CODE -->
Post Road Magazine #35

CHARISMA!

Becky Tuch

Sara’s job at the magazine was to sit at a table in the middle of the room and stuff envelopes with rejection slips. Well, stuffing the envelopes was half her job. The other half was opening the mail, reading the letters sent in by artists, letters that described their art and offered brief biographical statements. Sara was to ignore the artwork itselfand ignore most of the letters. Her main task was to skim the artist bios to find any capitalized or italicized words, indicating any prizes won or prior exhibits in prestigious galleries or museums or magazines.

When such words inevitably did not appear, because people who already had such credentials rarely submitted blindly to the magazine, Sara would take a form rejection letter off the stack and stuff the envelope with it, placing it on the pile of rejections to be sent out with the day’s outgoing mail.

It was late autumn, her first year out of college, one year since 9/11. Everyone was so impressed that she’d gotten a job so quickly, and one within her field no less, dubious prospects anytime, but especially now, when entire businesses were moving elsewhere, residents fleeing for the hills. People (Sara’s mother) wondered out loud whether art still mattered, while other people (Sara) averred that it mattered now more than ever. Her work at CHARISMA!, the connections she would forge and the experience she would gain, would be evidence of this fact.

Already five months in and what Sara didn’t have the heart to tell her mother, or anyone, was that she was not making connections (the senior editors barely looked at her, avoided eye contact in the elevator, confused her with the interns and sent her to get coffee and muffins for staff meetings she was never invited to). Nor was she gaining much in the way of experience (no one told her what was going on, artists came and went without introduction, editors left early or stayed late and offered no explanation). And even though they all shared the big open space, a converted loft in lower Manhattan, most of the conversations among editors happened in hushed tones, so as not to disturb the other editors who were working.

“Open the envelopes, read the cover letter, check where they’ve shown their work. If the places match any on this list--” A binder had been offered to Sara, the first page listing the best galleries, the biggest prizes—“Leave the images on my desk. If they don’t match, reject them.”

This instruction came from Joyce, a ghostly pale, perpetually harried woman who had juices delivered to her every day at lunch. What Joyce’s job entailed Sara had no idea. How or whether her job had changed over the past year Sara did not ask. Nor did she ask how anyone survived solely on juice.

The environment at CHARISMA!did not invite questioning. All the editors--there were four of them, each in their own departments scattered at desks around the room--spent their time clacking at computers, talking on the phone, and reading. Reading articles presumably. Editing work that would appear in the magazine, Sara assumed. She did not know. They did not tell her what they were doing.

Things could not go on this way. On a crisp October morning, the kind of day that spoke of new resolutions and fresh starts, air cool at the windows, reddish brown leaves stirring in the breeze outside, Sara’s mother’s voice reached a fevered pitch inside her ear: What’s going on at that magazine of yours? Are you hustling for the sake of art, or aren’t you?

Sara rose from her designated table, stretched, and carefully slid in her chair. She shared the table with two interns, and on this day she felt their eyes upon her, watching.

She ignored their stares. She had already done her time as an intern, working every summer throughout college at various arts organizations all over the country.

Now she was something different, a college graduate, a woman with a degree, and at CHARISMA!, an employee. Though their work was nearly identical, and they were all practically the same age, and though the interns worked five days a week while Sara, who was paid, only worked three, Sara was in another class entirely from the interns. The more timidly the young women looked at her, the more emboldened Sara felt.

She stepped toward Joyce’s desk, saw how feverishly the editor was typing, head bobbing between keyboard and screen like a pecking bird, and stopped. She backed up. She looked across the room toward the Editor-in-Chief.

Karen Mueller. A Big Name in the New York City art world, Sara had been told many times, though she did not need such information. At least three of her college textbooks had featured Karen’s name when they came to Contemporary Art. Framed photographs hung in haphazard array above her desk: Karen, bear-hugged by Michel Basquiat; Karen, pretending to lick a sculpture by Jeff Koons; Karen, smoking a cigarette beside Luc Besson, along with signed artworks: a collage by Barbara Kruger; a photograph by Nan Goldin. It was enough to make Sara’s head feel light, her limbs loose and unsteady. 

But no. She reminded herself of her many nights last year, falling asleep with back issues of the magazine, dreaming of her future. How her heart had pounded after Joyce had called to offer her the job. How she’d counted the days until she could begin to call this very office her home.

Karen was on the phone. Perhaps Sara should wait, come back. But Karen was always on the phone. If she didn’t say something now, she wasn’t sure she ever would.

“Um,” Sara said.

After a moment, Karen placed her hand over the receiver, angled her chin up and looked in Sara’s general direction. She raised her eyebrows.

“Hi,” Sara said. Her voice sounded tiny. A child’s voice. She glanced at the interns watching her. Cleared her throat.

Karen cleared her own throat, urging Sara to speak.

“So,” Sara said. “I’ve been sending these rejection letters for the past few months now.” She did not say five months. As if by showing that she wasn’t counting, exactly, the months she had been there, she could convey how grateful she was to have this job, how the time was zipping by. “And…”

Karen took off her glasses, folded them on her desk.

“I was wondering if…” She brought her hand to her hair, an old habit from when she used to wear a ponytail. Now her head was a sea of curls, the new haircut she’d gotten before her first day of work weighing heavily on her scalp, like a wig. “If maybe there’s something else you need from me. Something else I could do.”

Karen said nothing. Sara wondered if her beating heart was visible through her blouse.

At last Karen squinted at Sara, as if, perhaps, finally seeing her: the girl--the woman--who wanted more, not less, to do; the woman who wanted to make an impact, to do something big for this magazine; the woman ready to hustle for the sake of art.

“What’s your name?” Karen said.

“Sara.” She added a small smile, because of course they had met many times before, and Sara’s own table was just feet from Karen’s in the large office, where they had been working together three days a week for the past five months.

“Sara,” Karen repeated.

Sara nodded.

Karen turned then, placed the phone down on her desk and called out to Joyce. Joyce at once wheeled her chair back and came scurrying over.

“Yes, hi,” Joyce said.

“Joyce,” Karen said. “Why is Sara talking to me?”

“Oh,” Joyce said. “Sorry.”

With that, Karen put her glasses atop her mound of black hair, picked up the phone and resumed her conversation. And at once Sara became a cubist version of herself, all garish colors and misaligned features. A geometric hodge podge of odd, exaggerated parts. Her body--a shattered pane of sharp-angled bits.

Heart no longer pounding, she made her way back to her desk and resumed her task of opening envelopes, looking at art that would never see the light of day, and sending rejection letters. She refused to make eye contact with the interns.

*

After work she met up with Hyphen. Hyphen was an old friend Sara had known in high school, if you could call him a friend. Mostly he was a strangely lost soul, a bit creepy, a former ecstasy dealer she’d run into frequently at raves, now in his mid-thirties with no steady work, no girlfriend, and no close family. Sara might have pitied him, if there weren’t something of the performative in everything he did. Like how he always went up to strangers on the street and asked random questions. Or how he was always asking girls if they would give him a massage. How years ago he’d changed his name from Daniel Blumenthal to Hyphen, and everywhere they went in the city people said hello to him, as if it was completely normal to encounter a person named after a punctuation mark.

Today they ate pizza at a nearby Ray’s. It was one of Sara’s double days, when she worked at CHARISMA!in the mornings and then waited tables in the evening. It didn’t make sense for her to get on the train and go all the way home to Brooklyn, then come back for her night shift. Besides, she was trying to spend as little time at home as possible. Seeing her mother so much was beginning to make her depressed. And her brother was home now too, studying for his grad school qualifiers.

Normally guarded, dignified, and private, almost like a stranger, this particular summer Michael had taken it upon himself to come home, focus on his work, and as he had through parts of high school, lie around in his underwear, flat on his belly in the living room, the TV blazing while he read textbooks. The entire second floor of their house smelled like farts.

“Well, what did you think it would be like?” Hyphen asked her. He was on the Atkins diet, maybe ironically, and was eating a slice of hamburger topped with bacon, no bun, cutting the pile of meat daintily, with a plastic knife and fork.

“I don’t know what I thought,” Sara said.

But that was a lie. Of course she knew. She was embarrassed to think of what she had hoped for at CHARISMA!The studio invitations and gallery openings. Her opinion needed on a range of topics ranging from the subversion of visual paradigms to the rise of the Color Industrial Complex. A frenetic whirlwind of activity like nothing she’d ever experienced, constant demands placed on her so that she couldn’t keep up, but had to, and would, because she was a champion of artists and a believer in the magazine. She’d thought she would be busy.

“Don’t you know?” Hyphen slurped from his Diet Sprite. “That’s what work is. It’s humiliating and shame-inducing. It’s terrible and degrading. It’s awful.”

“Have you had to do terrible and degrading things?” She wanted to hear a rags to riches story. She wanted to be inspired.

“Yes,” Hyphen said.

“And?”

“And I continue to do them. Work sucks.”

Sara picked at the crumbs on her plate, pressing her index finger into their sharp points.

“Anyway,” Hyphen said, “you do know that this city was just attacked by terrorists, don’t you?”

“I’m aware, yes.” She waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, she said, “You think I’m being spoiled? That I shouldn’t complain in light of the world’s problems?”

Hyphen shrugged. “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

“What the hell is that, your mantra?”

“It’s something my mom used to say to me as a kid.”

“And how did that make you feel, I wonder?”

Hyphen paused to think. “Upset.”

Sara sighed. Then she wanted to get off the subject. Though other subjects weren’t that much better. Like why a thirty-six-year old former drug dealer named Hyphen was the only friend she seemed to have right now, all her friends from high school and college scattered around the country, either busy with their own career or romantic aspirations, or else avoiding the city altogether.

“Look at that,” Sara said. Her eyes had fastened on three small dots in the salt shaker, shadows formed by the tiny holes in the shaker’s aluminum lid, then amplified by light, three perfect tiny coins of darkness upon the white grains.

“What,” said Hyphen.

Sara pointed with the crust of her pizza. “Those three little circles in the salt. Shadows. Now that’s special, isn’t it?”

Hyphen wiped his mouth and crumpled his napkin, dropping it on top of his hamburger. “Huh,” he said, and looked away. “You know, when you get older you stop caring about shit like that.”

He stood to go. Sara, not sure what to make of Hyphen’s words, whether the giving up was a misfortune or a relief, stared a moment more at the salt shaker, then pushed her own chair back and followed him out onto the bustling Manhattan sidewalk.

*

The mail came early that next Tuesday, the UPS man wheeling the dolly into the office and unloading all the envelopes and packages, and of course the dozens of manila envelopes to be added to the pile of mail Sara was to open, skim, and reject.

Except, today, she had a different idea. She glanced sideways at Karen, who had likely forgotten Sara’s name all over again. She thought of what Hyphen had said, about how when you’re an adult you stopped caring about certain things. Shit like that.How wrong that was! One shouldn’t stop caring. One couldn’t.

Dear Editors of Charisma...was the first letter in the stack. Typed, as all the letters were. With the artist’s return address up top and Karen Mueller’s last name spelled incorrectly as so often it was. Enclosed please find five prints in a series I am developing…

Enclosed were figure drawings, the sort of thing countless people sent in, with no real clue whatCHARISMA!featured. They were clueless, these artists. Their work was innocent and earnest, their efforts blatantly amateur.

And yet, were they all so terrible? Was it so very bad to send something of your own into the world, to take that brave step in search of connection? Was it so disgraceful that they deserved nothing more than the flimsiest of form letters announcing the wholesale rejection of their work?

No, Sara decided. It was not so bad. It was, in fact, to be commended. And with that yearning of theirs matching the yearning of hers, two ears open and listening to one another from opposite sides of the gate, Sara picked up a pen. She began to write.

Dear Andrew Z.,

Excellent use of the freehand line. The figures in this image are at once clearly delineated and yet, due to the color of the bodies (white) and the background color (white), suggest a continuity between interior and exterior worlds. While black might at first be deemed a too obvious choice for your line, its meandering quality evokes a thoughtful, ruminative spirit, perhaps the very line itself embracing this tension between tradition and innovation.

She paused, reading over what she wrote. It sounded good. A little bullshitty, but mostly good. More remarkably, it was all true. The figures were white and the background was white. And while it would be so easy to look at this work and decide instantly that it was a boring half-dead thing surely created by some old man in an attic somewhere, whose last visit to the museum was fifty years ago, that would be too easy. Her observation, her attention, made the work come alive. She pressed on.

In fact, another tension is evoked on the page, one between the elasticity of the line and the hard limits of the rectangular page. The frame could be accidental, incidental, or it could be taken as a deliberate choice. In the latter case, the tension between figure and frame offer a compelling contrast with the lack of tension between foreground and background within the frame itself.

And of course, there is a striking ambiguity in the negative space around the figures themselves, evoking at first what appears to be nothing, but upon closer inspection may be a new figure of sorts. Perhaps even a non-figure, a massive nebulous that calls into question the very primacy viewers place on the human form.

She hesitated. She could feel Theory creeping up on her. Could Andrew Z. handle it? Of course he could. With a pause, then a plunge, she went back in.

A Hegelian interpretation I don’t know if this was your intention, but your work lends itself to the possibility of a Hegelian interpretation. Here we might think about how the thesis (the body) and the antithesis (the surrounding negative space) add up to something greater, a synthesis that leads the viewer to ask about the nature of bodies themselves, human and otherwise.

 

She went on. Talk of the body led her to think (and write) about feminism, to delve (gently, she hoped) into the work of her all time favorite art critic Griselda Pollock, whose pioneering work “What’s Wrong With Images of Women?” had made Sara’s brain cells explode in Introduction to Art History freshman year.

She questioned Andrew Z.’s choice to use the bodies of women at all. She gave him the benefit of the doubt. Surely there was more to it than the knee-jerk objectification of the female form. And likely his choice was not derived from something practical or mundane, such as the fact that almost all the models that came from the nearby art schools were women, young girls mostly in need of cash to support their own artistic ambitions (leading Sara into a brief detour through the rabbit hole of Marxism, a few light comments upon the relationship between market conditions and artistic production).

