ABOUT MY NOVEL
I’ve been working on this book since my early twenties, in stops and starts, and only just recently have I realized that perhaps I should try outlining. Now that I’ve gotten that under my belt, the writing process is going super-smoothly. You may see some characters you recognize from my life, and that is no accident. Lots of this book is inspired by my personal experience, including many of the people I’ve encountered. Names have always been changed to protect the weirdos I love, and many characteristics are mixed around or completely fictionalized. It‘s a fun guessing game.
At any rate, enjoy this draft of the first chapter of Regan Landau’s first novel, Ravel/Unravel.
“There’s an exit sign over one of the doors at my office, but on the door itself, there’s another sign that says, ‘Not an Exit.’”
There’s a brief silence, and over the phone line I can hear Heather’s glasses hit her desk. She’s forever fiddling with her glasses, dropping them several times a day—more frequently when she’s frustrated, usually with me. “That’s why you called?”
I pin the phone to my ear with my shoulder and poke around in my desk drawer for a rubber band. I don’t need one, but the idea of playing with one is in my head, so finding a rubber band becomes my mission. For what is definitely not the first time, I wonder why thoughts keep falling out of my head, and where they go when they do. “What, are you busy?”
“No,” Heather says. Then quickly, “Well, yeah, kind of.”
“Liar. You’re shopping online.” Wite-Out, pens galore, one of those scary claw-looking staple removers—but no rubber bands. Since I am only looking for something to entertain my hands while I talk, I settle for the staple remover.
“Well, okay, yes, kind of, but it’s for work,” says Heather.
“What could your work possibly need you to shop for? All you know how to buy is convincing knock-off designer purses.”
Heather laughs her funny little snorty laugh. “Shows what you know. I’ll have you know I’m the Shackle & Sparks master of finding toner bargains.”
“Ooh, exciting.” I tip the phone’s mouthpiece under my chin as my boss sidles up beside my desk. She’s always approaching me timidly, even when I’m clearly wasting company time with personal phone calls, as though she doesn’t want to interrupt to ask me to do actual work. It’s possible she hasn’t been a supervisor long enough to fully grasp how authoritative she should be, which is fine with me. Or maybe being scared of her employees is a long-standing trait; I’m really not sure how long she’s been around. Her age is impossible to estimate; with her unremarkable navy pantsuit and coordinating sensible loafers, she could be anywhere between 26 and 46.
“Hi, Laura,” I prompt, since she seems like she’s not going to speak until I do.
“Alexandra, can you help me with something, please?” Laura whispers. It’s almost certain she isn’t going to ask me to do anything strenuous; most likely it’ll be a small, insignificant task that’ll fall squarely within my job duties, as do most small, insignificant tasks around the office.
“Hang on, Heather.” I set the receiver down on my desk and smile my perkiest work-smile at Laura. “Sure, what’s up?”
She smiles back, but hesitantly, as though apologizing in advance for what she’s about to say. “Frances is about to head home for the day. She’s having—” (Laura drops her already low volume entirely to mouth the words, ‘girl problems.’) “Do you think you could… you know… take over until five?”
“No problem, no problem.” Frances is the receptionist, which puts her just the tiniest bit below my legal secretary position on the law firm’s food chain. Seems to me that she claims to have “girl problems” about once a week, so, frequently, I have the honor of taking over the switchboard at the end of the day. I suspect Frances is really getting a head-start on happy hour.
“Thanks so much,” Laura says, patting my shoulder a little (at least, I see her pat my shoulder; I don’t actually feel her hand make contact). “You’re a great team player.”
“No problem,” I assure her one last time before she scuttles away. I pick up the phone to hear Heather humming a little. I ask, “Did you hear that, Heather? I have to go be Frances for an hour.”
“Aww, ‘girl problems’ again?”
“Yup. Can I put you on hold while I go up front to reception?”
“Just call me back in a few minutes. I have to run something down to the graphics guys before they head home. I’ll be back at my desk in five.”
