Chapter 1

"Ginger, you there!"

Even for my mother this was a strange way to start a conversation. The ringing telephone had cut my shower short. I secured the towel wrapped around me. "Where else would I be Monday at eight-thirty in the morning?" A mere fashion assistant at À la Mode magazine, I was supposed to be at work in half an hour. But my boss was my best friend from college, and Sam wouldn’t be in until eleven.

"Then why you don’t answer the phone quickly? I rang and rang! I worry nobody home!" My mother was still shouting. I thought I heard traffic in the background—the same rapid-fire honks that were coming in through the open window. Why was she calling from the street? What was she doing on my street? I spun toward the window, my wet hair whipping me in the face. There, directly below on the sidewalk, was her black head and bright green Chanel suit.

"Mom? Why aren’t you in Milwaukee? Did something happen? Is something wrong?"

"Nothing not wrong in Milwaukee."

"Then what are you doing in New York?" I asked, somewhat relieved.

"I come to fix your life."

I laughed in surprise. "And how are you going to do that?"

"I gonna find you a good Korean husband."

"What?" I said, not because I didn’t hear her but because I couldn’t believe the inevitable had arrived already.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Korean mother in possession of a single adult daughter is in want of a professional Korean son-in-law. This maxim is so incontrovertible, this proclivity so genetically hardwired, it was a veritable miracle I’d made it this far, to my twenty-seventh year, unhitched.

"Open the door," she said.

The inevitable wasn’t my succumbing to her matrimonial wishes—I needed a husband like Gloria Steinem needed a name tag—but my mother’s attempting to fix me up. She’d tried when I was in graduate school, but I’d fended her off by claiming to be too busy to think about men. Not an entire lie. Though, instead of studying, I was occupied coming up with excuses to give my dissertation adviser, eluding chatty freshmen who wanted to discuss the papers they were writing for me, and cursing the admissions people who believed me when I said in my application that I wanted to be an English professor. I’d also managed to bat down a bachelor she lobbed at me several months after I left Madison. But now I had no excuse, no protection. Almost a year in Manhattan, fourteen months since I’d abandoned my dissertation on unpublished subversive female texts, I still didn’t have Life Plan B. My job, a stopgap measure, was anything but demanding, and my mother knew that my evenings and weekends were free.

I dropped the phone, and tempted though I was not to let her into the building, I held down the button on the wall that would release the lock on the door downstairs. I scanned the walk-in closet that passed for my apartment. Boxes of books stood against the wall where the movers had stacked them. The bed was a jumble of pillows and twisted sheets. Clothes, shoes, and magazines carpeted the wood floor and adorned the secondhand couch. Beer bottles, some upright and others on their sides, occupied the kitchen counter like a small army on furlough the morning after. The slovenliness wouldn’t have surprised my mother, but the beer bottles stoppered with cigarette butts would.
I didn’t have a lot of time. It was a fourth-floor walk-up, and my mother was fifty-nine, but she was in great shape. I grabbed a shopping bag, and with my arm swiped everything on the counter into it. The sound of shattering glass was sort of exhilarating. I was trying to pluck out a plate from the bag, when the phone rang again.

"Ginger, you are what apartment? That why I call in first place."

I gave her the number, but instead of going to the buzzer, I ran with the Saks bag to the door, down the hallway, and to the garbage chute. I hated contributing perfectly recyclable bottles to a landfill, but apparently, when things came down to the wire, I cared more about saving my butt than the environment. My mother didn’t approve of drinking or smoking, and I didn’t want to discuss my unladylike behavior. It was better that she continued living in the dark.

A policy I generally adhered to.

"Mom, did it work?" I asked into the intercom, wiping the sweat on my brow with the back of my hand. Through the curtainless window, the summer sun was doing its best to make the studio unbearable.

"I still wait for the buzzer."

"Huh, that’s strange. I’ll try again."

I’d managed to turn the fan around so it was blowing the stale air out the window when she knocked.

