the Hill, an editor friend at the Washington Post told me. As soon as her contract ended, she was applying there and I should, too. I asked her for her Capitolist contact, sent my résumé to the hiring manager for a Style reporter position, and a month of interviews and writing tests later, I had an offer.
The Capitolist. I considered it for about a nanosecond, and then I said yes.
“You’ve gone insane,” said my boss at Town & Country magazine in New York when I gave notice in September. “Do you know what happens to people who work at the Capitolist? Immediate varicose veins. All over. Even in your face. You’ll gain ten to fifteen pounds, your hair will dull, your teeth will yellow, you’ll forget all foreign languages, and you’ll start eating entire cakes for breakfast.”
“Entire cakes?” I asked.
“Yes, entire cakes,” he said.
He sighed and looked at me as if I had just declared that I was donating all my working limbs to science. “But yes,” he conceded, “you will know a hell of a lot about politics and those ugly, sad people who call themselves leaders.” He walked right up to me, gave me a kiss on each cheek, and said, “If that’s what you want, go on.” He took my official, typed two-weeks notice and told human resources to open the job I had worked so hard to get.
After deciding to trade in Manhattan’s money and eccentricity for Washington’s power and traditions, I called my only childhood friend who had stayed home rather than running north. Twenty years ago, we had eaten live starfish together while on a church group vacation and had ended the jaunt as two very ill best friends. She was working at the single cool art gallery in D.C. and had taken to wearing origami shapes instead of clothing with archaic things like sleeves.
Elsa’s take on the offer was that if I said anything but yes, I was as good as lobotomized. Forget that it paid Starbucks wages. “You got a job at the Capitolist? That’s huge!” she shouted into her iPhone. “Everyone wants to work there. Seriously. People have been leaving the Washington Post in droves to work there. I read an article that said as much in the New York Times. Of course they’re probably biased, but whatever. It’s the place to be right now. It wins awards daily. It’s filled with geniuses. People are obsessed.” In the back I could hear a strange harmonica sound mixed with the clanging of dishes.
Elsa yelled at her interns to keep it down. “By the way, did I tell you I was pregnant? Not actually pregnant, but metaphorically so. It’s all part of this performance art piece we’re putting on next weekend. Will you be down here by then? We could use another metaphorically pregnant person. Plus, you have to take that job.”
“Eh, no. Next week, no. No time to be metaphorically pregnant until October,” I replied. Forget performance art; I was still a touch skeptical about the job. I liked to get my politics the old-fashioned way: from long-form articles, public radio, or drunks at cocktail parties. I wasn’t totally sold on taking over Capitol Hill one tweetable sentence at a time. But Elsa was right about the Capitolist’s reputation. The paper had its wonky tentacles stretched all over the country.
“Who are the obsessive people who read the Capitolist?” I asked. “Do you know any of them? Or are they all incarcerated? Because I had a gig in college that required a pair of latex gloves and tweezers to read the packets of mail delivered from the penitentiary.”
This was actually true. My first job in journalism was at a religious magazine in Boston that I believe was the most popular rag at America’s maximum-security prisons. Besides porn, obviously.
“No! Like everyone on the Hill,” Elsa assured me. “Everyone. And plus, their reporters are on TV all the time. You’ll definitely be on Larry King.”
“Whatever. Take the job.”
I already had.
When I first arrived at Town & Country after slogging at a regional magazine for two years, I would have tattooed “I heart T&C” on a number of different body parts, not that the esteemed magazine would have approved such a tacky move. But I would have. It was such a fascinating place. The women were like smart, polished, walking, talking Barneys mannequins. They knew how to set a table for a ten-course meal, traded stories about summers in Cap d’Antibes and winters in Cape Town, but could also write delightful articles comparing Gilbert and
Sullivan to Lil Wayne without breaking a sweat. Not that anyone at T&C ever broke a sweat—that’s why God invented armpit Botox. I was in awe and the awe lasted for years.
I can’t pinpoint the exact time when my devotion started to crack, but I think it was while dating a PhD student named Ilya who was obsessed with Russian literature. His name wasn’t actually Ilya, it was Brett Olney, but he made everyone call him Ilya for obvious reasons.
On our first date we sat in Central Park and he read to me from a book called The Master and Margarita, which I said sounded like a smutty Mexican telenovela. He stopped reading after I made that comment but I was so hot for him that I faked an obsession with Russian literature to try to get in his pants. The downside of this BS obsession was that I agreed to go to a lecture on the Russian Revolution of 1917, which I had stupidly said changed my perspective on history, never mind the fact that my knowledge of Russian history extended to ballet and caviar. The weekend before the daunting lecture I locked myself in my apartment with a five-hundred-page tome on that pesky war, a Rachmaninov playlist, and a bottle of Smirnoff, and had my own little holiday in St. Petersburg, or Petrograd as I soon started calling it. I only got halfway through the book, but I remember putting the thing down and thinking, Wowyzowy, I’m insanely wasted. After I ate a loaf of bread to sober up, my next thought was, I haven’t penned anything of substance since college.
I wanted to write about something other than luxury vacations and eccentric heiresses. Maybe history. Maybe politics. I soon realized that only senior citizens who can spell the word Smithsonian backward read history publications. Plus, the only part of that big book that held my attention was the description of Nicholas II’s lavish palace, complete with a hydraulic lift and a movie theater.
The first thing I had to do after I decided to ditch New York living was make a really depressing phone call to my parents asking if I could squat with them in Middleburg, Virginia, until I figured out how to maneuver a D.C. that had become far more expensive than the one I left behind in high school. I was taking a 25 percent pay cut to become one of those reporters who was on TV all the time. I had thought about alternatives: living in a houseboat on the Potomac River, living with a bunch of unknown roommates who ate cat for dinner, or dwelling in Washington’s seedy Ward 8, where I could afford an apartment with an actual bedroom. On my budget, it turned out the houseboat would be an inflatable raft, the Craigslist apartment ad I answered had the words “Wiccan witch circle” in tiny print at the bottom, and when I looked at the number of violent crimes in Ward 8, I decided that as exciting as a drive-by shooting might sound on my résumé, it was probably not something I wanted to endure.
