Pink carnations are terrifically maligned. Carnations in general are the ugly stepsister flower no one wants. But here I was, tolerating the perfumed bouquet on my desk—leftovers from a mediocre date on Bumble. Alan was his name. He donned a cheap, ill-fitting sports coat with khakis—loafers without socks. His hand trembled as he handed me the bouquet. He obviously had not bothered researching carnations—if only to discover that they are the plain Janes of the floral universe. Why did I bring them to the office? Because there was nothing else to remind me that a man, regardless of whether I would ever see him again, took the time to buy me something—anything.
Warren burst into my office, halting my masochistic blossom-pondering.
“Hi, Warren,” I greeted him in my professional voice, straightening up in my chrome swivel chair, and grabbing a pen and notepad.
“Jane, our friends, the Henrys, are not happy with the retouching on the bus wrap,” he said with a frustrated sigh.
“You mean Rita Henry?” He must have just hung up from a call with the aging entertainer. I also knew the retouched image he was referring to, which was slated to grace the side of a metro rapid bus.
“Let’s meet Jeffrey in his office to discuss it,” he said, ignoring my comment, and holding the door open for me.
I knew what I was in for. I had been working at Warren Mitchell & Associates advertising agency for four years and had navigated my way around the many clients’ likes and dislikes, hot buttons, triggers—whatever you wanted to call them. I was an account director—a job tailor-made for those who had little creative talent, but lots of patience, tolerance, and the ability to maintain calm confidence in the middle of any confrontation.
My best friend, Marisa Silva, taught me about the art of remaining calm—at least on the outside. Being a reporter for a local news affiliate, her facial expression was tested on a regular basis. Only when the lights and cameras were off, could she drop the cold exterior and vent with me in a dark bar over vodka sodas.
As I followed Warren to the art department, I eyed the many offices in my area of the building to see who was in, out, arguing with clients, or just tapping away at their keyboards.
I noted that Anna, my biggest nemesis, was out of the office. Perfect. No dealing with her smug grin and scathing comments today. I also noted both Tara and Brooke, nemeses numbers two and three, respectively, were engaged in conference calls.
I rounded the corner, past the war room where several creatives were scribbling on white boards; ad concepts for a new client were spread out on the conference table.
I was now skittering down the hallway so I could keep up with Warren, who took long, quick strides when he was on a mission. I didn’t want to miss a word about Rita Henry’s latest complaints.
Jeffrey Vance, the creative director, had clued me in two years ago, when Warren handed me the keys to their account. They were a country music duo who had once been married. According to Jeffrey, Chance Henry loved to talk trash behind his female counterpart’s back. He was gay with a full-time partner, though he kept it under wraps, so he wouldn’t alienate his female fans.
Rita Henry was now married to the band’s manager, David Kaufman, who made her his trophy. Rita suffered delusions that her target audience was comprised of twenty-something males who were all in love with her.
“Two of the most neurotic people in show business,” I recalled Jeffrey telling me. “They have a huge budget and they’ve been with the agency forever. They were all the rage about three decades ago. Not so much now. But don’t tell them that … they still consider themselves A-listers.”
And his conclusion was: “If you can make Rita happy, you’re way ahead of the rest of us.”
Jeffrey’s office was encased in glass, so you could always see when he was there and who he was with. Today, he had a full house. Warren forcefully pushed the glass door open. Jeffrey, surrounded by at least five creatives, didn’t look up to see who it was.
I entered right behind Warren and caught everyone gathered around Jeffrey’s colossal computer screen, snickering at the image of Rita’s face, zoomed to 200 percent, and pointing out plastic surgery scars, moles, and other skin defects.
Warren was an attractive middle-aged man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and no apparent warmth. When I first came to work for him, I found him shallow and icy. He didn’t want to hear about anyone’s personal life or what his employees did after they left the office. He just wanted us to show up every day on time and be ready to jump when he needed something.
At first, I thought he was stoic and humorless but, over time, I understood he was just deeply cynical. He, like many of his peers, experienced the universal shit trenches and transient glory that comprised life in advertising and so he, understandably, had become bitter and jaded.
“Okay, guys,” Warren said sternly, yet sounding exhausted, like he had been through these scenes too many times before. “The client’s not happy with the retouching. I just got off the phone with Rita—she was on a tirade—says we’re trying to make her look unattractive. The creatives had dispersed like frightened mice and were now lining Jeffrey’s office walls to make room for the boss. I just trailed behind him.