I opened the door wide. She was flushed from the climb up, but she looked fine, the same as always. From her short, puffed-out hair that made her head look disproportionately big to her bone-thin, impeccably dressed body, she was, to my mind, the Korean Nancy Reagan. I took her suitcase from her and reeled backward from the unexpected weight.

"I have to go to work," I said by way of greeting.

"I happy to see you too." She stood on her toes—even with heels on, she was a half-foot shorter than me—and pecked me on the cheek. Regretting my brusqueness, I started to wrap my arms around her, but she shrugged them off. "You wet." She walked around me and into the apartment.

Readjusting my slipping towel, I followed her to the couch but remained standing. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, unsure of what to say or do. I certainly wasn’t going to bring up the husband thing. Her relentless drive to get me to the altar was mortifying, and her requirement that this hypothetical husband be Korean put me in a particular pickle, as I had never met an Asian man I wanted to date, let alone spend the rest of my life with. She didn’t know about my discriminatory taste, just as she didn’t know about the non-Korean men I’d mamboed with in the past. (I didn’t dance with them for long—and I made sure they understood I was not long-waltz material.)

I couldn’t tell her. When my older brother, George, defied her and married a white woman, my mother made me promise she wouldn’t lose me the same way. Granted, I was only fourteen when I made this vow, hardly a legally binding age. But I was all she had. My father left us when I was four.

She waved me out of the way. Sitting in an elongated triangle of light coming in from the window, she surveyed the apartment. It was the first time she was seeing it; I’d insisted on moving without her help. The sun made her squint and brought out the wrinkles around her eyes. She looked tired, stooped a little, the way she had after I dropped out of school and she hustled me out of Madison and temporarily into her house. I’d been planning on staying longer on campus, treading water until I figured out my next step, but she and the movers appeared at my door the first Saturday after I formally bailed from my program.

Slowly, she shook her head and clucked her tongue. "What a dump," she pronounced. A real estate agent, she was probably thinking of the house I could buy in Milwaukee, paying the same monthly mortgage as I was paying rent. "You can do better."

"Not on my salary." As it was, she was helping me with the rent, along with food, utilities, and miscellaneous extravagances. Fashion assistants earned well below the median income of college graduates, and perforce lived beyond their means.

"No, never on your salary." She got to her feet and tugged on my cheek. It hurt. "But with doctor salary, yes." She smiled.

Here we go, I thought, rubbing my face.

"I got a good doctor for you," she said with the bravado of a car salesman. It was the same tone she’d used pitching the bachelor ten months earlier. Though back then, I hadn’t been surprised. I’d known she would spring into action as soon as I left grad sch ool, which was one reason I’d loitered for as long as I did.

That time it was over the phone. "Ginger, I don’t ask you to walk to Ohio," she’d cooed. "I pay for plane ticket. Just let him meet you. I buy you new dress." Meeting me, of course, was to fall in love with me. "He good-looking, he engineer, and he second son."

My father was a first son.

"I don’t care about birth order," I said, stalling for time. Telling her I was feeling too down to meet anyone would have been too unprecedented an admission. She knew, though, that I was struggling. I always tried to put a positive spin on things, mustering a cheerful front for her, but she called me weekly, at unpredictable times, catching me hungover, sleeping, or moved by a tampon commercial. As hard as I tried to contain my bewilderment at the lack of achievement in my life, sometimes the truth leaked out.

"You don’t care? You should. First son has to live with parents. You think I only care what he does for living. But Mommy think of everything." I could imagine her tapping her finger against her head. "That why you should trust me. I get you only the best."

"But he lives in Ohio!" I blurted out, thankful for the escape clause. Homing in on the fact that her network of Korean acquaintances with eligible sons was limited to the Midwest, I added, "I’m not going to move. I just got to New York. So what’s the point in meeting him?"

To my astonishment, she gave in without putting up more of a fight, and canceled the plane ticket. I thought she relented not out of kindness or fair play, but to give me time to get back on my feet, so I could score an accomplishment, become someone a Korean mother would consider "only the best" to marry her son.

I was wrong. Or maybe I was just taking too long, because here she was in my crowded studio. I looked heavenward for succor.

"You don’t say something?"