My twenty-eight-year-old fingers dialed the first phone number I ever knew, and I prepared myself for a little humiliation. That morning I had been writing copy about why tiaras weren’t at all out of fashion, and just twelve hours later I had to grovel for room and board in the commonwealth of Virginia.
“Let Dad answer, let Dad answer,” I chanted out loud as the phone rang. “Helloo, helloo, Caroline Cleves Brown here!” my mother shouted into the receiver after three rings.
This was going to be a very belittling experience.
“Adrienne Brown here!” I shouted back. “Your favorite child. The one who didn’t pour scalding water on your feet when she was a teen.” This was true. When she was fifteen, my very dexterous and evil-spirited sister, Payton, “spilled” a large pot of boiling water on my mother’s toes. I don’t think my mother or her pedicurist ever truly forgave her.
After I yapped out some small talk, spouting lines about how much I appreciated her continued love and affection and how I would be a shred of an ugly little person if it weren’t for her wisdom, grace, and guidance, I made my request.
My mother huffed and puffed like someone at the summit of Everest, paused, and then declared, “Of course you can live with us! It will be just like old times. Except that spoiled sister of yours now lives in Argentina and your father has turned her bedroom into some sort of Hoarders den. I’m sure the housekeeper is thinking of reporting us to A&E. And did I tell you we had to fix the Tuscan shingled roof because of a hurricane and that the insurance company claimed it was ‘an act of God.’” She stopped to catch her breath, muttered something about the pains of seasonal affective disorder, and then added, “Oh, and you. Sorry. Yes, it will be great to have you home. The barn apartment happens to be empty right now.”
I looked at my feet to make sure I hadn’t sprouted hooves. “I have to live in the barn?”
“Sweetheart. You make it sound like we’re treating you like a donkey! It’s the barn apartment. The horse trainers used to live there, but their kids just shot right up into giants and they outgrew it. You’ll feel more independent there, anyway. You’re just a touch o-l-d to be living in your parents’ actual house, don’t you think?”
No, I didn’t think. I thought it might be nice not to dwell twelve feet above piles of horse manure. I knew just what to say to my gentlemen callers: “Keep walking until you’re almost floored by the smell of animal feces. Then look up! I’ll be waving from the barn window!”
But free rent was free rent, so I sucked it up and agreed to live in the barn at my horse-loving parents’ house. Who cared if the first floor of my residence was full of dung? I was going
to be a reporter for one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers. Writing careers were made at the Capitolist. There was more blood, sweat, and tears within those walls than in an Amsterdam brothel. Or that’s what I was told, anyway. All I really knew about the gig was that it would allow me to go back home, hobnob with politicians, and write breaking news. And everyone would pay attention.
I had been hired to work at the Capitolist (or the List, as the employees called it) by a very intense woman from L.A. named Rachel Monsoon. She had been a music critic for Rolling Stone, a book critic for the Los Angeles Times, and then media editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. Basically, nothing like the usual Capitolist employee. But, to the delight of her conservative mother, she fell in love with a preppy East Coaster who made hand-carved wooden boats for a living and took the gig with the D.C.-based paper to avoid a life of air travel and conjugal visits. She had been there for three months when she hired me. There was an opening on the Style section because one of the reporters had left to “reclaim her soul in the blue waters of Goa,” according to Rachel. I didn’t ask how this girl had lost her soul, and instead babbled enthusiastically about how right I was for the job. What I liked best about Rachel was her claim that my piles of prose and action-packed résumé had won her over. She didn’t even mention the fact that my mother was once the scariest gossip columnist Washington had ever known.
For a couple of decades, my parents had been raising horses in Virginia, but in her former life my mom had penned the Washington Post’s scandal sheet. She ruled the rumor roost even when she was dragged to Middleburg, but she grew out of it when people became “sober and boring.” Somehow she had managed to keep a friend or two in town, but her enemies probably outnumbered the allies. Once, when I was twelve, a woman poured
two gallons of milk on my mother’s head in a supermarket while screaming that she was a fat bitch who had ruined her marriage. It was extremely awesome and the exact moment I decided to become a writer.
But I still appreciated the fact that Rachel was not explicitly hiring me for my mother’s golden Rolodex. Our interview was interesting. I was completely overdressed, even though I was interviewing for the Style section, but Rachel and her quick-draw mind seemed to like me anyway. And I liked her. She had a white streak in her hair and laughed at my nervously rehearsed jokes. She had me take a two-day writing test and meet with the higher-ups; she then called me to say, “Okay, welcome to Style. You start in three weeks.”
Three weeks? Fantastic. I spent what would have been next month’s rent on a case of really good champagne, boarded a friend’s chopper to Sag Harbor, and did the naked lambada with a man named Dan (Stan, was it? Okay, Stan) for seventy-two hours. And then my time ran out. My New York years were over. After I had packed seven years of East Side living into boxes, I opened an email that read, “Why don’t you come in at 11 A.M. on October 15 and we’ll take it from there.” Eleven sounded perfectly civilized. I had worked 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. during my days at Town & Country and was happy to cut that down a smidge. A girl needs time to do glamorous things like groom her parents’ horses for pocket money and meet someone to have sex with.
In a rented Chevy van packed to the brim with my shabby chic furniture and the free luxury goods I had amassed working in fashion journalism, I drove Beverly Hillbilly style behind the moving truck I had soundly rented. The pollution of Elizabeth, New Jersey, turned into the concrete skyways of the New Jersey Turnpike and then, finally, the cold, glistening water under the Delaware Bridge. When I crossed into Maryland and the Dixie
side of the Mason-Dixon Line, I blew a goodbye kiss to the northern lights. And when my rented moving truck squished a raccoon three blocks from my parents’ house, I knew I was really home.