“Supercool. Bye.” I gather up my stuff, which really only entails my purse and my day planner. I travel light at work, since the desk isn’t really mine, but one of three that are shared by a rotation of several part-timers like me. If the desk were mine, I’d stock the drawers with rubber bands to play with. I decide to steal the staple remover. Yeah, Zan. Way to stick it to the man. I drop it in my purse before heading toward the glass-enclosed reception desk up front.
A few paralegals give me a nod or smile as I pass them in the side hallway, but no fewer than three associates, obviously too busy and important to make eye contact, hustle by wordlessly. Mostly I’m used to this, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still piss me off a little.
I knock on the door to Frances’s little cage-like thing. She looks up and buzzes me in and greets me, “What’s up, girl?” Frances is thirty-ish, but apparently has no idea. She talks and dresses like an extra on Hannah Montana—today she’s sporting a white denim mini-skirt with a glitter-print teeshirt and pigtails.
“Heya, Frances,” I say as she scoops up her shoulderbag and we carefully swap places inside the see-through cubicle. “Hope you feel better.”
“Thanks, Zan, you’re the best.” She gives me a toothy smile and waves as she walks out the door on the left—the one of the two marked, Not an Exit.
Which reminds me, I need to call Heather back. But first, I put on the headset for the reception desk phone, then dial her work line from my cell phone. It’s possible that no one will call the law office between now and 5pm, when my shift ends, but wearing the headset makes me feel weirdly important.
“Heather Cross.” She is breathless as she picks up on the fourth ring.
“Hope you didn’t run to pick up the phone. But it sounds like you did.” Ah, my staple remover. I start opening and closing it like a puppet while I talk. It occurs to me that with my two phones and talking staple remover in my glass cage, I probably look like a crazy person on display in a zoo exhibit, but it’s almost the end of my shift, and I’m tired of covering up the crazy.
“Aww, I thought it’d be Cutie from the art department,” she sighs.
“Didn’t you just come from there? Why would he call you?”
“Because I’m a goddess.”
“Doesn’t everyone in your office know you’re engaged?”
“Oh, I’m just kidding around. Yeah, he knows I’m engaged. But you remember this guy, right? Cutie? He was out with everybody a few weeks ago at that dirty pub on the Westside.”
“Oh, yeah. He was cute. But I kind of got the gay vibe from him.”
“He is gay. Which is why it’s okay for me to pretend to flirt.”
“What was his name?”
Heather makes a hrumph sound. “Tragically… Art.”
“Art the Art guy? That is tragic.”
“I insist on calling him Arthur.”
“That’s worse. Hey, are you coming over tonight?” I ask.
“Is Seyda cooking?” Seyda is my roommate. She’s working as a waitress, but has the talent in the kitchen to be preparing restaurant food instead of serving it. She likes trying out her chef skills on me, and Heather’s always happy to “help out,” too.
I flip open my day planner. When she’s planning a dinner, Seyda usually sticks a Post-It in my calendar. “Looks like… I’m not sure, her writing’s scribbly; I think it says cannelloni. That’s pasta, right?”
“Yeah, it’s yummy cheese-stuffed pasta. I’m totally there.” Heather pauses, possibly to pick up her glasses.
“I have a coupon for half-off a 3-month supply of disposable contacts, if you want it.”
Another pause. “What?”
“Didn’t you just drop your glasses?”
“How the hell did you know that?”
“Because I know everything. You can’t stop playing with your glasses to save your life. Either I’m going to staple them to your face, or you need to get contacts.”
“Whatever. They make me look smart.”
“Not when they’re on the floor, they don’t.”
There’s a rustle on the line as Heather covers the receiver and presumably takes something from a co-worker. For someone in an entry-level job, she always seems to have lots of responsibilities—whereas I get asked to fill in for the receptionist. I am wildly jealous.
“Okay, I’m back, sorry,” Heather says a moment later. “You’re leaving at five?”
“Yeah. If I stay longer than I’m scheduled, I get griped at for going over on my hours.” Thirty hours a week is my limit. Just two hours away from benefits, and a regular schedule, and a job I can be proud of. I still haven’t come up with the courage to tell my parents that my first job out of college is part-time. It’s not easy to hide, since they only live about 10 minutes away from me, and I see them several times a week. But as long as I have a roommate, I make enough at the firm to live on—and enough that my family won’t suspect my secret.
“I’m leaving in just a bit to pick up Matthew and take him to the airport, so how about I come by for dinner a little after six?” Matthew—always Matthew, never Matt—is Heather’s fiancé. He travels pretty often, sometimes out of the country, for the same PR firm where Heather works. Their wedding is still almost a year away, but when Matthew’s out of town, she recruits me to help in wedding planning.
“Where are you picking him up from?”
“He’s at home. He knocked off early a few hours ago to pack.”
“Where’s he headed this time?”
“Philly, I think. Yeah, Philly.”
“Do you want to go out after we eat? I could go for some dancing. Maybe some karaoke. Definitely some adult beverages.”
“Eh… I guess so. I have no clean clothes. At all. I’ll be going out in sweatpants and a sports bra. Maybe I can dig up a scarf to top the whole thing off.”
“I can lend you a Viking helmet. And I think I have some leg warmers somewhere.”
Heather snort-laughs. “If you want to play dress-up on me from your closet, then I’ll go out.”
“Fabulous.” I half-wave as one of the attorneys passes through the lobby. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t even glance my way. I punch the button on the switchboard indicating that ‘Madsen, Sue’ is now out of the office. “Want to make it a girls’ night, or should I call Will?” My brother.
“Whatever’s fine. Yeah, if you feel like karaoke, of course call Will.” Heather shuffles something around. “Alright, Zan, I’m taking off. I’ll stop by in a little bit.”
“Great. Tell Matthew to have fun in Philly.”
Heather makes a kissy noise and we hang up.
My brother Will is a computer geek—I use this term only because I know he uses it himself. He’s enamored with all things high tech, and loves taking apart and rebuilding computers, a talent I can’t wrap my head around. That tiny wiry thing makes it think faster? What the hell is RAM? Not only does Will know the answers, but building the perfect PC—the bionic PC, if you will: better, stronger, faster—is completely exciting to him. He works at a computer repair and resale shop, so he gets to do this all day long. Will built the computer Seyda uses, completely out of spare parts he just had laying around. We call it her Frankenstein computer.
I dial Will’s store from my cell phone. After just one ring, he picks up. “Hey, dude.”
“Do your customers appreciate your casual approach to service?”
“Caller ID. It’s been around for a while, you know.”
I frown at the bulky switchboard phone. “We don’t have it here. I just noticed that.”
“Aww, poor lawyers. Can’t afford phone upgrades. Have to spend their retainers on… socks for their poor, starving children.”
“Boohoo, right?” The massive phone rings, as though I’ve insulted it and it must defend itself. Into the headset, I say in my phone voice, “Borland Grover Rosario and Lee… one moment, please.” I transfer the call, then return to my cell phone with my normal voice. “Wanna karaoke tonight?”
“Zan, it’s Wednesday.”
“All the more reason. We should reward ourselves for making it this far into the work week, as motivation to survive one more day.”
Will snorts. “That sounds like a speech you’ve practiced. Wait, do you have a variation of that same pitch for going out on a Thursday? Because I think you’ve used it on me before.”
“As I recall, it worked.”
“It always works. Yeah, I’ll go. But I have to finish cleaning out this hard drive, and a few other little things, so I’ll call you in a couple of hours.”
“Right on. See ya.”
Will and I have the best kind of brother-sister relationship of anyone I know, I think. He’s eighteen months older than I am, which put us at about the same maturity level growing up. We’ve never really fought in the typical sibling way, and in high school, we pretty much shared the same clan of friends. Both of us moved back to our home city, Dallas, after going away to the same university. We talk several times a day and go out almost every weekend. Although I’m very close to Heather, whom I met in our sorority, and Seyda, whom I’ve known since childhood, I’d call Will my best friend.
I check the clock.
Still another thirty-five minutes.
This is not the job I want to have forever. This is not where I pictured myself ending up as a “grown-up.”
I really didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life when I entered college, so after my freshman year, I declared a psychology major—mainly because it seemed like it would leave my options wide open job-wise, effectively delaying any decision until I graduated. (Also, because the thought of being a business major, like more than half of my sorority sisters were, bored me to tears.) But when I graduated this past spring, I found myself facing the same indecision in the real world. I took this legal secretary job because it seemed like a safe place to tread water until inspiration struck as to what I want to be when I “grew up.”
It hasn’t yet.
The job itself isn’t terrible. Mostly I do whatever odd jobs attorneys need—make six copies of this-and-that, call a courier to pick up this summons, schedule an appointment with Blah-Blah Client. The hours are relatively good, too. Four days a week, including some Saturdays, I work either five or six hour shifts, for a grand total of fewer than 30 hours a week. The firm has a policy that legal secretaries have to work there for a year to earn full-time—with which comes health insurance, paid vacation, and a slightly increased degree of respect. I guess the firm has had a hard time finding people willing to wait for a whole year to earn that respect. Of the three current legal secretaries, all of us are part time, and I’m not even halfway toward getting that year under my belt.
“Borland Grover Rosario and Lee… one moment, please.” I put the call through and pull out the notebook I always carry in my purse, opening it to a fresh page. I pause a moment while deciding whether to make a grocery list, or a list of possible career chances. Finally I title the page “Job Search.” Yeah. I’ll brainstorm and write down every career I ever wanted to pursue. No idea is too “out there,” no job too silly.
Nothing comes to me.
I tap my pen on the page, trying to get the juices flowing. I picture myself at 15—at 10—at 5—and try to remember what my great ambitions were.
Oh! I’ve got something. After seeing “The Little Mermaid” and learning the characters weren’t real, but actors’ voices set to animation, I wanted to be a cartoon voice. I’m hesitant to write it down. Is that a real job? How does one even get started in that business? No job’s too silly, I remind myself, and write down, “Voice-Over Artist.”
Let’s see… there was a time when I wanted to be a dancer. Although it rarely reflects in my grace these days, I actually took several years of ballet lessons. And although I quit when I was 11, I make myself write, “Ballerina.”
Then there was the period in fourth and fifth grades when I couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew. Feeling a little silly, I add “Detective” to the list.
In high school, I was in several plays and musicals—never as the lead role, but usually as a secondary comic relief character. I wasn’t great at acting, singing, or dancing, but apparently in high school, it’s enough to be adequate at all three. I write “Broadway Actress,” then begin doodling flowers in the margin.
Was there no point in my life when I knew I had a purpose on the planet? Had I never really wanted to be a teacher, or a veterinarian, or a cop? It makes me sort of sad that I could be saying “Borland Grover Rosario and Lee” for the rest of my life, if only for the sole reason that I can’t think of anything better to do.
I spend the remainder of the shift staring out the glass reception booth at the “exit/not an exit.” A few minutes after five, I call Laura to ask if anyone needs anything done before I leave (they don’t), and I set the switchboard to auto-pickup. As I stand to go, I tear the sad little “Job Search” list out of my notebook and wad it up in my fist. Something stops me from throwing it away, though, and I drop it in my purse instead. I dial my home number from my cell phone (we’re probably the last people on the planet to still have a landline) as I walk out to my car.
“Helloooo?” Seyda and I have caller ID at home, of course, but she answers the phone like this even when she doesn’t know it’s me.
“One of the doors going out of the law firm has an exit sign over it, but there’s another sign on the door that says ‘Not an Exit.’”
Seyda giggles, which makes me laugh, because her giggle sounds like she’s just saying the words, “ha ha.” She laughs back harder, because she swears my laugh sounds like, “hee hee.” We’ve had many dangerous chain reactions like this in the fifteen or so years I’ve known her.
“See, Heather didn’t think that was funny. Maybe my delivery was off.”
“What’re you doing?” asks Seyda.
“I’m just leaving the office. Need anything before I get home?”
“Umm…” She pauses, presumably to survey the kitchen for potentially missing ingredients. “No, I think we’re square. Is it just you for dinner tonight, or are Heather and Matthew mooching, too?”
“Heather’s mooching. Matthew’s doing his jet-setting Matthew thing.” I look both ways and jog across the street to the parking lot. (No mean feat in the highly impractical but impossibly cute heels I’m breaking in today.) “Hey, I’m thinking of rounding up the usual suspects to head out to Artiste after dinner. You in?”
“Eh, I have to work the day shift tomorrow. I don’t know.” Her tone leads me to believe this will be an easy sell.
“I’m not working tomorrow, but I’m not planning on staying out late. Maybe home by ten or eleven. You can handle that with the day shift, right?”
“I guess… except that I haven’t done laundry in years. Do you have anything clean I can wear?” Seyda asks sweetly.
“Why are my friends disgusting slobs? Heather said the same thing, but at least she has an excuse—with the ‘no-washer-and-dryer-in-the-apartment’ thing. You have a laundry room three feet from your bedroom.”
“But I’m a busy woman! Maybe I should hire someone to do it.”
I’m baffled. “Pay me to do it. Hell, I’ll do it for free. It’s laundry. It’s no work.”
“Yeah, but then there’s the putting it away. I hate putting it away. I’m going to become a millionaire when I invent disposable underwear.”
“Feel free to raid my closet.” I unlock my car, and, as is my driving habit, light a cigarette as I start the engine.
“Oh, don’t worry, I already am,” says Seyda. Now that she mentions it, over the phone line, I can hear the scraping of wire hangers on my aluminum closet bar. “Hey, did you plan on wearing this weird Stevie Nicks shirt any time soon?”
I wedge the phone between my ear and shoulder as I let my mind slip into autopilot for the short commute home. “I don’t know, probably not. But whatever, wear it—because, well, I can always wash it tomorrow if I change my mind.”
“You’re just so domestic, aren’t cha, Zan?” Her voice is heavy with good-natured sarcasm. “Little Susie Homemaker. You’re going to make such a good trophy wife some day.”
“Should I make that my goal, then? To find me a rich guy I can drag down the aisle? Then I can spend absolutely all day long sitting on a sofa in the parlor, trying to figure out my purpose in life.”
Seyda tsks like a doting mother. “I don’t like it when you talk like that, babygirl. And, you know, it seems like this is happening to you a lot these days. You leave work all brooding and melancholy, talking about your ‘purpose.’ I don’t think that job is good enough for you. You have too much down-time to sit around and be… introspective. You just get yourself all worked up and feeling bad about yourself.”
I kind of sigh, easing onto the interstate. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I’d be feeling the same way if I were flipping burgers, or selling pharmaceuticals or whatever. I think until I can figure out the direction I want my life to take, I’ll just keep wishing I already had that direction.”
“I guess I just don’t really get this need you have to ‘find direction.’ The way I see it, you’re healthy, you’re young, you have fabulous friends, not to mention the coolest roommate on the planet—but you keep second-guessing everything that’s brought you this far, with every minute you spend wondering what you could have done differently that would have put you closer to some great goal that you can’t even define.” She stops, and I picture her making her ‘talking-faster-than-she-can-think’ face—her mouth continuing to open and close, while her brain catches up on its job to string together the right words. “This is your life. This is your purpose. To learn and to be and to experience and to love. It’s my purpose, too. To enjoy the ride.”
“Wow, that was very Dr. Phil of you.”
“Zan, don’t be a butthead. I’m serious. I want you to be happy, and that place is making you very unhappy.”
“Well—you’re probably right. About all of it. Including the job thing. But I don’t know what I can do about it now. I can’t just leave…”
“Yeah, you could,” she challenges. “Why couldn’t you?”
“Well, I could, but I just… can’t. Maybe I’m scared that…” Now it’s my turn to struggle to articulate what I mean to say. “Maybe the next job will leave me feeling just the same way. Maybe I’ll go through my whole life unsatisfied because I’m not… great yet.”