“Jeffrey, pull up the original photo, so I can see it next to the one we’ve altered,” he ordered.
Usually, Jeffrey had a supernatural ability to remain objective in these situations. Today, however, he pushed back. “Sorry, Warren, but I’m an ad guy, not a psychiatrist,” he quipped, pulling up the two images for a side-by-side review. “She looks like a sixty-year-old bride of Frankenstein trying to look twenty. It’s just not going to happen.”
Jeffrey was thirty-something, a total smart ass, and like a brother to me. He was the only one in the agency who ever had my back. He wore stylish clothes, hip, horn-rimmed glasses, and his medium brown hair stuck up a bit on one side. I always had the urge to smooth it down with my hand.
Warren studied the two images. “Why don’t you pull an image of her at twenty and piece her face together from that.”
Jeffrey looked at him and said flatly, “I’m not a miracle-worker.”
“Christ, Jeffrey,” Warren erupted. “Fucking figure it out. That’s what I pay you to do. Perform fucking miracles.”
Wow, I thought to myself. Two F-bombs, one statement. It was clear Warren was now the one on a tirade, which rarely happened.
“And who do you think’s paying for this work?” he continued. “That’s right, the client,” he finished before Jeffrey could respond.
Warren then looked up, scanning the room with a frown. “And I would advise the rest of you to think twice before you say or do anything to piss these people off … remember, clients are the reason you get a paycheck. Believe me, it could stop any time and, if it does, you’ll be out looking for your next job. Got it? Now get back to work,” he said, quickly regaining his cool composure before sauntering out.
Everyone looked down, backing away toward Jeffrey’s door like children who were just scolded by their father. And, as dysfunctional as it may sound, Warren was a little like a father-figure to everyone—especially to me.
I don’t quite remember when I started to view Warren as the father I never had. He was the opposite of my real father, who left me when I was eight. Warren, a man who wore posh suits and Italian shoes, had a quiet, intense way of making you respect him, and an ability to sway people in the right direction by making them think it was their idea. Or he would just flat-out tell them what to do in a stentorian voice.
Somewhere, in my heart, was a seed of hope that Warren would fill the void left by my father. He knew nothing about me personally and seemed pleased with what I did professionally. And that was what life was all about … pleasing others.
Jeffrey glared up at me and interrupted my thoughts. I was the only one who had lingered in his office after Warren’s visit.
“Jane, do you happen to know the time what’s-her-face is coming in today?” he asked. I glanced at the appointment calendar on my smart phone and saw that Rita was scheduled to meet with Warren that afternoon.
“She’ll be here at four. Do you need anything from me?” I inquired.
“Not unless you know any priests—I’d say we need an exorcism,” he answered.
I laughed. “No. If you’ll recall, I’m Jewish.”
“I’d welcome a rabbi, too,” he teased.
I called an emergency lunch meeting with Marisa. Of course, she stormed into the restaurant ten minutes late, frantically texting and juggling her bag and car keys.
“I’m sorry, Jane,” Marisa said as she briefly looked up from her texting. “My producer just called me about a story, so I don’t have a lot of time.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Who’s the unlucky soul whose party’s getting crashed today?”
“You’re funny,” she said, fumbling around in her bag for a phone charger and glancing around the room for a power outlet. This constant state of crisis, I would come to know well, was just Marisa’s way.
“I’m starving,” Marisa said as she skimmed the menu and motioned to the waitress to take our order so as not to waste one second.
“So, what’s new in the wonderful world of advertising today?” Marisa asked in a forced pleasant tone. I had to get used to that voice, because she used it a lot when she was trying to generate a conversation. It was one of her reporter tactics.
“Don’t ask,” I said.
Marisa made a face. “Oh, come on, give it up—you’re the one who called me.”
“The usual,” I answered. “The wonderful world of advertising would be awesome without the clients.” We both chuckled.
I told Marisa the story of the Henrys while she devoured her lunch, and soon I had her almost choking with laughter. And while I didn’t reveal the names of the clients in question, Marisa figured it out quickly.
“Don’t worry,” she said wiping her mouth in between bites. “You know our conversations are always off the record.”
I realized this was not the smartest thing for me to do. After all, you didn’t have to be a PR expert to know that nothing was ever off the record when it came to reporters. Marisa, a Puerto Rican who grew up in a tough Bronx neighborhood, made a living pulling lurid details out of people and sharing them with the world. It was her job to bludgeon people into giving up the story, and she was good at it. One of the reasons I still had a job was that I didn’t blab office details. But she was my best friend, my only friend. I had no choice but to trust her.