In the twilight I could see my mother rushing out of the big wooden front door with the brass pineapple knocker to open the white gate onto the driveway. She had blond hair like mine, but hers had a hint of red in it thanks to the miracles of modern hair dye. It was perfectly straight at the top, curled under at the bottom and swishing across the thick roll neck of her white cashmere sweater. Both Payton and I were a little taller than her, having inherited our height from my father, Winston Brown’s side of the family, but my mother had the same pale—though slightly freckled—skin and lean limbs. She often liked to point out that at my age she weighed 114 pounds and didn’t I want to think about giving up my addiction to carbohydrates? I could hear her green Hunter boots crunching on fallen leaves and she waved energetically in my direction. That’s when it hit me. I was going to live with my parents.
“Here you are! You penniless, squatting ingrate,” my mother said as she walked toward me with open arms. She smelled like home and French perfume. Inside her sprawling white and green house most of the lights were on and three English setters barked just outside the door. She gave me a hug and whispered, “You know I’m happy, really,” in my pink ear.
Relaxation and motherly love didn’t last long.
The Monday after I moved home, I was ready to walk into the List’s Capitol Hill newsroom and become the wonkiest of wonks; the kind of person who chided others for not knowing every single member of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. “What?” I would say. “There are only five hundred thirty-five members of Congress. Is it too much for you
to get to know your government? What do you think the Constitution is, anyway? An advice column?” I was going to be so brilliant and so annoying.
In my navy blue 2002 Volvo station wagon, the clunker I had driven home and abandoned after college, I drove to the glass and steel office building on Constitution Avenue that held the new media empire to which I now belonged. I had been inside for my interviews and to drop off monogrammed thank-you notes, but walking in as an employee felt different. Sure, I had to sign an ethics agreement that required me to just say no to the free trips to Malaga I had grown so accustomed to at Town & Country, and there was no closet overflowing with feathered frocks for me to don at my leisure, but I was about to become a brilliant Washington mind, digging up fraud—gossip fraud—for the greater good.
Having been trained by the most primped and preened people in America, I had begun getting ready for my first day on the job weeks in advance. My hair, usually bleached a very expensive girl-from-the-fjords blond, was toned down with lowlights. I also got my angular bangs straightened so I looked more Good Housekeeping than Interview magazine. At five foot eight I was tall enough to scare short girls and short enough not to scare shorter men, and that was something I really couldn’t change in Washington. So I didn’t. I bought a new pair of Louboutin heels, very high, very shiny. I also bought an Hermès scarf that I could fashion into a cape, a headscarf, or even a chic winter sarong of sorts. It also came in handy as a blanket if I needed to take a quick nap. As it was both unique and expensive, I deemed it perfect to wrap myself in for day one.
“First impressions are lasting impressions,” I sang out, quoting my old Town & Country editor Kevin St. Clair. He wore Finnish reindeer hide slippers, even when out for a jog. Really.
You might have seen him running the New York City Marathon one year in these slippers while simultaneously smoking a massive Cuban cigar. It was quite a sight.
Seven years of working at glossy magazines in New York had given me a really great wardrobe. I had no money at all, but even my underwear was Miu Miu. That was the way of the New York world: Everyone who worked at a fashion magazine had Ivanka Trump’s wardrobe, but free. (The downside is that we were paid in air kisses and comped meals, but it all balanced out. The only things I ever paid for in New York were rent, cabs, and medicine.) Perhaps my wardrobe was a little zany for Washington, but wouldn’t some originality help me get a leg up? Anything to build a name for myself in a town dominated by massive egos.
Flying into the office, as my wonderful new 11 A.M. start time meant no rush hour traffic, I left my old car with the valet, failing to see the sign for the restaurant next door that read, “Valet for restaurant patrons only.” I opened the Capitolist’s glass doors and got ready to become smarter just by breathing the same air as those celebrated scribes.
“Umm, humm, just sign, here, here, here, here, and here. And initial here. And here. Oh, and there,” said the receptionist as she gave me my secure pass and building access codes. I was about to ask her if Capitolist headquarters also doubled as our country’s uranium plant, but I was distracted by the sight of Nathaniel Heard, a Congress reporter I saw on TV all the time. He was shorter in person, and his hair looked like he washed it with chlorine. But he had the sheen of someone very busy and important. That, I decided, was what I would radiate in less than a week, even if I had to donate all my Kérastase hair products to an animal shelter.
The receptionist motioned to me to follow Nathaniel through
the door. But first I had to put my thumb on some sort of soul-stealing reader. Two frosted doors, etched with the company logo, slid open at my thumb’s command. I felt like I was about to open the Christian Dior couture show. “Think authority! Think girl genius!” I whispered to myself as I walked down the navy blue carpeted hall roughly the length of an airplane runway.
Not one person looked up at me or the coif I had just paid Nancy Pelosi’s stylist several hundred dollars to create. All I could hear besides my overactive heartbeat were the murmur of dozens of massive televisions tuned to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and C-SPAN, an occasional serious-sounding phone conversation, and the frenetic pitter-patter of calloused fingers on keyboards.
On every wall THE CAPITOLIST was printed in huge, navy blue block letters. Some of the letters were painted on; others floated slightly above the wall. But they were everywhere, just in case someone had a bout of dementia and forgot where they worked. The walls were gray, the desks were gray, the ceilings were gray, and the faces that hovered semipossessed behind computers looked a touch ashen, too. But heck! It was probably just the lighting. This was the place to be right now. So they hired people with a lack of skin pigment. Pish posh. History was being changed by these waxen beings, and I was lucky to join them.
I learned very soon that people who were important had two desks. People who were less important had one. And people of the least importance, like me and the other Style section girls, had one small desk in the very back of the office in a corner with no windows.
I found Rachel sitting at her desk, her dark, angular haircut swooshing like a sail as she typed. She welcomed me with a smile, gave me a hug, and put a BlackBerry, two backup batteries, and a headset into my sweaty hand.
“This is your BlackBerry,” she declared. She pointed to the device, gripped tightly by my navy blue Capitolist-pride manicured nails, and said, “Keep it with you at all times. It helps if you imagine that it’s Velcroed to your hand. Feel free to do that if it makes it easier.”
I looked down at the phone and saw that it was already turned on and had the phrase “Write to Live, Live to Write” as a screen saver. That would have to be changed at once.
“We’ve disabled the off buttons on all the phones, so just keep charging it when the battery is low. If it breaks from overuse—which it will—no problem, we’ll get you a new one immediately. And it’s configured to work in every country in the world. Even East Timor.” I expected us to share a hearty laugh right about then, but Rachel was silent.
She reached across the desk and wrapped my fingers around the device a little tighter.
“If you don’t reply to an email within three minutes, I will be calling you. The pace is frenetic here, to put it mildly. We write seven to ten articles a day. It sounds like a lot, and it is. If you’re re-reporting a story, get fresh quotes. Don’t start paragraphs with questions; I hate that. Speed is more important than grammatical accuracy. You can always change a comma, not a time stamp. Have a good kicker, but don’t take ten minutes to write it. You don’t have to come up with your own headlines, but I will like you more if you do. So do. And they have to stay under one hundred and sixty-five characters and be written with search engines in mind. So keep them boring, but fun. Be creative, but not edgy. Always use a neutral voice, but try not to make it a total yawn. Inspire, but never with bias. Remember, you can’t do or say anything politically charged outside the office. You can’t campaign, you can’t donate, and you can’t wear any T-shirts or buttons printed with political slogans.” She looked at my outfit,
made almost entirely of Mongolian cashmere, and added, “not that you look like the Newt Gingrich T-shirt type . . . Oh! and I’ll expect you to file at least one thing today. Two would be better. Three would be best. Sound good?”
I smiled and nodded, trying to look like this was exactly what I’d expected. Like it was perfectly normal to rig a BlackBerry so it never turned off. And who didn’t want to write ten articles a day? I was clearly going to thrive at this place. I mentally revised my list of prepared questions, dropping the ones about whether the paper had a car service or a cappuccino machine.
Keeping her eyes not on me but on her computer, where she was simultaneously editing a short piece on Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s remarkable weight loss, Rachel kept talking. “I don’t know if I told you already, but we start at five A.M. every day. This means you’re writing at five A.M., not waking up or looking for things to write about. And you’re on email and on your phone and able to do interviews in different time zones if you have to. If you need time to find news, get up earlier. And you have to be on call on Sundays. You’ll get used to it, don’t worry.”
She finally looked up at me, smiled sincerely, and pointed to the far wall. Like all the others, it said THE CAPITOLIST and had two short rows of flat-screen TVs hanging on it. “Your desk is at the end of the hall. The one under the TV that always plays CNN. Don’t even think about changing the channel. You’ll ignite a revolution. The IT guys should be there in a few minutes to set you up. Three minutes, actually.” She turned back to her monitor, away from my bright, shiny, confused face, and said, “Better get walking. Oh . . . and good luck.” I scurried off lest I miss the punctual IT patrol.
Although my heart was toying with the possibility of cardiac arrest, my mind had grown surprisingly calm. I could definitely do this. I could be the kind of person who never slept, drank
venti espressos, and stalked politicians for sport. Why not! I went to Wellesley College, a school that produced Hillary frigging Clinton. I was up to the task. I was not intimidated at all. And no, she hadn’t told me about the 5 A.M. start time. Must have slipped her dazzlingly acute mind.
As I sprinted to the back of the newsroom, a man with a safari hat stuck to his sweaty head ran past my empty desk. He clutched a tape recorder playing something and two BlackBerrys. His round tortoiseshell glasses bounced around on his nose like a cowboy atop a bronco.
I must have stared for an unnaturally long time, because a girl with hair the color of India ink felt free to look me over rather unsubtly. Then, like an actual human being, she smiled and spoke. I almost kissed the hem of her dress; she might as well have been the Dalai Lama, as far as I was concerned.
“That’s David Bush. No relation. He always wears a safari hat, unless he’s on TV, which is often,” she said, crossing her muscular legs.
Naturally. Like Bindi the Jungle Girl.
I smiled and started to introduce myself, but she interrupted me with a wave of her thin hand. “He’s quirky, but he’s nice and he’s a genius and they love him. Worship him. He writes the Morning List. It’s like the Bible, but with bullet points. You better read it every single day the second it goes to print. We get it five minutes before the rest of the world, so read it then. He writes it three hundred sixty-five days a year. Even Christmas morning. When it’s his birthday we have an actual carnival. There was a real penguin you could pose for pictures with last year. When it’s your birthday, no one will remember and you’ll probably have to work late.”
“You’re Adrienne Brown, right?” She extended her hand.
“I’m Julia Kincaid. We thought you were starting today. You’re going to be the sixth on the section. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m the one worth knowing.”
I was about to thank her for conversing with me, when I saw three gangly young men holding wires and laptops heading in our direction: the IT team. But before they made it to us, the sound of a dull cake knife tapping the side of a drinking glass filled the vast room. The IT men turned on their rubber heels, computer parts in hand, and went the other way.
“Get up. It’s time for awkward cake,” said my raven-haired colleague. Never mind that I was already standing at attention like a Navy SEAL.
“What’s awkward cake?” I asked her.
“It’s just cake. We have two cakes every time someone leaves. And that’s pretty often, almost weekly in the summer. One is always chocolate, and the other is a fruit tart. Unless they liked you, and then you get expensive cupcakes. Georgetown Cupcakes. There’s a speech or two that goes along with the cakes. They always wish the person good luck and then smugly assure them that they’ll come to their senses and return soon. Of course, if they really hate you, then you don’t get awkward cake at all. You’ll see, it’s incredibly awkward.”