A sympathetic chuckle from Seyda. “Sweetie, if that’s all you need, I can tell you that right now. You’re great.”
I smile. “I’d probably believe it more if you said it like Tony the Tiger.”
“Of course you would. And that’s another reason that YOU’RRRRE GRRRREAT!” Her sudden roar makes me laugh out loud—(“hee hee”)—which, predictably, gets Seyda tickled, too—(“ha ha”)—until we’re both breathless with laughter.
I gasp, “Okay, maybe my purpose is to go ‘hee hee’ for you.”
“See? I told you.”
“I’ll be home in a few.”
“See you. Drive safely.”
After eating the evening’s cannelloni, Heather and Seyda are chomping at the bit to pick out what they’re going to wear to karaoke night at Artiste. I even have to chide them about leaving their dirty dishes on the table, but I manage to shame my friends only into piling them into the sink instead.
“This is really adorable, guys,” I tell the two of them. We’ve piled into my room, flipped through my closet, and we’re now decked out in our wardrobe selections. “You two didn’t even want to go out tonight, and now you’re all giddy about it.”
“Maybe not ‘giddy,’” counters Heather, “but there is definitely something motivating about wearing new stuff, even if it’s not new.”
“That is new, actually.” I indicate the blue top she’s wearing. I reach around Heather’s blond braid, pull a price tag out from under the collar, and pull it off with a pop. She gives me an apologetic face, making a move as though she’s going to take the top off again, but I hold up a hand. “Nope. Doesn’t matter. You’re absolutely wearing it tonight, because it looks hot on you.”
“It does,” says Seyda. We all turn to face the mirror over my dresser.
Heather says to Seyda’s reflection, “We look like we’re an army of Zans.”
“What’s wrong with an army of Mes?” I reach into my dresser drawer and grab a belt for Seyda, which I hand her, and another one for me. “That’d be a totally anti-conflict army.”
Seyda flashes a peace sign as we all walk out into the living room. “Make love, not war.”
Heather laughs. “Which reminds me: where have all the flowers gone, by the way?”
“Should all three of us be wearing dark jeans?” Seyda asks. She twirls in front of the sliding doors to the patio, trying to examine her reflection in the glass against the backdrop of the darkening treeline outside. “Are we too matchy-matchy? Are we Charlie’s Angels?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I must have missed a memo. Are beggars now supposed to be choosers?” I tease, grabbing my car keys off the kitchen counter and dropping them into my purse.
Heather wiggles her booty at me in my (inarguably adorable on her) jeans and declares, “I think we look perfect. And thank you, sweet benevolent Alexandra, for blessing us with wardrobe privileges.”
I grin. “Any time.”
“So we’re ready to go?” Seyda picks her purse up off of the couch.
“I’m ready to rock,” I say. “I’m just going to powder my nose, and we’ll go.” I head down the hall to my bathroom and shut the door.
What happens next, as usual, is repulsive but fails to repulse me.
Each action, by now, is routine.
Turn on faucet.
Use one hand to twist hair into a makeshift updo, the other to lift toilet seat.
Crouch slightly, bend at waist.
Years of repetition also mean I’ve developed an internal vocabulary for each action. By now, I don’t need to use a hand; my mind considers my hands-free version to be squeezing from the inside. I gag and vomit until the insides of my eyes throb. I don’t think the word vomit: I think, release.
It takes less than three minutes before I’m satisfied that I’m sufficiently hollow. Not bad, I think—sometimes it takes as much as twenty to begin to feel that pleasant empty sensation, so much like a high. Flushing and straightening up, I rip off a square of toilet paper and use it to wipe away the mascara smudges from under my watery eyes.
From down the hall, I hear Heather shout, “Hey, can I get in there before we go?”
“Yeah, I’m done,” I call back. I pat my cheeks as I look at my reflection. Pink, but passable. I open the door.
They won’t notice a thing.
They never have.