"Like what?" I asked reluctantly.

She shrugged, still smiling. "How about thank you?"

"I haven’t even met him."

"So you want to?"

"Let’s discuss this later. I have to get to work."

She frowned. "But your bloom is almost over."

"In the next eight hours?" As often as I’d heard that Korean saying, the English translation now stung. I couldn’t pretend, as I usually did, that I was missing a cultural nuance. At the magazine, I was the oldest assistant in the fashion department by four years. Everyone my age, like Sam, was an editor.

"Don’t break up my heart," she said, furrowing her brow.

"You came at a bad time. You should have consulted me first."

"If I do that, you tell me not to come, you busy."

She had a point. "But why did you take such an early flight?"

She wrinkled her nose and twisted her mouth to one side. "I didn’t. I came yesterday."

"You did? Where did you stay?" As aggravated as I was, I couldn’t help but feel hurt that she’d flown all this way and not seen me first.

"Mrs. Oh," she answered. "She moved to New Jersey when you little girl. We always do parknic together. You remember her?"

I nodded. Mrs. Oh talked loudly and laughed a lot. Her husband and my father had been in the same Ph.D. program. The Ohs had a son. "Isn’t their boy’s name Bob?" My brother and I used to get a kick out of saying his name. Bob Oh. Bah-bo means fool in Korean.

My mother vigorously nodded. "Bob. Bobby. That right. He medical doctor now. Lives here. Handsome like his father."

"He’s the good doctor you just mentioned?"

She nodded. She must have recently reconnected with the Ohs; otherwise she would have tried to set me up with Bob instead of the guy in Ohio. There was nothing like a single daughter to motivate you to hunt down old friends. I shuddered to think how many others she’d looked up.

"I think you wasted your money flying out here. I doubt we’ll like each other."

"Don’t say that. You don’t know."

The summer my father left and my mother started working, I occasionally spent afternoons at the Ohs’ house. I didn’t mind playing with Bob when no one else was around, but he was always after my dolls. He also picked his nose.

"I know."

She opened her mouth, then closed it, thinking better of whatever she was going to say. Wagging her head, she instead said, "Even so, it not wasted trip. I stay until I get you a husband."

I waited for her to laugh, wink, give some sign she was only joshing.

It didn’t come. I looked back at her suitcase. She was her own boss at the real estate company; she could stay indefinitely.

I closed my jaw to speak. "How many men do you have lined up?"

She refused to look me in the eye.

"Mother?"

"Let’s talk later. Like you said, you gotta go to work." She put an arm around my waist and bussed me on a spot just below my shoulder—that was where she came up to on me.

"No, let’s talk now."

"No, later. You have to get ready." She started to push me in the back, steering me toward the bathroom. I tried to resist her, but she was stronger, and then she started to tickle me. She knew all my soft spots.


Chapter 2

Wearing a long black Narcisco Rodriguez number that was more appropriate for a dinner party than the office, I arrived at work only an hour late. All the assistants overdressed. It made us feel interesting, if not important, while riding public transportation to our meaningless jobs. The receptionist was comfortably installed at her desk, busy transferring callers to the wrong extensions. It would be another hour before Sam and the other senior editors meandered in.

A better name for the magazine would have been Waste, as in the brainpower, time, and trees that were squandered within its office walls. The flagship of Glossy Publishing, Inc., À la Mode was historically the waiting room of young society women playing at having careers until their husbands-to-be came into their trusts. Now the Junior Leaguers had been replaced by their granddaughters—Ivy Leaguers hell-bent on using their talents and educations to help other women dress and do their hair to seduce a man. In other words, a half century after the women’s movement, the staff was better equipped to do their jobs, but the jobs hadn’t changed.

Though perhaps guilty by association, I didn’t consider myself a defector. Aside from the few ideas I gave to Sam here and there—I had nothing to do but read the trade dailies and page through European editions—I made no contribution to the content of the magazine. I wasn’t even on the masthead.