She was right. It was incredibly awkward. Before the paper’s tow-haired editor in chief, Mark Upton, tapped his long knife against a Capitolist glass and started speaking, all the office lights brightened to a level Dr. Sanjay Gupta would describe as just right for brain surgery. The reporters and editors all gathered around in neat concentric circles and plastered on huge smiles like they were being handed Oprah’s favorite things. I backed into a corner with my colleague and sat on a stapler.
“It’s with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our prized defense reporter Roger Roche,” Upton declared. His speaking
pattern was soothing and rhythmic. “Roger has given so much to the paper over his eight months here. He covered the president’s trip to Iraq and the changing of the guard at the Pentagon. He even disguised himself as a corpse and slept in Arlington Cemetery for a piece on grave robbing.”
Wait, it was okay to pretend to be dead? I looked around to see if anyone else thought this last anecdote was odd. Julia grabbed my shoulder and whispered very loudly, “Don’t believe that shit. They fucking hate him. And they made him wake up at three every morning to write the ‘Good Morning Military’ tip sheet, so he hates them, too. See? No cupcakes.” She motioned to the table: two fruit tarts and nothing else.
The short but saccharine speeches had every person in the room laughing and clapping at things that weren’t at all funny. When the speeches were over, the staff leapt toward the cakes like prisoners of war, and Julia, who knew how to handle the scrum, brought me back a slice.
“You should eat this. That way you can get used to the weight you will inevitably put on while working here,” she said, handing me a piece without candied fruit. “Just don’t drop any crumbs. We have mice. So don’t leave food on your desk. But if you do see a mouse, don’t say anything, and don’t tweet about it. They’ll be pissed. If anything ever goes wrong at the office, don’t mention it outside the office, because if they find out you did, they’ll start thinking about ways to demote or fire you.”
Eating with our plates right under our chins, Julia and I watched as Upton approached the paper’s managing editor, Justin Cushing. Cushing had Groton, Yale, and over a decade breaking news at the Wall Street Journal stamped on his résumé. His aura sang, “Trust me! I’m always right.” And people usually did.
“Justin Cushing once hit a reporter with his umbrella. Like a
thwack below the knee,” said Julia, making a Babe Ruth batting gesture and flinging her empty plate into the garbage can.
“Yeah. But they didn’t report it to the HR department or anything. One, we don’t have HR, and two, the reporter was flattered that Cushing actually knew who he was. You should have seen him. He was glowing like he ate a flashlight. Just because you work here doesn’t mean the important people have to learn your name.”
And that, I realized, was what the Capitolist was all about: not sleeping, working around the clock, and fighting so that Upton and Cushing not only knew who you were but also cared enough about you to occasionally put your stories on the front page, maybe even to shoot the shit with you every couple of weeks. That meant coming by your desk and asking about your life. The right answer to that question was always “What do you mean? This is my life.”
The Capitolist was three years old. Four young Silicon Valley investors had founded it when all the other little papers were dying, but it had skyrocketed. From the beginning, the Capitolist had what other papers didn’t: money and intensely dedicated labor. They bought reporters away from other publications, they made the paper they printed on thicker than a book jacket, and they threw more parties than Vogue.
The paper and its equally prestigious website were still flying high, and so were its employees. A place obsessed with breaking news, the List was launched as print and online because there was no way any List story worth its ink was going to wait until the next day’s paper. The daily print edition and the site appealed to different readers, but they both brought in nearly equal dollar amounts and equally stressed out the employees. We Style girls had to file two Web stories in the morning, then a paper story,
then more Web stories. Meaning that when we were breaking news, we were also writing long-form pieces for the paper. It was a little like the decathlon without the bonus calorie burn. If you lasted a year, you deserved to be knighted. Small nervous breakdowns requiring prescription drugs and Skype counseling (to save time) were commonplace. Sick days were never taken. If you had a mix of bubonic plague and shingles you might be allowed to work from home. The paper chewed employees up and spat them out in a matter of months, sometimes weeks. But the ones who made it past the breaking point loved it beyond all reason. The only other jobs they would ever consider were United States senator or dictator of planet earth and outlying galaxies. Or, if they had to, host of Meet the Press. The newsroom was filled with extremely young reporters, all rabidly desperate to make a name for themselves. If they played their cards right, they definitely would. One year at the Capitolist could save you five years somewhere else, but you had to get through that year without doubling your body weight and tripling your blood pressure.
Most people took their cues from Robert Redford in All the President’s Men: they dressed like farsighted intellectuals, called each other by last names, and shouted to sound important. They spoke almost entirely in acronyms, and each one quickly adopted a signature sartorial quirk. This quirk was never wearing father’s vintage Rolex: it was sporting a skunk hat once owned by Ronald Reagan’s press secretary or a stain-covered tie handed down from Senator Boring.
The Style section was free of the typical Capitolist type because the typical Capitolist type viewed Style reporting as the ninth circle of hell.
But I saw the Style girls as enviable, attractive geniuses.
Instead of deciding I was the competition and freezing up,
Julia called a source in the office of the Speaker of the House, introduced me on a conference call, and helped me type out my first article. Rachel didn’t edit it to pieces, and seven minutes after I turned it in, it was live on the Capitolist website. I emailed my parents a screen shot.
Not sure what to write about next—though Julia told me we’d better figure it out quick, so I wouldn’t be fired immediately—I headed to the front of the building, to the photography department, to have my picture taken for the staff page. Before I reached it, though, a gangly man leapt out of his desk chair, planted himself in my path, and started shaking my hand up and down like a water pump. “Welcome to the Capitolist. I’m Mason Swisher. Congress reporter. Also elections. Sometimes business and lobbying. We’re thrilled to have you,” he said loudly.
“It’s really exciting to be here,” I said, introducing myself.
“Adrienne Brown, Adrienne Brown.” He said my name twice and then sat back down at his desk. “I’ve heard of your mother. Obviously. Did she get you this gig?”
After giving Mason a firm “no, but thanks so much for asking,” I escaped, had my quick portrait session with our staff photographers, and walked back to tell Julia about my encounter. She laughed as if the entire cast of Saturday Night Live were tickling her with feathers.