Marisa shook her head. “What a train wreck Rita Henry is.” As she said this, she waved down our waitress for the check. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Always drama. Yet we seem to revel in it.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, looking at my watch. “Feel my pain.”
Marisa laughed, fished some cash out of her bag, and slapped it down on the table. She leaned over and whispered, “Princess smile.” Marisa and I had coined the term to use as code for having a crap day but smiling like a princess to get through it.
Marisa got up abruptly. “I have to run now,” she said, getting on her phone and hurrying out the door in pursuit of her next assignment.
I sat alone for another few minutes, pondering Marisa’s words. There was no question about it: on some level, I did revel in the work drama, mostly because I didn’t have much of a personal life. Sometimes I longed for stalkers like Marisa had, even though she was always complaining about them. Men chased her with a vengeance. When we were together, heads turned, both male and female. I longed for someone to give me that kind of attention. I rarely had dates and, if I ever did, there would never be a second one.
My earliest dating disaster happened when I was sixteen years old. Grandma allowed me to go to a concert with Asher from synagogue. The Strokes were playing at the Hollywood Palladium and his parents bought tickets for Asher and six of his buddies.
I remember standing with Asher and his loser friends through the show, because we wanted to be in the front row. When the crowd got thick and people started to shove each other to get to the front, I remember holding onto Asher for dear life, so I wouldn’t get trampled. He picked me up and put me on his shoulders, and before I knew it, his hands were sliding up my thighs and around to my ass. I was wearing a nineties grunge outfit—plaid flannel shirt, cut-off jean shorts with tights underneath, and Doc Martins. I quickly slapped his hands and urged him to put me down.
After the concert, he told everyone I was easy and that he got his “money’s worth” for the tickets. The worst thing was that everyone believed it. From then on, life was pure hell. One time, I was sitting in English class when Asher and his friends were in the back of the room laughing. When I turned back to see what they were laughing at, one of them remarked, “What are you looking at, fire-crotch?” This was followed by another round of laughter, and someone muttering, “Ask Asher about that,” which made my face turn scarlet.
When I got home that day, I remember going straight to my room and locking the door. I cranked Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as loud as it would play, desperately trying to drown out what happened in class that day.
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous, Kurt Cobain screamed in the background while I slumped down on my purple canopy bed and cried.
My final two years of school were spent in solitude as I had been branded an outcast and felt it necessary to fully become one. I skulked in the shadows with earphones plugged in to avoid actual conversations, and I became more inward with every passing day, withdrawing into my own lonely world.
“Would you like anything else?” the waitress broke into my depressing thought bubble.
“No, thank you,” I replied, taking her hint, and rising to leave.
Traffic was relatively light as I drove toward the agency, which was in downtown Santa Monica, near Tongva Park, and not far from my apartment on Lincoln and Colorado.
When I arrived, Tara and Brooke, who looked exactly like Barbies, complete with long blonde hair, false smiles, and pale blue eyes, were in my office, seemingly snooping around.
“Can I help you?” I asked without attempting to hide the sarcasm in my voice.
They jolted in unison and turned toward me. I whiffed the faint scent of coconuts—Brooke’s signature scent.
“Oh—hey Jane,” Tara said, eyes wide like she didn’t expect me to bust her nosing around my office. “We were just looking for LA Insider Magazine. Have you seen it?”
Both Tara and Brooke always wore low-cut blouses and dresses that showed off their perky, perpetually tanned breasts. Today they looked like twins—they both wore Kelly green DVF wrap dresses. When they caught me eyeing their identical wardrobe selections, Brooke immediately piped up. “We didn’t plan this,” she said, waving her pointed finger between herself and Tara.
“I guess I didn’t get the memo,” I responded, side-stepping them and moving behind my desk. I shuffled through a stack of magazines, locating LA Insider, which had a photo of a crowd of well-dressed men and women on the cover. The headline read, “Special Edition: LA’s Top 20 Entrepreneurs.”
“Is this the one you’re looking for?” I asked the green twins, who were now beaming at the publication.
“Yes—can we borrow it?” Brooke asked in a disingenuous saccharine tone usually reserved for clients. “Anna said Craig Keller is in this issue.”
“Who’s that?” I asked, naïvely.