I turned onto the fashion corridor and immediately felt an unusual energy in the air. The Monday-morning kaffee klatsches seemed to be talking about something more exciting than their weekends. A copywriter bumped into me and almost made eye contact when she mumbled excuse me. Like most everyone else, she was blond and pencil-thin, but I knew who she was—the lone fashion person who snagged assignments from the features department. Paige also regularly had questions about the clothes she was writing up and Sam sent me to her office to answer them. Paige was too harried to read the reports I typed for her.

I hurried down the hall to the windowless, doorless space I shared with Dakota West. An assistant for nearly two years at the time that I started, she’d been frosty at first. Now that she understood I wasn’t her competition, and what good friends I was with Sam, a senior market editor on the rise, we were office buddies. Though we weren’t so close that I would tell her about my mother’s sneak visit or turn to her for help. Dakota and I went to sample sales together, and she stood with Sam and me at the monthly parties thrown in the conference room to toast birthdays, engagements, and, once, an adoption of a Chinese shar-pei.

The phone to her ear, Dakota hushed me with a finger to her lips before I could say hello. She listened a few more minutes and then carefully placed the receiver in its cradle. The red light on one of her boss’s lines stayed lit.

Dakota’s enduring promotionless state wasn’t due to lack of effort—or even daring. Today she was wearing a purple and white checkered vintage Trigère suit, red knee-high socks, and patent leather Mary Janes. Model-tall and -thin with self-peroxided cropped hair, she could pull it, or any getup, off. Her unending assistantship was due to the dumb luck of having a boss who despised her, who treated her not as an apprentice but as a coffee fetcher, Xerox maker, and all-around slave. Chantal Lewis was a senior sittings editor, but Dakota had never been on a photo shoot.

"Nan’s been fired," Dakota said at bedroom volume, her eyes bugged out. Nan was the fashion director. "And I think the evil one is getting her job." She pointed her head at Chantal’s closed door. "She was here when I got in."

Sam was going to wig out when she heard that her masthead equal—they were on the same line—had been promoted over her. Though Sam covered the market, going to shows and showrooms, while Chantal styled models, dressing them up for the camera, they were archrivals. It had bothered Sam so much that Chantal came first on the line they shared on the masthead, she had considered legally changing her name from Starre to Cooper, her mother’s maiden name. If she had, Dakota was going to accompany her to city hall to change her name to AAA. Dakota had been a chess champion in high school.

I ran to my desk to call Sam. She should be warned before she even approached the building. Someone from our floor might be outside, smoking. Actually, a brigade was probably down there, licking their chops. Schadenfreude, real journalists have commented, was one of the most overused words in the pages of the magazines owned by Glossy Publishing, but its frequent appearance was understandable to anyone who worked there.

I looked up at the clock on the wall to see if I should try Sam at home or on her cell. Just then Sam appeared through the glass wall, the force of her strides making her flaxen ponytail swing from side to side. She was scowling. I was too late.

The only child of the ninth richest man in America, Sam wasn’t used to disappointment. Her father, Graham Starre, was the S in SDM, one of the biggest venture capital funds in the country. But she wasn’t spoiled or obnoxious, as I had feared the summer before college when I received her letter embossed with her monogram. We were roommates all four years at Madison, spending more time together than with any other person, including her serial boyfriends. She took after her father, the son of a dairy farmer, though she got her looks from her mother, her father’s second wife and former secretary. Sam wouldn’t be taking this defeat lying down.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, wondering who had beaten me to the phone.

"Um, I work here?" She was facing me but looking past my ear.

I turned to see Chantal had crawled out of her cave. I’d had minimal interaction with her; I doubt we’d said more than seven words at a time, combined—the longest exchange being, "Have you seen my worthless assistant?" "No." Chantal was out of the office on photo shoots more than she was in, and when she was in, she kept her door closed. So everything I knew about her was from Sam and Dakota. Sam said that when Chantal first arrived at the magazine, already an editor, she had a French accent, which she dropped when Dakota, newly hired, forwarded to everyone in the department a voice-mail message from her mother out on Long Island. Dakota swore to Chantal it was an accident, but their relationship never recovered. Now Dakota was fond of telling people that Chantal was a lesbian, not a slur per se, but a rumor that could hurt a fashion editor on the make, the thinking going that a woman who dresses for women doesn’t know how to dress for a man.