But no. She could see in the clarity of Andrew Z’s line that it was something else. A seeking, a searching (she paused again; herself seeking and searching for the right words, the best way to reach Andrew Z. in the way he needed to be reached), for something beyond the familiar. His work brought to light questions about not just the body but Body-ness (bodicity?), about gender and power, normality and difference, space, non-space, subjectivity, objectivity and reality itself. And in the line, of course, she could see the signature of no one but Andrew Z.

She threw in that last part, about the signature, to be generous, fearing that she might have lost him, and herself, in a small theoretical maze. And yet, by the end of the letter, which now amounted to seven handwritten pages (she had to use the backs of more rejection letters in order to keep writing), she did feel generous, immensely generous, expansive and vast as the history of art itself, all of it contained within her, pouring through her and heading right for Andrew Z.’s mailbox.

Her heart swelled, her palms prickled. At last, she was doing what she had come to CHARISMA!to do, to make an impact, to build connections, to be the invisible (or not so invisible) hand that ushered artists into the the light of their own brilliance.

Better yet, she had discovered something remarkable in the process, the fundamental arbitrariness at the root of it all. Of course, she had known this intellectually. You couldn’t be a student of Art History, or a student at any liberal arts college for that matter, and not have it beaten into your head each day that beauty and power were interlinked, the one a social construct defined by the other, the two working in tandem to uphold the interests of a ruling class, etc. etc.

But here, writing what was practically a dissertation on the tiny and rather commonplace figure drawings of Andrew Z., she understood this in a way she never had. How one could use language to turn an everyday thing into something powerful and poignant. How one could elevate a tiny artistic gesture into the grandest one, worthy of discussion and debate. How any work of art, and any person for that matter, could be interesting, could be important. All one had to do was stop, think, notice, and observe.

When she glanced at the manila envelopes to her left, the tall stack of cover letters and art images waiting to be evaluated, she did not feel the creeping dread she so often felt, the bleakness of the long afternoon ahead. Instead a giddiness coursed through her, a joy. She would need more paper. She would need a longer workday.

But first: Andrew Z. Was she smiling? She realized she was, faintly, as she at last leaned back to read all that she’d written, her handwriting growing larger and loopier as she’d loosened up to the idea of what she was doing, finding her flow in her own stream of words.

Satisfied, she folded the papers and placed it into Andrew Z’s enclosed self-addressed stamped envelope. She licked the flap, the act feeling profoundly intimate, as though stamping the letter with a kiss, or a secret. 

It was only then, as she pulled the envelope away from her lips and looked up finally, that she noticed the two interns across from her at the table, staring. How long they had been watching her, Sara would not be able to say. Their faces revealed no sign of understanding, or amusement. Only a quiet horror, as if they had been witness to, for the last however many minutes, a rabid animal pacing the floors of her cage.

*

Over the holiday weekend, Sara met her father, Donald, for dinner in the city. His house was such a mess, he always insisted, it was best if they went out. For as long as she could remember, Sara had been meeting her father for dinners in the city. Often they would follow it with a movie, sometimes two movies back to back. “When are you coming home?” he asked her all through college. “I miss you. I love talking to you.” Though of course, it was usually her father who did all the talking, sliding into lecture mode while Sara alternately listened and said “Uh huh,” and “Mm hm,” and tried to fight the vacant stare Donald so often complained his girlfriends gave him whenever he wanted to talk about film.

“I’m so proud of you,” Donald told her now. He rarely drank, but tonight had ordered a Corona (his new girlfriend kept pressing him to go out more, live more, have more fun, and to his credit he seemed to be trying). He’d had three sips and was looking at Sara with dewy eyes.

“Oh,” Sara said, and sipped her own glass of wine. “I’m not even doing all that much.”

“You’re going after what you want. That’s amazing, sweetheart. I tell everyone that you’re working at an arts magazine.”

“You do?”

“I could never do what you’re doing.”

Her father was not lying. In the 70s, Donald had earned his PhD in Film Theory from NYU. He’d been considered a brilliant academic on track for professorship. But things got in his way, things Sara still didn’t fully understand. He eventually gave up his job search and started driving a taxi, his dozens of books on German expressionist cinema and French New Wave gathering dust and mold in his parents’ basement.

She had never told her father, or anyone in her family, about what she was actually doing at CHARISMA!She never told him about the editorial meetings she did not attend, or the interesting conversations she never had with the other editors, or how each day she left work with a sinking feeling in her sternum, an emptiness that made her sway like a bag of bones as she rode the subway home each evening, her hand gripping the overhead rail the only thing seeming to link her to the world.