“Don’t even worry about him. He will probably take over the world in five to seven years, but that doesn’t mean you’re required to speak to him now. I’ll show you who you should waste your breath on.” She was touch-typing an email on her phone while speaking to me. “There’s me, of course. And the other Style girls, because in the grand scheme of things they’re kind of normal. The design team, the photographers, the cartoonists, a few energy reporters, the two cute lobbying reporters, and Rachel. That’s it.”
I was twisting around, trying to identify the cute people, but Julia kept talking about our shared boss.
“Rachel’s our third editor in a year,” she explained. “She’s the best one we’ve had. The last one had a mild nervous breakdown and went to Crossroads rehab center in Antigua, where she met Colin Farrell. Now she works at the New York Times.”
“Really? That’s pretty cool.”
“Well, that’s what this place gets you eventually. A great new job, ten extra pounds, a brush with celebrity, and deep mental scars.”
“Got it.” I pressed my fingers together as hard as I could until I noticed they were stuck in the American Sign Language hand gesture for “camp.” I gave them a shake and tried to position them nonchalantly on my waist, but I still looked nervous. And like I was about to clog dance. I had to calm down. Julia wasn’t exactly painting the paper out to be Disneyland for adults, but I was still high on the power of the place. Everyone looked busy and important. At Town & Country, everyone looked rich and hungry. Why not embrace change?
I hadn’t spotted one single male I would consider swapping DNA with, but the three chairs around Julia and me were still empty.
“Who sits here?” I asked, giving one a swirl.
“Chicks. All three. This is Style,” replied Julia, pointing to the nameplates I’d missed.
She gestured toward the first desk. “That’s where Libby Barnesworth sits. She’s from Kennebunkport, Maine, and went to Dartmouth, as you can tell from the mug.” Julia pointed to a large green coffee cup. “She always smells like cinnamon. I think she has one of those pine tree air fresheners sewn into her pants. She came here two years ago from Washingtonian
and has a vocabulary like John McEnroe, but she’s not so bad if you’re nice to her. She’s very Georgetown. Hangs out with those preppy types, like Jenna Bush.”
“She knows Jenna Bush? Cool.”
“I didn’t say Jenna Bush. I said like Jenna Bush. Same hair color. Different fathers.”
She pointed to the even smaller desk next to Libby’s. It had a huge snow globe of Aspen and a picture of very attractive blond people on it. “That’s Isabelle.” She looked, clearly expecting some sign of recognition, but all I gave her was the look of someone whose mind has just been erased with a magnet. “Everyone knows Isabelle. She was in the Olympics. For the slalom.”
“I am not. I can’t believe you don’t know her.”
I couldn’t believe it, either. I was going to work with an Olympian? I needed to know every single detail starting with the Olympic trials and ending with the closing ceremonies. Was it Vancouver? Or maybe Turin? Nagano? I was crossing my fingers for Nagano. That was my favorite. All those picturesque Japanese villages covered in snow and fiery Olympic rings.
Before I started singing the national anthem, I caught myself and replied coolly, “I’m more a summer Olympics type.” This was true. I still had a balance beam in my parents’ basement and had grand plans to get my backflip back now that I was pushing thirty. I mean, Jackie Chan could do, like, eight, and he was nearly sixty.
I looked at the stacks of papers and notepads on Isabelle’s desk. I didn’t see one single medal or trophy. If I were an elite athlete, even a retired one, I would tie my medal to my head and never ever take it off, even when going through airport security. Those pirates at TSA would just have to give me a CAT scan.
“What is she doing at the Capitolist if she’s an Olympian?” I asked. “Shouldn’t she be coaching our next generation of champions?”
She shrugged and gave one of Isabelle’s plastic bobbleheads a pat. “I have no idea. I think they just liked the fact that she was a tall, blond Olympian from Aspen. She came in tenth, but whatever. The Olympics is still kind of big-time. And she knows everyone. Except you, apparently.”
Julia looked at her watch and logged onto her RSS reader. It showed 157 new stories since we’d started talking.
“Crap,” she said, opening a new document. “I haven’t filed something in over an hour. I need a piece or I’m going to get bitch-slapped.”
I assumed “bitch-slapped” was reporter speak for “lightly chided with a friendly hug” and kept asking her questions.
“Wait, what about that one,” I asked, pointing to the last desk. Julia turned around and looked at the third, mostly empty, desk.
“Oh, right. That’s Alison Lee. She’s sweet. Kind of down-homey. She’s from North Carolina, like from a dune. And she wears a lot of pinstripes. Why does she wear all these pinstripes? I’ve never had the heart to ask. Is she trying to tell someone that she’s a prisoner in this office? Because I get that. Or is it because she watches too much Law & Order? I don’t know. But she wears them almost every day. She doesn’t reveal much about herself, though—she’s the Mona Lisa of colleagues. And she’s pretty young, twenty-three, I think. Basically, when I was driving, she was in the third grade.”
“Why is everyone in here so young?” I asked, looking around at the sea of intense twenty-somethings.
“Because old people are not stupid enough to do these jobs,” replied Julia. “Nor do they have enough energy. Think of us like sled dogs. They use the young ones who can go the distance and
take the crack of a whip and when we’re tired they trade us out. But you can’t be too resentful because everyone knows this is the best launching pad in journalism.”
Right. Launching pad. Perhaps my grand visions of being a Capitolist lifer were a little ridiculous. But if I had to go from Capitolist reporter to senior features writer at the New York Times in a handful of years, I could deal.
I wouldn’t meet the rest of my inner circle of colleagues that day. All three of them were working from the Capitol, so all I saw was their bylines, magically appearing again and again on the site. Meanwhile Julia and I looked for news and wrote it up as fast as our fingers could move. It kind of made my eyes cross. I would have to adapt.
After turning around two articles by the grace of my high society connections and Julia’s charity, I understood what she meant by deep mental scars. There was clearly only one thing to do: start spending all spare waking hours hobnobbing with the Hill power players—or the people who kept their schedules.