"Hey there," Sam called over, mustering a cheerful tone.

Chantal acknowledged the hello with a nod as she tossed a stack of files on Dakota’s desk. Readjusting the pile of dishwater-blond curls on top of her head, she sauntered back into her office. She left the door open.

Sam’s smile cracked. She quickly recovered and crooked her neck in the direction of her office. I nodded, but Dakota, her back to Chantal’s open door, gave us an aggrieved look, the one she often made while picking at her tossed salad as I bit into a hamburger or pastrami sandwich. She probably was hungry, since she always was, but it was more likely the anguish of not being able to join our conversation that was behind her long face. Sam mouthed, "Later."

"Isn’t this great?" Sam asked before I’d taken my seat across from her desk. "Chantal’s so insecure, she can barely be civil to me."

"Great? But she’s the new . . ." Sam didn’t know. It was better that she find out in the privacy of her office, from me. We saw less of each other on the weekends and at night—partly as a consequence of our spending almost all day together, partly because I found her childhood pals pretentious and unbearable—but I would always be more than just a work friend to her. "I have to tell you something." I got to my feet to close the door.

"Where are you—?"

"Just a second," I said over my shoulder. As close as Sam and Dakota were getting, I was sure Sam didn’t want her to hear her cries of indignation and pain.

I was glad for this opportunity, small as it was, to repay Sam, to hold her hand for a change. These days her primary role seemed to be playing my fairy godsister, whisking me from my dropout doldrums, bringing me to New York, a city I otherwise would have taken years to make it to, even cosigning my lease when the landlord insisted on a guarantor in the tristate area. I was grateful but a little uncomfortable with, or maybe not used to, our unequal footing. In college, the assistance had gone both ways. My gift for writing papers had complemented her aptitude for locating and getting into the best parties. She’d taught me the value of studying and not cramming, of befriending professors and going to their office hours, while I explained football and procured for her the driver’s license of a high school classmate’s older sister when the bars near campus stopped accepting out-of-state IDs.

Okay, I was getting a little tired of being Sam’s project, her underling, when we were the same age—when I had gone further in academia.

Sam had taken out her cigarettes. Smoking wasn’t allowed in the building, but when people complained about the smell traveling through the vents, she just denied it was her. No one dared to go to Helena Boyle, the editor in chief.

"Chantal," I said, shaking my head at the proffered pack, "is your new boss. It happened this morning."

Sam choked on her smoke. She rolled away from the desk and bent over. Her shoulders shook. But she wasn’t hyperventilating. She was laughing. "I’m sorry," she said, gasping for air. "I wasn’t expecting that."

"I’m not kidding, Sam."

"The way you closed the door, I thought you were going to announce you were pregnant."

I arched an eyebrow at her. Unless she believed in spontaneous conception, I didn’t know how she could have thought that. I hadn’t gone out with a man since leaving Madison. "Nan Bran’s been fired," I said.

Sam lost her smile. "No, she hasn’t," she said, stubbing out her cigarette. "She quit." She pushed the Post, open to the gossip column, at me. "When she read this."

It took me a while to find what she was referring to; the blind item was so small. It said: "Which Glossy fashion director is thisclose to getting a pink slip? (And we’re not talking underpinnings.) Our inside source gave the rhyme but not the reason."

"Yeesh," I said, putting the paper down. "I can’t believe Nan took the bait." Hothead though she was, she must have known that by quitting she was doing exactly what Helena wanted—forfeiting her severance package. "It doesn’t even give a reason."

"O’Henry was given the reason. Falling newsstand sales." The art director chose the cover models, but the fashion director styled them. "It just didn’t make for such good copy."

"How do you?"

She licked her lips delicately before answering, "Chantal is acting co–fashion director."

I held Sam’s gaze until her face broke into a grin. "Ohmigod! Congratulations!" I leapt to my feet.

"Hell’s giving us a month to prove who’s best cut out for the job." Everyone called the head honcho that, but Sam was the only one who said it to her face. "She says she has to give Chantal a shot to be fair, but it’s all a waste of my time if you ask me."

"What’s a month? Let me give you a hug." I squeezed her hard. She had said she was going to make editor in chief by the time she was thirty, the age her father was when he banked his first million, and she was well on her way. She was moving up in the world.

While I was still casting about for a career. As successful as my mother was, I didn’t compare myself to her, because real estate, which she entered after my father left, was a livelihood, not an identity. She’d gone to college, but her broken English lowered the expectations—and gave her fewer options. She wound up working in an office, but she would have been able to hold her head up among Koreans if she’d toiled in a store backroom or restaurant kitchen—that she owned, of course.

But Sam was my peer. The ground I had lost from grad school was only increasing. And my mother’s crazy husband-hunt made matters all the more urgent.

"Okay, we got to get to work," Sam said, taking out a pad of paper. "Hell’s holding an ideas meeting—"
"Not to be self-involved," I cut in. "But how does this move affect me?"

Sam jiggled her wristwatch. "In half an hour."

"I mean, if Hell fills your spot with someone on staff, will I move up to associate?"

"Associate?" Sam put her pen down. "Since when do you want that?"

"Since my mother arrived," I exhaled loudly, "to spear me a husband."

Sam pushed the notepad to the side. She knew about my bind when it came to my mother’s expectations and my feelings about Korean men.

I recounted my morning. Sharing it with my old best friend was cathartic and made me feel like less of a freak. I mentally took back everything I’d been thinking earlier about her help.

"It sounds like it’s time to come clean with her," Sam said, leaning back in her chair.

"You know I can’t do that. I can’t hurt—"

"Maybe if she knew, she’d give in."

"She won’t." Marrying a non-Korean was to my mother what marrying someone beneath one’s station was to Jane Austen—blasphemy.

"Or tell her you’re not ready."

"It won’t do any good. She thinks she knows better." She had said grad school was a mistake. Her exact words: "Who hires Korean to teach English in America?"

"But what’s the rush?"

"My bloom is fading."

Sam stared incredulously at me.

"She’s not a total throwback," I said, defending my mother despite myself. "I mean, if I told her I wanted to go further in my career first, she would back off. That’s why I need this promotion."

Sam grimaced. She reached again for her Marlboro lights and held them out. I took one. I probably already reeked of secondhand smoke.

"I’m not asking you to hand me the job. I’ll work for it. Just teach me the business."

"It’s not that," Sam said. "I’m concerned that you’re just grabbing for the nearest thing. You’d be taking a promotion away from someone whose passion really is fashion."

"Dakota is younger. She can wait."

Sam’s mouth twitched. "I agree that you’ve been my assistant for too long. This is the prime time of our careers and you’ve been pissing it away."

"Thanks."

"But you should set your sights on an industry you’re actually interested in. I have connections everywhere. I could hook you up."

"This is what I want to do." Not a total lie. Just a bit of an overstatement. I felt I could do many things, and these past months I’d been savoring the vista of possibilities as well as licking my wounds. But the time for self-indulgent dawdling was over. "I may not have shown interest, but I’ve shown aptitude."

"You do have good taste and ideas."

"And I have the big picture. Fashion isn’t just trendy clothes. It’s a mode of self-expression, an art. It’s like architecture, where form meets function."

"I had no idea you thought so highly of what I do."

"Editors are critics, purveyors of—"

"Enough," Sam laughed. "You’re starting to sound like Chantal."

"—culture. It’s a worthwhile profession as long as seduction isn’t the only objective. And it wouldn’t be mine."

Her steepled fingers pressed against her lips, she looked at me in silence.

"Please, Sam. I’ll give five hundred percent. Just give me—"

She tossed her ponytail. "I don’t care about natural talent or hard work. They don’t really matter here—or anywhere, really. What I’m concerned about is dedication."

"You’ve got it."

"Which means total submission. I’ll need you to do everything I say."

I felt uneasy but I said okay.

"I mean it. No questions. No guff."

"No nada."

"Even with my coaching, it may not happen right away."

"That’s all right. If I can show my mother I’m busy, she’ll go home. I may have to go on the dates she’s lined up, but I can deflect them—she can’t have that many."

"You’ll be competing against assistants who are pretty hungry."

"Anorexic, more like it."

"I wouldn’t underestimate them."

"I don’t. But they don’t have you."

"Like Dad says, work is war."

"I can handle it. Ph.D. candidates aren’t exactly kittens. They used to intentionally mis-shelve library books."

Sam looked hard at me. I stared back. Satisfied, she said, "Okay."

Grinning, I slouched back in my chair. Now that she was on board, my ship seemed less at risk of sinking. I could relax; she didn’t have any showroom appointments scheduled for the day.

"Sit up. Let’s get started."

"With what?"

"Either we do it my way or no way."

"Your way," I said hurriedly, pulling myself up. No wonder she’d advanced as quickly as she had. Perhaps if we’d stayed in touch the years I was toiling in my library-stack wasteland, I would have finished my degree or left sooner. "Where are we going?"

"Nowhere." She tossed her pad of paper and pen at me. "First we’ve got to cover some basic tenets of office warfare."

"Are you serious?"

"Ginger—"

"Okay." I picked up her Mont Blanc and held it ready.

She took a minute, pulling together her thoughts. She cleared her throat. "Number one, always put yourself first. Before you do anything, know what’s in it for you. Number two, never let people—"
I held my hand up.

"You don’t have to do that."

"I wasn’t sure," I said, pulling it down. "I have a question."

"What happened to—never mind. What is it?"

"Have I been breaking the first rule all this time I’ve been giving you story ideas?"

Sam cocked her head to one side, considering the question. "No," she said, straightening her neck. "By helping me you were helping yourself. Now, where was I?"

"Number two, never let people," I prompted.

"Oh, right. Never let people see you sweat. Everything you do should seem effortless. It makes dumb people think you’re untouchable and it makes smart people underestimate you."

She paused, but I held my tongue, scribbling down what she’d said. Her father, a former marine, was a shrewd man.

"Number three, don’t discuss your plans or deeds. Word always leaks."

I looked up. "That’s why you’ve never told me how you moved up? You could’ve trusted—"

"Four, scrap loyalty. It has no place in the office."

"Even between us?" I persisted.

"Scrap best friends. There are no real friends in business." She pointed to my pen. "Write it down."

I bent my head and did as she said. While I was piqued that she’d included me in her don’t-trust-anyone policy, I was surprised, and not a little pleased, to hear she still considered me her best friend.

"So I should keep secrets from you," I said, jotting the last period with a flourish, "and back-stab you at the next opportunity?"

"Yes, but under my direction." She smiled at the nonsense of what she’d just said. "I mean, the point is that you shouldn’t trust anyone the way you trust me."

"That’s obvious."

"Not that obvious. You’re so indoctrinated, you don’t realize that snakes come in both genders."

I looked c’mon at Sam. Most of the missing books in the library at Madison had been feminist texts.

"If you’re going to be this difficult—"

The phone interrupted her. The caller ID said it was Hell.

"Shit, the meeting. And we haven’t even brainstormed for ideas." Sam jumped up. I rose with her. She grabbed her notepad and tore off the paper I’d written on. "Quick, give me one."

"Uh . . ." Folding my notes, I looked at her black Ungaro sundress, then down at myself. "Narcisco?"

"No, I need story ideas, not market news."

Her sharp tone triggered an idea. "Arresting looks," I said. "It could be models in various scenes of being arrested. You know, up against the wall with their legs spread. Stepping out of a squad car. Being handcuffed."

"With cops in uniforms. And hunky FBI agents. You’re brilliant!" She turned back at the door. "I just thought of something."

The last time I’d seen that particular gleam in her eye, she’d proposed going to Harlem to score some coke. I’d begged off, stunned to hear she’d taken up drugs.

"What?"

"I’m going to tell Hell you helped me on this one."

—Reprinted from In Full Bloom by Caroline Hwang by permission of Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Copyright © 2004 by Caroline Hwang. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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