She never told her mother what the work entailed because she didn’t want to hear her mother’s mini-lecture,Didn’t I tell you so? Dreams are for sleeping, Sara. Now go make some money!Her father, though, truly did believe in Sara, believed she could be unlike him, following her passions in all the ways he never had. She had never told him the truth of her job because she couldn’t stand to break his heart.

Now though, tonight, for the first time in nearly six months, when she thanked him it was genuine. She didn’t have to hide. Maybe she would make it work at the magazine. In her own way. Writing the letters offered a glimpse of something, an open door. She could stay at CHARISMA!for another six months. She could write a hundred letters. In this way, she would make it work. If not for them, those editors who barely knew she was even in the office with them, then for herself, for her father, her grandparents, for everyone that came before and sacrificed so much.

“I appreciate the support, Dad.” She lifted her glass to his, and they toasted. In her father’s large square glasses she saw her own face twice, reflected once in each lens, and she sipped her wine, the liquor burning its way down.

*

When Sara came to work that Tuesday, the corridor leading to the office was silent. This was unusual. Though the editors spoke quietly among themselves, normally at least Karen’s laugh could be heard bellowing down the hall. Sure enough, when Sara came to theCHARISMA!office, no one was there. She checked her watch to make sure the time was right, then thought back to the date, making sure it wasn’t a holiday, that Thanksgiving hadn’t slipped up on her unannounced. But no. It was all a normal day. And the heavy tin door to the office itself was wide open. The desks were covered with papers, books perched open, slides scattered about, computers on.

Sara considered going home. But she never left a job without explanation and worried that if they came back and she wasn’t there, it would look worse. She retrieved her folding chair, which was stacked against the wall, and unfolded it at the table in the middle of the room. Nothing to do, no assignment at all, she stood up again, retrieved a stack of CHARISMA!back issues, and began reading.

She had seen so many of these already, all the months in college when she was preparing for the interview at this job, and then, when she’d gotten the job, the time she spent readying herself for it. Her favorites were always the interviews with artists from abroad.

Karen was always pushing boundaries, culturally, artistically. Sara suspected soon enough there would be an issue dedicated to Muslim artists, that Karen’s response to pending war in the Middle East might be American poets interviewing painters from Iraq, filmmakers in Syria talking to sculptors in Lebanon. If Karen wasn’t already planning it, maybe this would be something Sara could suggest. Her letter-writing escapade, she found just then, had emboldened her, given her a new sense of her place at the magazine, a place which she had forged for herself. And wasn’t that how success happened? It wasn’t handed to you. You had to grab it. Ingenuity and perseverance. She would be ingenious. She would persevere.

A garbage truck backed up, beeping on the street outside. The silence of the office seemed to echo. Where was everyone? Sara could not ingeniously persevere if she was all alone. She turned the pages, continued to read.

Nearly an hour later, footsteps clattered in the hall. Karen burst through the door, a stack of papers in her hands. She went directly to her desk, set the papers down with a thump, sat, scooted her chair in, re-booted her computer, then quickly began typing. If she saw Sara, she did not let on.

Moments later two other editors followed, trailed by the interns, Ingrid and Louise, each of them holding clipboards to their chests. They sat at the table which Sara shared.

“Where were you guys?” Sara whispered.

Ingrid tied her hair up into a ponytail and said, “Editorial meeting.”

“What?” Sara said. “I wasn’t told about the meeting.”

“We usually have them on Mondays,” Ingrid said. “But, like, Columbus Day happened, so.” She shrugged.

“Wait,” Sara said. “You have editorial meetings when I’m not here?”

She had assumed the interns were lower on the CHARISMA!totem pole than she was, had taken comfort in the fact that she was not alone in her disconnection from the job. Never had she dared to think they were on the same level or, dear god, higher. That Ingrid could shrug and style her hair, while talking about editorial meetings like they were on par with lunch breaks and trips to the bathroom, made Sara’s heart hammer so hard her chest hurt.

“It’s the only day the conference room is free.” Ingrid tapped her fingernails on the table. They were red and chipped.

“Why do you need a conference room?” Sara hissed, “When all the editors are right here?”

Another shrug. “Don’t know. Karen likes it in there, I guess.”

In there. Blood roared between Sara’s ears. All this time, and there was an in therethat she had never even known of, never been invited to. And why? Because she only worked three days a week.

And no one, not Joyce, not Karen, not any of the other editors or even the interns themselves, had the foresight or the good will or simply the time to tell her that editorial meetings happened on Monday, in case she wanted to switch her schedule.

It was only when Joyce came in, swaying toward her in her long pencil skirt, two pale thin legs poking out from beneath, that Sara felt her stomach clench in that terrible way it sometimes did before she was about to throw up.

