The writing went fast, and in a matter of weeks, I finished several more chapters. He liked them so much that, in return, he sent me a pink Gucci handbag and Cass a samurai sword, and although I was more of an any-color-but-pink backpack kind of person and the sword nearly decapitated my son when he got ahold of it, I was touched. When I had finished half of his book, Nick invited me to meet him for coffee before an upcoming gaming conference in Albany, about an hour away from our house. I did not often get to visit with my clients.
What time and where? I texted.
Only after I pressed Send did a soupy ambivalence form within me. I would get to meet him in person—but he would also get to meet me. I am not proud to say that I had been coy with Nick about my age. I knew he would respond better if he thought I was younger, and possibly hot. When he had asked to Skype, I told him that my computer's camera was not working. If he had googled me, he would have found nothing; I tried to keep the lowest possible profile. I had done so for over a decade, as long as I had been a ghostwriter. Before then, I wrote marketing copy for an equity firm in New York. How wildly different my life had been, although on consideration, Nick may well have fit in with some of my coworkers there. Back then, I went out regularly with my male colleagues, who were in general far more receptive to me than the other women in the office, two mid-level workaholic lifers and one brilliant but aloof junior analyst. One evening, I almost won an after-work drinking contest. The following week, they invited me to lunch at a tony American bistro, where I was the only woman at the table. As they discussed classic Bruce Springsteen set lists, the fuckability of certain A-list actresses, Enron, the axis of evil, the New York Knicks, I quietly worked at my turkey club sandwich and sweet potato fries.
"You are the first girl I've ever seen order anything but salad for lunch," one said approvingly.
Being "one of the guys" was a kind of safe harbor. After all, they would not critique my fuckability if I was sitting right there with them. And to be frank, I liked having access to these secret conversations. A few women nearby glanced over at me. I became a different person in that moment, a woman who had something that other women desired. I was not used to this sensation, and over time, I admit that I may have milked it too much. When they began to flirt openly with me, I brushed them off, but always gently and with ambiguity. They nicknamed me Little Tiger because of my preference for a shot of sloe gin with a similar name. In less than a month, I was offered a raise and moved from my cubicle to a small office, and even got to handle correspondence and some research for one of the managing directors. Life was pretty good for the moment.
At dawn on the Tuesday that I would drive to meet Nick in Albany, I carried my sleeping son across our front yard. The ranch house that I had been renting, going on six years now, was situated on a cut-through that led to the Mass Pike, and cars and trucks were audible at all times, even from inside. I tripped over a tree root and my neighbor's dog broke into a bark and I whispered to Cass, "Please don't wake up, please don't wake up," because if he did, he would detonate. He was no good with separation.
Bertie met me at her screen door. "I've got him," she said quietly, her dentures not yet in, and reached for Cass. But she was too frail to carry him, so I gestured for her to hold the door as I went inside and set him on her couch.
I hated to leave my son while he slept. He had no father who might watch him today. His Tigger sweatshirt was too small. Bertie's house smelled of incontinence and there was a long gash in her screen door, not that my house was in much better shape. My front steps were crumbling, an accident waiting to happen, and the roof leaked when it rained. Jimmy Pryor, my landlord and neighbor, was frustratingly slow to repair such things. Thanks to Nick's book, though, I had started looking for a nicer place.
I kissed my forefinger and grazed it past Cass's cheek. "Bertie, you're a lifesaver," I said.
Back home, I pulled my hair into the neatest bun I could manage and changed into the professional ensemble that my friend Maggie had helped me find the other day at Ann Taylor. The first pair of gray pants that I had tried on had lining that moved like cream against my skin. The buttonhole was thick and reinforced, and the zipper slid right up, bringing to mind the pricier clothing I had worn back in New York. I thought once again how I should have kept those outfits instead of donating them to Goodwill when I started working at home. At the time, I had been so glad to part with those stiff, constricting business suits and toe-pinching heels, those trappings of a person who had come to seem less and less like me.
It took me about an hour to reach Albany, and I found Nick in a private booth toward the back of Wellington's, a swank restaurant in the hotel where he was staying. A brawny guy about Nick's age sat next to him and both tapped at their iPhones. A Lakers cap on his head, Nick appeared younger in person than in the pictures I'd seen, his face the shape of a plate. Blonde stubble dotted his chin. He looked up at me with his glinty blue eyes and said, "You're Allie?"
I nodded. "Hi, Nick."
The other guy kept his eyes on his phone but coughed into one fist.
"Nice place," I said and lowered myself into a weird metal bowl of a chair across from them.
He squinted over at me. "Dude, you are way hotter than I thought you'd be."
"Oh, thanks." I may have chuckled and picked at my nails. "You have a good flight? When did you get in?"
"Like an hour ago. I slept through most of it." Nick kept his eyes on me. "It's so weird—I pictured you as kind of frumpy. Bigger and kind of, you know, softer. Maybe it was just that first time I read your stuff, when you sounded all lame. I guess first impressions stick." He shook his head.
I blinked over at him and forced a smile. I did not want to come across as uptight.
"No offense, though."
"None taken. Maybe we should write a book together," I tried to joke.