The present. A pale face in a dark room stares into a bright screen.
Dear Family and Friends,
As you are all no doubt aware by now, I recently produced and published a video series intended to help people insert a little bit of elegance into their lives. I did this as an entrepreneuse and as someone driven to bring beauty into the world. For reasons nobody seems capable of explaining to me, these videos have taken on an interpretive life on the Internet that grows more disturbing every time I suffer a lapse in judgment and decide to learn more about it. I now understand the meaning of la mort de l'auteur as never before, because this is simply killing me.
What you may not know is that five parties have so far filed suit against me for alleged offenses against them related to these videos. The suits seem, to my amateur eye, complete nonsense, yet I must go to court to have them dismissed, and I am hardly qualified to represent myself. I am also, to be perfectly candid, not in a position to pay what I imagine must be the exorbitant attorney fees necessary to make this all disappear. If you are reading this, I ask you to reach out to anyone you know who might be willing to offer some assistance in exchange for public goodwill and/or beauty advice.
Nancy re-read her letter twice. That last line was ridiculous, but what else did she have to offer? Not for the first time in recent years, nor even recent days, she had begun to feel an approaching crisis of self. What was she good for? How had an idealistic little girl become an adult in legal trouble whose only asset was a wellspring of ideas the world chose to misinterpret, plus an encyclopedic knowledge of composition and style rules (in two languages, no less) that she seemed unable to market?
“Is this where I wind up?” she asked the curly trachyandra that lived on her roll top desk. “Or do I go somewhere from here?” She then swallowed her pride, finished the letter, and hit send. It went off to her parents, her sister, and a few close friends. She trusted her brothers, but they were juniors in college and she’d decided not to burden them with requests for connections they surely lacked. (Even Jo was unlikely to be of much help, being based in small-town western Massachusetts, but she might know someone who knew someone.)
Nancy got up. She unwrapped the towel around her hair and hung it to dry on the shower bar. She dodged the bathroom mirror—makeup was already off—and headed to bed. For the dozenth time, she told herself things would be better in the morning.
Somewhere, someone read her message and clicked forward.
The Intern paced before a door, daring himself to enter. He straightened his hair, adjusted his bowtie, fiddled with his cufflinks. The sound of a telephone conversation emanating from inside the office served as an excuse to delay, and to rehearse his opening lines. “I’d like to begin by acknowledging …” he muttered. No, not right. Shift the tone. “I’d like to begin by …” No. “If I may just start by saying …” Ugh. So, so awkward. The Intern, absorbed in the refinement of language, did not notice that the phone call had ended.
“Tout d'abord, laissez-moi vous dire …” He shook his head. That could go very poorly.
“Dire quoi? ” called a voice from the office.
Blood drained from the Intern’s face, changed its mind, then flooded right back up to it. “J'étais seulement—” he managed to get out, his voice cracking. “Er, that is, I only mean—um—just a second. I’ll be back in a second.” He was gone for 39 seconds, then returned.
“Come in” said a voice that telegraphed, rather enthusiastically, its owner’s bemusement. The Intern obeyed. The office he entered was hardly grandiose by the firm’s standards, but it was the largest meant for a single occupant in which he’d yet stood. The décor was a striking composition of blacks, golds, reds, and greens, rendered in stark geometric forms. Unorthodox, but it was somehow so perfectly integrated that nobody could bring themselves to say anything against it. Either that, the Intern mused, or the Junior Partner had more clout than he’d realized. The Junior Partner sat at her desk, chin resting on interwoven fingers, waiting for him to finish the job of walking into her office. “Have a seat,” she said.
“Thank you!” he replied, a bit too forcefully. He sat.
“Can I help you?” asked the Junior Partner. The moment had come.
“Er,” said the Intern. “Um. Ah.” Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet would have been so proud.
“Take a breath,” said the Junior Partner. “Start again.” The Intern obeyed.
“I’d just like … like to start by saying that I think you and I, we, uh, we’ve done an admirable job of ignoring each other,” he said, a gradual accelerando running through the sentence.
This earned a cocked eyebrow. “I’m sorry, what?”
“To avoid any awkwardness. Keep things professional. It’s good. Normally I wouldn’t even be here—I mean, of course I wouldn’t, it’s not my department, even—but something has come up and—”
“Wait, wait,” said the Junior Partner. “What are you yammering about? Am I supposed to know you from somewhere?”
The Intern’s brow furrowed. “Surely you know who I am,” he said, in the tones of someone who is suddenly not at all sure.
The Junior Partner allowed a small grin. “Oh, one of these,” she said broadly. “Got it. Surely . Of course. Let’s see now. What favors are you owed just for being you?”
“I—I beg your pardon?” It had gone so much better when he’d practiced in front of the mirror.
“Hmm. Finance kid? No, not getting that vibe from you. You’re not connected to the senior partners or you’d know I’m not your doorway to whatever. Silicon Valley, maybe. Forgot that not everyone out there is famous out here.”
The Intern croaked. This was all wrong.
“C’mon son. Give me some direction.” The Junior Partner leaned forward into her hands. “Who’s. Your. Daddy?”