“Um,” Sara said.

Joyce glanced at her. “Oh hi.”

“Hi,” Sara said.

Joyce hovered over the table. She looked at the interns and the interns looked at her. Sara looked at the interns and then they quickly dodged her eyes, lowering them to the table. All three of them reeked of in there.

“How are we all doing,” Joyce said. She sounded curt, hurried, not asking a question so much as cueing everyone to nod and get back to work.

“Actually,” Sara said. “I was wondering if maybe we could talk--”

Footsteps interrupted her. Sara turned to see the familiar face of the young Japanese man who came each afternoon to deliver Joyce’s juice.

“Ito!” Joyce said, and hurried up to retrieve her day’s bottle.

No money was exchanged. Sara wondered if, to save time, Joyce paid online, if maybe she had some kind of juice account set up.

Joyce thanked him, then returned to her desk, bypassing the table of Sara and the interns altogether.

Sara waited a moment, watching the editor twist open the cap of her drink, dig inside her desk for a straw, stick the straw into the bottle with one hand while booting up her computer with the other.

“So…” Sara said, approaching Joyce’s desk.

“Right,” Joyce said. “You wanted to talk.”

“Oh, it’s not a big deal,” Sara said. “It’s just, I missed a meeting today?”

“Uh huh?” Joyce glanced back and forth between Sara and her computer screen.

“Well,” Sara said, watching the computer screen’s bright blue glow fall across Joyce’s face. After a moment the home screen wallpaper appeared, a smiling picture of Joyce’s head pressed against the head of a man. Then, dozens of small white folders began popping up until the faces were submerged.

“Well?” Joyce echoed. The smile she gave Sara was one of infinite impatience.

“The thing is...”

Joyce’s phone rang. Amazingly, she did not pick it up. She pressed a button to quiet it. A red light on the dock blinked violently.

“The thing is,” Sara went on, “I’d love to be part of, you know, a discussion.”

“A discussion?”

“Yeah.” She swallowed. “Yes.”

“A discussion about what?”

“I mean, be part of a meeting?”

“Uh huh,” Joyce said.

“I could come in on Mondays.”

“We can’t pay you for extra work.”

Was that what it sounded like she was asking for? To be paid for extra work? A promotion? She watched as Joyce stirred her straw against the bottle’s plastic edges. Was Joyce even listening to her?

“What I mean is,” Sara said, “I could change my schedule. Maybe do Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday. I could come in on Saturday!”

That last was a joke. No one laughed. Joyce looked alarmed.

“What I mean--” She paused, irritated by her repeated use of What I mean, as though she had to translate herself from herself--“is when you have staff meetings, I would love to participate.”

“Oh.”

“I have so many ideas. I was even thinking, if you weren’t already planning it, we could do a special issue dedicated to Middle Eastern artists. I could work on this by myself. I’ve been reaching out to some artists already. Writing letters.”

“Letters?” Joyce said.

Fuck. Should she tell her about the letters?

“Well, what I mean...” She stopped, bit down on the tip of her tongue.

“What letters?”

Sara stood straight. Whynot tell Joyce about the letters? The editor might find the whole thing amusing, inventive. She might actually be impressed. Sara was certainly impressed with herself, and did not some part of her want Joyce to know, want everyone here to know, what she had been up to? How she was making use of herself, stretching beyond her limits?

“I’ve been, like, writing. To artists. Individually. Just to give them some more specific feedback on their work.”

“Oh?”

“I thought they might appreciate it,” Sara went on. “A more personal connection. From someone at the magazine.”

“That’s great.”

“Really? You think so?”

“I think,” Joyce said, “It’s great that you feel you have so much free time here.”

“Oh.”

Something vibrated. Joyce reached into the pocket of her skirt, pulled out her cell phone, looked at it, whispered “Shit,”then placed the phone on her desk, where it continued to rattle like an animal being electrocuted.

“I just thought,” Sara said, and then found herself mumbling something incoherent even to herself, the words “humanity” and “dignity” and “art” flung in Jackson Pollock fashion at the canvas of Joyce’s blank, distracted face.

She might have rambled on. But suddenly, Joyce held up her hand.“What is it that you want, exactly?”

“Who, me?”

Joyce took a long sip of her green juice, then nodded. “You. Yes. What is it that you want?”

“I just told you.” She tried not to sound petulant. But she could hear a whiny, childlike panic creeping into her voice. “I mean, I want more work. I want to be a bigger part of the magazine.” That didn’t quite sound right. “To domore for the magazine. I want to work here.”

“Do you?”

Was this a trick question?

“It doesn’t actually seem like you do,” Joyce said.

Was it possible to want something so badly that it could seem to others that, in fact, you did not want it at all?