“Chiefs of staff and press secretaries are like bouncers in the Meatpacking District in New York,” explained Julia. “If you don’t win them over, you’ll get nothing.”
“Nothing” sounded bad. “Nothing” sounded like I would have to spend the rest of my days reshelving books at Barnes & Noble. I resolved to woo these staffers like a playmate in a crowd of sailors.
As the day wound down for the rest of the world, but just kept chugging along at the Capitolist, I convinced myself that, with a deep commitment to kissing political ass and a complete annihilation of my personal life, I could succeed at the List. Then I received my first reader comment. It was on the Speaker article Julia had helped me write.
I scrolled to the notification and clicked on it.
It came through our awkwardly formatted email system in small bold type.
Adrienne Brown has received a reader’s comment:
“Eat dick you fat Commi bitch whore!!!!!!!!”
Trying not to cry, I showed it to Julia. Maybe this was just some sort of first-day joke, like secret society hazing. In college I had to pluck a live chicken once. I was sure that as soon as Julia read it, she would start laughing and hand me a pink hair ribbon with my name on it.
She skimmed it over, smiled, and turned around in her ergonomic chair. I waited for my hair ribbon, or for her to pick up the phone and report the inappropriate comment to a higher power.
But nothing happened. When she could feel my eyes on her, she turned back around and looked at my screen.
“That part is all formatted,” she said, pointing to the top and bottom of the email with a bored finger. Dragging her thumb over the body of the email, she said, “The only part the reader wrote was ‘Eat dick you fat Commi bitch whore.’ ”
“Right, understood,” I said shakily. “And a thank-you from the Capitolist to me for reading the comment. How thoughtful.”
“Be prepared,” Julia said as she shot her seventh story of the day to Rachel. “I get them all the time. Some are so racist. They call Michelle Obama MoMo the gorilla. They write things I thought only Klan members would dare type out. I have a folder with over five hundred comments that I keep, just in case one of these people ever tries to shoot the president or something.”
How wonderful. I had never corresponded with a band of
racists before. Now I would learn what it was like to have my soul eat itself.
“Should I write back when this happens? I mean, I have their email address, right? Can I just write ‘thank you for your time, you depraved, racist lunatic. I look forward to our future correspondence the way I look forward to a spinal tap’?”
Julia shook her head no. “No, no, never write back. You don’t want to anger the crazy racists. They know your name, where you work. They could come over here and shoot you with their homemade weapons. Better to just file them away to hand over to the police one day. Plus, we signed neutrality agreements. Can’t express an opinion one way or the other.”
Neutral. I could do that. I was the queen of neutrality. My mother might disagree, based on an incident in 1998 when I tried to have my sister arrested for un-American activities, but I had grown since then. I had skimmed the company policy demanding that we just “shrug off the crazies and keep on typing” and clearly I had to obey. I would just ignore these lunatics who took time out of their days to type me offensive emails. I would stay the course. The quiet course.
For the next two hours, I ignored my hate mail and personally called every single press secretary I could find outside of working hours on Capitol Hill. I made small talk, I tried to arrange meet-and-greets, I grilled them about the stylish things their bosses were doing. Then I reached out to three old socialites who still kind of liked my mother and asked if I could take them to lunch. I figured that jumping on the rich, arthritic crowd was a good place to start.
When I put down the phone and reclined in my chair, people looked at me like I was sitting there enjoying a paid vacation. And when I got up to go to the bathroom, a Web editor asked if I was lost.
Work was the only thing you were supposed to do inside the Capitolist walls, and if that meant typing while dehydrated, so be it. You only got ahead one way in life, and that was working harder, longer, faster, and with less water than everyone else.
At 8 P.M., I was happy to head back to Virginia and the “home” I shared with apolitical animals. They were actual animals, but whatever. They weren’t going to tell me I had five minutes to get two fresh quotes and twelve minutes to turn them into “something palatable.” Before I left, I printed out the three articles I had written as well as my first comment. My mother hadn’t added to my scrapbook since I broke an opponent’s nose at field hockey camp in the late nineties, but I thought it might be time.
The drive home took an hour and a half. I thought about all the places I could have flown in that time: Boston. Lexington. Charleston. Cleveland, perhaps? Instead I was listening to the German-language CD I had purchased for my commute and was reciting words related to the home.
At the end of my parents’ long stone driveway, I parked my car, changed into my Tod’s loafers to save my shiny pin heels from the dirt of country living, passed the barn, and went in search of human contact.
My mom was busy ruining store-bought beef bourguignon, but she paused in her destruction to cluck at my appearance.
“Oh, good. You’re home. I thought for a second you’d either flown back to New York or been abducted. I could think of no other options besides those two.” She gave me a hug, fastened her arm around me, and pulled my face into the light that illuminated the cooktop. “You look really pale . . . green, almost. Like a frog with streaky blond hair and eyebrows,” she said.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t get out much today,” I said. She pinched my dry, pale skin and swabbed at my face with olive oil.
“Your father can’t wait to see you,” she said, going back to
her stirring. “He’s busy spending a fortune on some prize horse in Argentina with your sister. I knew I should never have let him watch Secretariat. But he’ll be back in a few weeks. They’ve got the best horse movers in that crazy country driving the poor thing up here, but you know your dad, he’s along for the ride.”
“Better him than me,” I said while my mother fluttered her blue eyes at me and bopped me on the nose with a wooden spoon.
“Well, Payton and your father, they’re happiest when they’re riding. We’re the wordsmiths, they’re the true horse people.”
That night, my mother gave me a free dinner, a heavy pour of Rémy Martin, and a speech about the good old days of journalism. She asked why the Capitolist demanded so much work. Three stories on day one, she noted—did I want to lose the ability to bend my hands in my later years?
“We used to have so much fun in the newsroom. Smoking pot in the stairwells before staff meetings. It was like a big celebration of grass and words,” she said, sliding a bowl of Kalamata olives toward me across the smooth wooden kitchen table.
“Sounds swell, Mom,” I answered, declining the pitted snack. “Like Woodstock with pencils.”
She ignored me and kept telling her stories about the old days, more for her own benefit than mine. As much as she appreciated not getting milk spilled on her head by crazed housewives, I knew she missed the pace and the bylines sometimes.
“I’ll never forget the time when I stayed incredibly late, like eleven or something, and I walked into the book room to grab the new Social Registry, and there were Clyde and Sharon—you remember Sharon, she was the old food editor. She gave you that Pasta Making for Kids book you liked so much?”
I had no idea. But I clearly should hate this Sharon for making me a carb addict so early on.
My mother was still talking. “Anyway. She and Clyde were
going at it like wild animals. Naked in the stacks. She was married at the time, of course. I think her husband was a professor at Johns Hopkins. Ethnobotany, to be precise.” Placing a pit into a monogrammed cocktail napkin, she said, “I saw them doing it in the newsroom once, too, but that was after her second divorce. They didn’t give a hoot who saw once it was kosher.”
I thought I would rather shave my eyebrows off and eat them than have sex in our newsroom. I had to get away from her old-lady reminiscing. I made my excuses and skulked in my loafers out to the barn, where I cracked one of the windows and listened to the sounds of early fall. When the turning leaves all fell in a few weeks, I would be able to see the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now I could see the moon shining down on the manicured fields.
I threw myself onto my cashmere-blanket-covered bed and looked at the black-and-white pictures hanging on the wall. Before I came home, my mother asked her interior designer to spruce up the joint a little. To most people, that would mean add a bed, maybe a simple Shaker-inspired chair, a fresh towel or two, and voilà! But not my mother. She had removed the word simple from her vocabulary decades ago. The barn apartment, though nothing more than a few small rooms and a poor excuse for a kitchen and a bathroom, now looked ready to host Ralph Lauren and his entire sun-kissed family. There was a queen-size bed with a mahogany wood frame covered in down comforters and navy and cream blankets, an oversize farm table with hand-carved benches, a navy velvet couch with ten equestrian-themed throw pillows, thick braided rugs, a wall covered in brown velvet riding hats, a candle-burning chandelier, two fire extinguishers for said candle-burning chandelier, and a wall of family photos. The last part sounds awfully quaint and sentimental, but it was mostly glamour shots of my mother with slightly lifted eyes that screamed, “I’m watching you!,” pictures of my
dad making judgmental faces, my Wellesley graduation photo, and a few snaps from high school of me looking gangly and awkward while my sister Payton posed like a Swedish supermodel. Those would have to go.
It’s not that I wasn’t well-rounded in high school; I was. I was yearbook editor, co-captain of the field hockey team, took difficult classes, and had a series of cute boyfriends with good abs, dreamy eyes, and SUVs. It’s just that Payton had already done all that, but better, and by the time I got there, my golden sister had set an impossibly high standard.
Payton was incredibly popular, in part because she was so pretty and mostly because she was so scary. She was fantastic at sports, got great grades without trying, always had a tan, and dated a very popular lacrosse player named Dean McLaughlin, who looked like a man at seventeen and called her babe. He used to bench press Payton during their lacrosse practices and even modeled for the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog his summer between high school and college. I loved him. I made a collage of his Abercrombie pictures and hid it behind my desk but Payton found it and presented it to Dean right in front of me. I laughed it off, excused myself from the table, and cried until my eyes looked like two fireballs stuck in my face.
At an age when most girls just wanted to be liked and asked out on a date or two, Payton was running high school like a Fortune 500 company. Her senior year, she even had a stalker. He was a junior on the wrestling team named Leo and chased Payton around in a white Bronco very similar to O. J. Simpson’s. My father had to call his parents and threaten legal action. It was the coolest thing ever.
The last summer before Payton left for college we both worked as counselors at a riding camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was 80 percent girls but there was one rather cute stable
hand named Trevor Mariani whom I ended up making out with behind the barn a few times. When I refused to go skinny-dipping in the lake with him after a particularly hot and heavy smooch fest, he told every other counselor that we’d had sex in the hayloft “thoroughbred style.” I wanted to die. I was still rather petrified of male genitalia at that stage and I was being accused of acts outlawed in much of the American South.
Naturally, I didn’t do anything but cry alone in the bathroom, but when the rumor kept on growing after a few days, Payton walked up to him after our daily flag-raising ceremony and, in front of everyone, slapped him across the face, paused for a few seconds, and then muttered “loser,” for everyone to hear. She was kindly asked to leave and stay far away from children, but for the rest of the summer, she was my hero. When I awkwardly thanked her before she left for Columbia, she didn’t crack a smile and said she did it because she was sick of spending her summer toiling in Appalachia when all her friends were backpacking through Europe. I didn’t care. Payton was happy to push my head under water, but she wouldn’t sit around and watch anyone else do it.
Fine. I would keep the photos up there for now. I walked up to the wall and straightened one of me flashing a particularly heinous set of turquoise braces.
I had an hour before I had to be asleep, so I lay back on my sleigh bed, picked up my landline, called Elsa, and begged her to leave the District Saturday night and spend the weekend with me in Middleburg. “I hate you,” she replied. “And I’ll see you Saturday. You better buy me a present.”
Free of computers but with my BlackBerry nestled right next to my pillow, I got ready to rack up six hours of sleep. But Julia woke me up with a text at midnight to see if I was going to come back for day two. I told her I’d had an hour-and-a-half
commute back to my Middleburg barn to think about it and had decided yes. Definitely, yes. It was the place to be right now. They—no, we—were leading political journalism and the new media empire. I was lucky to work there.
“Good,” Julia texted back. She added a P.S. two minutes later.
“You’re 28. It might be time to kiss the commute goodbye and move into the city. Living with your parents is quaint and all, but you’re not a girl from Saudi Arabia waiting for someone to propose.”
“That sounds racist,” I wrote.
“Well, living in a barn that your parents own sounds inbred.”
It kind of did.