The Intern opened his mouth. Closed it. Considered that if he opened it a second time without saying something his countenance would take on an undesirable fishlike quality. Resolved to speak. Decided answering the most recent question would be a good start.
Whereas the Intern had hoped that this conversation would go much more smoothly than it had to date;
Whereas recovery to the intended level of social grace seemed by this point to be perfectly unattainable;
Whereas the Intern was just beginning to perceive the full extent of the power imbalances, formal and informal, between an undergraduate intern at a law firm and a lawyer working for the same law firm, meeting in the lawyer’s office, under circumstances conducive to the impression that said intern was barely capable of speaking in coherent sentences;
Now, therefore, be it noted that the Intern derived more than a soupçon of guilty amusement at seeing the Junior Partner temporarily at a loss for words.
She recovered quickly, though.
“I certainly misread that. Let me get one thing out of the way,” she said, her gaze suddenly unnerving in its intensity. “Are you Bobby, or Eddy? I’m sorry, it’s always been hard to tell.”
The Intern tried not to wince, but it showed a little. “Robert Antoine Clancy,” he said, before hastily appending “at your service.”
Robert, his interlocutor thought. You’ve Frenchified the vowels and are working on uvularizing the R. Can’t bring yourself to drop the T, at least not yet. “Must be a late-onset thing,” she muttered aloud.
“Nothing. I just—” and then some pieces suddenly fit together. “Wait, you’re ‘Antoine the Intern’?”
Robert Antoine straightened up. “You’ve heard of me?”
“Yes.” She allowed herself two blinks. “You ought to stop complimenting people on their ties and shirts so much. You’re famous for it and it’s not doing you any favors.”
“Oh,” he said. He’d meant it all honestly, but feedback was feedback.
“So,” said the Junior Partner, “how is everyone?”
“Your … family.”
My family, he thought. Well, baby steps. “Funny you should ask.”
“Hello? Antoine! Ça va? Oh, well, that’s good to hear. Oh, you know … wait, did someone forward you that email? I didn’t want to bother you and Eddy. Seemed like it was out of your … you’re kidding. You’re absolutely kidding. Antoine, you astound me! Really, this is so, so wonderful and I can’t … wait, just to be perfectly clear, they understand that I’m not able to pay a full … pro bono. That’s incredible. How on earth did you manage this? An internship? Where? Wow. I’ve even heard of them. They’re a big— Well, yes, I got Mom and Dad’s annual letter but I don’t usually read them because I already know everything that’s happening in our family. I suppose I should start reading them again. Still, c'est très impressionnant that you’re just an intern and you still managed to get someone to do this. Have you always been that persuasive? I— what? Why should I sit down? I don’t see what you could possibly have to—. Fine. Fine. I’ll sit down. Okay, now I’m sitting down. Yes, literally, sitting on a chair. I just don’t understand why these dramatics are necessary.
“Wait, sorry. Sorry. Antoine, that’s not—. Yes, on the balance it’s a good thing that I was sitting down. Yes, I dropped the phone. Antoine, are you joking? Because that’s not funny. Still not funny. Still not … oh God. You’re not joking, are you. You’re not. Listen, I … hang on. Just. Let me. For a. Oui. Sorry, little bit of … vision tunnelisée, I think. Je respire. Respire. Eauqué. Listen. Just to be perfectly, perfectly … yes. Yes. I … I will. Yes, I can do that. I’ll check my email. Yeah, today. I’m not busy. I mean, I’m busy, but this is … yes. Okay. I don’t even know what to say right now. Merci. Je te remercie.
Numb was easier than any alternative, so Nancy followed instructions and tried not to think too much. Go to library. Scan documents. Email documents. Wait.
Receive more documents. Print documents. Sign documents. Scan documents. Email documents. Go home. Wait.
It was almost 9:00 at night when her phone chimed five times in short succession. The tone was unfamiliar—not her default sound for mail or text messages. Even after the day’s events it took her a moment to remember that she’d assigned it, years ago, to a separate mailbox. Inhale. Exhale. Again.
Pyrex.clerk@_____.com had five (5) unread messages. Nancy opened one at random.
To Whom It May Concern:
Please be advised that this firm has been retained by Nancy S. Clancy in connection with …
The letter went on about whichever lawsuit this was. It was addressed to the plaintiff, not to her. She’d been BCCed. She skipped the details, relieved that they were finally someone else’s problem. All she cared about was the valediction.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions regarding this matter.
Very truly yours,
No sooner had she read it than a text message interjected. Annoyed, she was about to ignore it when she noticed it didn’t come from one of her contacts. It read, simply:
Bobby gave me your number. We should talk.
Nancy wrote back:
He doesn’t like being called that.
The reply came quickly.
So I gathered. You doing anything tomorrow around 6:00?
Nancy wrote that she wasn't. Then she received an address in midtown Manhattan.
I’ll be there.
After a moment’s hesitation she added:
I’ve missed you.
The other number wrote back:
And I you, cherie. Bonne nuit
Nancy stared at the screen.