“It’s all I want,” Sara said.

“But you don’t want to do the work we’ve assigned you. You don’t want to come in on the days we’ve asked you to come in.”

“Oh,” Sara said. “But that’s…” That’s what? That doesn’t count, she was thinking. That’s not really working at the magazine. “I want to hustle,” she added. “Really. I do.”

“Well,” Joyce said, already turning away from Sara, already reaching for her phone as she said, “Sometimes hustling means knowing how to wait your turn.”

Sara’s lips parted. She tried to find words, any words. But she couldn’t think of anything to say, nothing at all. What was the proper response to someone taking the book of your entire life, the book that contained all you believed about hard work and passion, about women helping other women, about diligence and persistence and art and love, all you’d ever hoped for and thought and believed about yourself and what you were capable of, and bitch-slapping you across the face with it?

You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

Joyce lifted her cell phone toward Sara. “I have to take this.” Speaking into the person on the phone she said, “Hang on, Steve.” Again she looked up at Sara. “We can mail you your final paychecks.”

Wait. What? Had they decided Sara was leaving? Just like that?

For god’s sake, she could not even experience her first firing properly. If it was even a firing. Somehow, it also seemed like she was quitting, or like quitting was being suggested to her. Which was the same as getting fired. And yet, having realized that, Sara did not immediately move to leave. For a long time, all she could do was stand there, watching Joyce look for some document on her computer, her cell phone at her ear, the red light blinking on her other phone, plastic bottle of green juice half empty beside her.

*

She walked all the way home. Walked through the winds that had picked up their pace and chilled the night air. Past hurrying people, reaching for a taxi or yapping on their phones. Past bars where groups of friends opened doors and hurried inside, restaurants whose street-side windows showed couples talking across the table, friends laughing around bottles of beer.

She knew it would be a long time before she forgot what happened, the ringing machines on Joyce’s desk, the flame of rage alighting inside her as she had picked up her backpack to go. How no one, not even the interns, waved goodbye to her. How Karen Mueller did not even look up as Sara left the room.

All that study and preparation she’d put into working at--she didn’t want to even think the name of the magazine--and it was over in a flash. Over, she had to admit, before it ever really began. Was this what it was like, this working world, this world of grown-ups? Was it all just as Hyphen had described, a place where you stopped noticing interesting things, stopped giving a shit about other people? Where dreams were for sleeping?

Perhaps she should have been more assertive. Perhaps she should have been less assertive. Maybe she should have done a million things differently. Waited her goddam turn.

Heading onto the Brooklyn Bridge, she was struck with new pangs of grief, the lampposts and railings still plastered with faces of people, so many months later. The wind and rains had already slashed at the flyers, crinkling the papers, loosening them from the metal. Here and there words could be made out, alongside phone numbers.

PLEASE HELP, read one flyer. MISSING! The black and white photo showed a smiling young woman, her mouth full of bright, healthy teeth. Sara looked at the woman’s face until she felt her eyes burn and her throat turn raw, then she couldn’t look anymore.

She continued through downtown, then Chinatown, then the financial district, and arrived at the Brooklyn Bridge. Bikers zipped by; a few eager tourists wearing I 🖤NY sweatshirts laughed and shoved past her. The bridge’s wooden slats felt uneven beneath her tired feet. Through each plank she could see the river below, a dense black pool visible only by the lighted windows of skyscrapers in the distance, the small yellow and white windows casting reflections upon the waves.

She continued on, not stopping to look, as so many others had, at that brokenskyline, to marvel over this city that she loved, which was her home, and its giant punch to the face. She might, on another day, at another time, as she had so often already. But this evening, she could not bear it.

By the time she got home, her brain mercifully numbed by cold and exhaustion, it was evening. Her mother wasn’t home, a note on the counter announcing she’d gone to book club at her friend Sharon’s house. Just as well, as Sara still wasn’t sure what she would say to her parents, how and when and if she would even tell them what happened.

The light in the living room was blaring. From the downstairs entrance she heard the TV, the excited banter of sportscasters, a crowd erupt in cheer.

Her brother was lying on his belly on the carpeted floor. He wore khaki shorts and he rocked his hairy legs back and forth as he read from one of the textbooks open in front of him, pages of notes scattered around his elbows.

Sara collapsed on the armchair above him, watched as a woman on TV held a diamond bracelet in the palm of her hand, grinning wide, a price and phone number flashing at the bottom of the screen.

“Did you know,” Michael said, “that there is almost three pounds of gray matter in your brain?”

Sara kicked off her shoes. “No,” she said.

“Did you know that our sun is only one of 100 billion in the galaxy?”
She tried to picture the sun, the stars floating in all that vast darkness.

“If Andromeda galaxy were to collide with the Milky Way, two stars probably wouldn’t even collide because of the incredible distances between them.”