Tara’s eyes became round as saucers, and she drew in her chin. “Hello—he’s only the hottest guy in town and he owns the biggest agency. You’ve never heard of Keller Whitman Group?” She was now glaring at me like I was a complete idiot.
Brooke stifled a giggle.
I did my best to recover. “Oh, yeah—that guy. Of course, I know who he is,” I replied, thinking I needed to get out more. I had no idea who this man was, but he was obviously a big shot to Tara, Brooke, and Anna.
“We’ll bring it right back,” Tara said, snatching the magazine from my hands. The pair spun around and made a quick exit, somehow reminding me of the twins from The Shining.
Later, alone in my office, I prepared to leave for the evening. I turned off my computer and began gathering my things. I noticed the magazine had been returned to my desk. I picked it up and flipped through it.
“LA’s Top 20 Entrepreneurs,” was something LA Insider published once a year to distinguish the top young executives in the city. The executives were named in alphabetical order, and, out of sheer curiosity, I leafed through to the Ks. There was only one—Craig Axel Keller. I took one look at his photo and had to catch my breath. Tara was right. He was a total stunner—unbelievably sexy with glossy dark hair that was not too long and not too short. His eyes looked to be a translucent jade with lengthy eyelashes. But it was his smile that entranced me. He had the straightest, whitest teeth I’d ever seen. This man could be a G.Q. model. He wore a navy suit with a pale blue tie. The shot was from the waist up, but from what I could tell, he was extremely fit and trim. So, this was what all the hype was about. I studied his image for a few more minutes and, just as I was about to read the accompanying article, Anna poked her head into my office.
“Oh, I thought maybe you’d already left,” she said, glancing at her watch as though she were my boss, not Warren. Anna wore a medium brown shiny bob that bounced from side-to-side when she walked. Unlike Tara, Anna never feigned respect for me—she spent her time either trying to sabotage my projects or making herself look good. She managed up well when Warren and Jeffrey were around. Her employees hated her.
I sighed. “I thought you were out of the office today.”
She tossed her bob and gave me that smug grin. “No, just in meetings with Warren—you know, he relies on me for everything these days,” she said, like it was something she didn’t love—didn’t live for.
“What do you need, Anna?” I drummed my fingers against my desk.
Her eyes darted to the magazine in my hand, and she let out a snide laugh. “Why, Jane Mercer—are you crushing on Craig Keller?”
I set the magazine down on my desk and felt my cheeks get hot. “I was just …”
“You were just drooling,” she interrupted, now giggling wickedly. “Don’t get any ideas—that guy is so far out of your league—he wouldn’t pick you out of a crowd of two.”
“That’s it, Anna,” I said pointing at the door. “Get out of my office.”
She was laughing hysterically now. “He’d probably mistake you for the drapes,” she continued.
“Get out, now,” I commanded, rising from my swivel chair, heart now pounding.
She finally relented and left my office, her laughter fading the further away she walked.
As soon as she was gone, I shut my office door, locked it, and sat down again, alone with the magazine. I stared at the cover, shivering with humiliation that Anna had caught me ogling Craig Keller’s image. I waited a few minutes, then thumbed to the page where his photo was and read his bio. He was thirty-six, ten full years older than me. He had graduated from Stanford University with honors and was managing partner of the most successful advertising agency in Los Angeles. There was a long list of awards and accomplishments as well as his involvement with certain charities where he sat on the board of directors. I read his quote. “Success is always finding new ways to do things, hiring the best talent, and inspiring them to reach their full potential. I only hire people who are smarter than me. I never settle for anything but the best.”
My eyes moved to the photo again. I sighed, closed the magazine, and stashed it in my messenger bag. I got up and walked to the door, where a full-length mirror hung. Anna’s nasty comments echoed in my mind—how he wouldn’t pick me out in a crowd of two and would mistake me for the drapes. I examined myself from head to toe, dissecting my features. I observed my long auburn hair, big almond-shaped green eyes—I had always been told my eyes were my best feature. My nose and mouth were sort of average—lips not too big nor too thin. At least my teeth were straight. Grandma and Grandpa had taken care of that with braces. After a sufficient analysis of my face, I started on my body. I wore smart clothes because they were my passion, but the drapes comment lingered in my mind. I turned to the side to examine my figure. At least I was slender. But there was something about my lack of confidence that made me invisible.
Anna was right. A man like Craig Keller—or any man, for that matter, would never notice me.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish