The light hadn’t even officially turned green at the intersection of 17th and Broadway before an army of overconfident yellow cabs roared past the tiny deathtrap I was attempting to navigate around the city streets.Clutch, gas, shift (neutral to first? Or first to second?),release clutch , I repeated over and over in my head, the mantra offering little comfort and even less direction amid the screeching midday traffic. The little car bucked wildly twice before it lurched forward through the intersection. My heart flip-flopped in my chest. Without warning, the lurching evened out and I began to pick up speed. Lots of speed. I glanced down to confirm visually that I was only in second gear, but the rear end of a cab loomed so large in the windshield that I could do nothing but jam my foot on the brake pedal so hard that my heel snapped off. Shit! Another pair of seven-hundred-dollar shoes sacrificed to my complete and utter lack of grace under pressure: this clocked in as my third such breakage this month. It was almost a relief when the car stalled (I’d obviously forgotten to press the clutch when attempting to brake for my life). I had a few seconds—peaceful seconds if one could overlook the angry honking and varied forms of the word “fuck” being hurled at me from all directions—to pull off my Manolos and toss them into the passenger seat. There was nowhere to wipe my sweaty hands except for the suede Gucci pants that hugged my thighs and hips so tightly they’d both begun to tingle within minutes of my securing the final button. My fingers left wet streaks across the supple suede that swathed the tops of my now numb thighs. Attempting to drive this $84,000 stick-shift convertible through the obstacle-fraught streets of midtown at lunchtime pretty much demanded that I smoke a cigarette.
“Fuckin‘ move, lady!” hollered a swarthy driver whose chest hair threatened to overtake the wife-beater he wore. “What do you think this is? Fuckin’ drivin‘ school? Get outta the way!”
I raised a shaking hand to give him the finger and then turned my attention to the business at hand: getting nicotine coursing through my veins as quickly as possible. My hands were moist again with sweat, evidenced by the matches that kept slipping to the floor. The light turned green just as I managed to touch the fire to the end of the cigarette, and I was forced to leave it hanging between my lips as I negotiated the intricacies ofclutch, gas, shift (neutral to first? Or first to second?),release clutch, the smoke wafting in and out of my mouth with each and every breath. It was another three blocks before the car moved smoothly enough for me to remove the cigarette, but it was already too late: the precariously long line of spent ash had found its way directly to the sweat stain on the pants. Awesome. But before I could consider that, counting the Manolos, I’d wrecked $3,100 worth of merchandise in under three minutes, my cell phone bleated loudly. And as if the very essence of life itself didn’t suck enough at that particular moment, the caller ID confirmed my worst fear: it was Her. Miranda Priestly. My boss.
“Ahn-dre-ah! Ahn-dre-ah! Can you hear me, Ahn-dre-ah?” she trilled the moment I snapped my Motorola open—no small feat considering both of my (bare) feet and hands were already contending with various obligations. I propped the phone between my ear and shoulder and tossed the cigarette out the window, where it narrowly missed hitting a bike messenger. He screamed out a few highly unoriginal “fuck yous” before weaving forward.
I knew nothing when I went for my first interview and stepped onto the infamous Elias-Clark elevators, those transporters of all thingsen vogue . I had no idea that the city’s most well-connected gossip columnists and socialites and media executives obsessed over the flawlessly made-up, turned-out, turned-in riders of those sleek and quiet lifts. I had never seen women with such radiant blond hair, didn’t know that those brand-name highlights cost six grand a year to maintain or that others in the know could identify the colorists after a quick glance at the finished product. I had never laid eyes on such beautiful men. They were perfectly toned—not too muscular because “that’snot sexy”—and they showed off their lifelong dedication to gymwork in finely ribbed turtlenecks and tight leather pants. Bags and shoes I’d never seen on real people shoutedPrada! Armani! Versace! from every surface. I had heard from a friend of a friend—an editorial assistant atChic magazine—that every now and then the accessories get to meet their makers in those very elevators, a touching reunion where Miuccia, Giorgio, or Donatella can once again admire their summer ‘02 stilettos or their spring couture teardrop bag in person. I knew things were changing for me—I just wasn’t sure it was for the better.
I had, until this point, spent the past twenty-three years embodying small-town America. My entire existence was a perfect cliché. Growing up in Avon, Connecticut, had meant high school sports, youth group meetings, “drinking parties” at nice suburban ranch homes when the parents were away. We wore sweatpants to school, jeans for Saturday night, ruffled puffiness for semiformal dances. And college! Well, that was a world of sophistication after high school. Brown had provided endless activities and classes and groups for every imaginable type of artist, misfit, and computer geek. Whatever intellectual or creative interest I wanted to pursue, regardless of how esoteric or unpopular it may have been, had some sort of outlet at Brown. High fashion was perhaps the single exception to this widely bragged-about fact. Four years spent muddling around Providence in fleeces and hiking boots, learning about the French impressionists, and writing obnoxiously long-winded English papers did not—in any conceivable way—prepare me for my very first postcollege job.
I managed to put it off as long as possible. For the three months following graduation, I’d scrounged together what little cash I could find and took off on a solo trip. I did Europe by train for a month, spending much more time on beaches than in museums, and didn’t do a very good job of keeping in touch with anyone back home except Alex, my boyfriend of three years. He knew that after the five weeks or so I was starting to get lonely, and since his Teach for America training had just ended and he had the rest of the summer to kill before starting in September, he surprised me in Amsterdam. I’d covered most of Europe by then and he’d traveled the summer before, so after a not-so-sober afternoon at one of the coffee shops, we pooled our traveler’s checks and bought two one-way tickets to Bangkok.
Together we worked our way through much of Southeast Asia, rarely spending more than $10 a day, and talked obsessively about our futures. He was so excited to start teaching English at one of the city’s underprivileged schools, totally taken with the idea of shaping young minds and mentoring the poorest and the most neglected, in the way that only Alex could be. My goals were not so lofty: I was intent on finding a job in magazine publishing. Although I knew it was highly unlikely I’d get hired atThe New Yorker directly out of school, I was determined to be writing for them before my fifth reunion. It was all I’d ever wanted to do, the only place I’d ever really wanted to work. I’d picked up a copy for the first time after I’d heard my parents discussing an article they’d just read and my mom had said, “It was so well written—you just don’t read things like that anymore,” and my father had agreed, “No doubt, it’s the only smart thing being written today.” I’d loved it. Loved the snappy reviews and the witty cartoons and the feeling of being admitted to a special, members-only club for readers. I’d read every issue for the past seven years and knew every section, every editor, and every writer by heart.
Alex and I talked about how we were both embarking on a new stage in our lives, how we were lucky to be doing it together. We weren’t in any rush to get back, though, somehow sensing that this would be the last period of calm before the craziness, and we stupidly extended our visas in Delhi so we could have a few extra weeks touring in the exotic countryside of India.
Well, nothing ends the romance more swiftly than amoebic dysentery. I lasted a week in a filthy Indian hostel, begging Alex not to leave me for dead in that hellish place. Four days later we landed in Newark and my worried mother tucked me into the backseat of her car and clucked the entire way home. In a way it was a Jewish mother’s dream, a real reason to visit doctor after doctor after doctor, making absolutely sure that every miserable parasite had abandoned her little girl. It took four weeks for me to feel human again and another two until I began to feel that living at home was unbearable. Mom and Dad were great, but being asked where I was going every time I left the house—or where I’d been every time I returned—got old quickly. I called Lily and asked if I could crash on the couch of her tiny Harlem studio. Out of the kindness of her heart, she agreed.
I woke up in that tiny Harlem studio, sweat-soaked. My forehead pounded, my stomach churned, every nerve shimmied —shimmied in a very unsexy way. Ah! It’s back, I thought, horrified. The parasites had found their way back into my body and I was bound to suffer eternally! Or what if it was worse? Perhaps I’d contracted a rare form of late-developing dengue fever? Malaria? Possibly even Ebola? I lay in silence, trying to come to grips with my imminent death, when snippets from the night before came back to me. A smoky bar somewhere in the East Village. Something called jazz fusion music. A hot-pink drink in a martini glassoh, nausea, oh, make it stop. Friends stopping by to welcome me home. A toast, a gulp, another toast. Oh, thank god—it wasn’t a rare strain of hemorrhagic fever, it was just a hangover. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t exactly hold my liquor anymore after losing twenty pounds to dysentery. Five feet ten inches and 115 pounds did not bode well for a hard night out (although, in retrospect, it boded very well for employment at a fashion magazine).
I bravely extracted myself from the crippling couch I’d been crashing on for the past week and concentrated all my energy on not getting sick. Adjustment to America—the food, the manners, the glorious showers—hadn’t been too grueling, but the houseguest thing was quickly becoming stale. I figured I had about a week and a half left of exchanging leftover baht and rupees before I completely ran out of cash, and the only way to get money from my parents was to return to the never-ending circuit of second opinions. That sobering thought was the single thing propelling me from bed, on what would be a fateful November day, to where I was expected in one hour for my very first job interview. I’d spent the last week parked on Lily’s couch, still weak and exhausted, until she finally yelled at me to leave—if only for a few hours each day. Not sure what else to do with myself, I bought a MetroCard and rode the subways, listlessly dropping off résumés as I went. I left them with security guards at all the big magazine publishers, with a halfhearted cover letter explaining that I wanted to be an editorial assistant and gain some magazine writing experience. I was too weak and tired to care if anyone actually read them, and the last thing I was expecting was an interview. But Lily’s phone had rung just the day before and, amazingly, someone from human resources at Elias-Clark wanted me to come in for a “chat.” I wasn’t sure if it would be considered an official interview or not, but a “chat” sounded more palatable either way.