“I didn’t know that,” Sara said.

This time, she didn’t have to work for the image to appear. She sank deeper into the chair, closed her eyes, saw it instantly, all those stars spinning, never making their way toward one another.

“All that distance,” she said. “Incredible.”

The lump that formed in her throat then was dense and ugly, unmoving no matter how she tried to swallow it down.

“Michael,” she said. “At work today--”

Her brother lifted off the floor, angled his hips to the side, and farted.

*

It was about one month later when a manila envelope arrived, CHARISMA!’s return address in the upper left corner. Sara wanted to throw the whole thing in the trash, but wouldn’t, of course, needing her paychecks, paltry though they were.

The envelope was heavy, weighted with more than the two envelopes that would contain her earnings. Had Joyce enclosed a copy of the magazine which, by now, had likely gone to print? (Sara hadn’t looked for it anywhere, was afraid to discover her own name omitted from the masthead.) The contents didn’t feel like a magazine, however.

She went to the front stoop, hoping the fresh air would feel good on her skin as she took in whatever the envelope contained. The day was cold but clear and bright, the sun (distant star, heated by its weight) high and luminous, forcing Sara to squint under its gleam. She sat, peeled back the flap.

There were five envelopes in total. Two contained her paychecks from CHARISMA! The other three were letters, addressed to her, care of the magazine, the return addresses distant but familiar as friends from long ago. Lucia G. Emily C. Andrew Z.

She chuckled to herself. Well then. They had found her there, at the magazine. Her efforts had not been for naught, in the end. She’d been fired, but, as the saying went, not for nothing. Here indeed was something.

The envelope from Andrew Z. was too appealing not to open first. He’d written everything in heavy black ink, all capital letters. She tore the flap, unfolded the paper. The note was short, taking up only one third of the page. The handwriting was jagged, the ink practically etched into the paper as if Andrew Z. had been trying to tear through the page with his pen.

SARA C., HOW FUCKING DARE YOU. I DID NOT ASK FOR YOUR OPINIONS ABOUT MY WORK. I AM A SERIOUS ARTIST AND I TAKE MY WORK SERIOUSLY.WHAT ARE YOU SOME FUCKING INTERN??? WHY DON’T YOU GO BACK TO THE LIBERAL ARTS WORMHOLE YOU CRAWLED OUT OF AND DIE THERE.

She read the letter several times, astounded by what she was seeing on the page. She could not remember the last time anyone yelled at her, and here was a veritable tantrum rising through the page. A vein pulsed in her forehead. She looked up, around, as if anyone on the street might be witness to this, might hear the letter by its untamed roar.

Finally she put the letter aside, took a deep breath, picked it up and read it again, put it aside again, then opened the others.

The next two were different in substance, but not in kind. One was simple, written in red crayon, reminding Sara of a ransom note.

WHO CARES you pathetic asshole.

And the next, in purple pen script, slightly more genteel, but no less raging:

Dear Sara C.,

Is this some kind of a joke? What am I to make of this? You want advice? Here’s some advice: Fuck off.

Clearly the people who submitted their artwork to CHARISMA!were a sensitive lot. They were all very upset.

Or else, perhaps in some kind of sinister diabolical plot, Joyce or the interns, or all of them together, had cherry-picked the letters, sharing with Sara only the angry ones, the cruelest ones.

No. She dismissed that thought as outrageous. They did not care enough to do that. They had never cared enough.

But Sara cared. And so did Andrew Z., and Emily C., and Lucia G. They cared a great deal. Cared enough to write back, cared enough to scream right in her face.

She must have read through each letter ten more times. As though trying to commit them to memory, not just the words themselves but the tone of them, the volume. She wanted to hear each one of these letters over and over, for the rest of this day and the next. Because they were beautiful. They, not the original images, or her highfalutin analyses, were the true works of art. Or perhaps the art was all of it, everything, taken together, now culminating in this.

Raging fury. This pitch-perfect howl at the world. A singular communal scream.

She stood up, letters in hand, and walked down the steps of her stoop. She had nowhere to go that day, no interview, no shift at her restaurant. For now that was fine. The sunlight overhead filtered through the black branches of the tree near her house. She took up a spot there, feeling the wind, the flickering of light on her face, and she watched the movement of the leaves, how they moved close and apart, overlapping ribbons of darkness. She observed the shadows, how they lay flat and broad against the sidewalk pavement. How they clung to the ground, traveled up the gate in front of her house, tickled the nearby tree and climbed up its speckled bark.

She stood for a long time, tracing the shadows with her eyes. How their edges darkened just before brightening. How they swayed, swerved, transformed into new shapes against every new source of light. How they refused to disappear.



 Copyright © 2018 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved