Standing in line at the Starbucks on Rowena, Eleanor decided not to think about her shaky marriage and instead, focus on the pastry selection. She was toggling between the iced maple scone and the chocolate cake when she spotted Freddie Pillsbury.
Dropping her head and opening her purse, she launched the Pretend Search to no avail.
They hugged. Freddie smiled smugly. “Well, we did it! Sold the house! Thank god, we’re getting the fuck out of L.A.”
“You’re leaving L.A.?” As impossible as L.A. could be, it seemed equally impossible that Eleanor would ever leave it.
“We’re moving to Cambria,” Freddie said. “We’ve had a second home there for years.”
“Second home,” Eleanor repeated, although a second home was certainly something she was familiar with from the pages of Golden State Living.
“We made a fortune on our house. God bless the Brooklynites. They’re young, with too much money and they all want to live here. You should get your house appraised.”
Eleanor knew what her house was worth. And what they owed on it.
Freddie continued. “My god it’s so gorgeous up there. People are nice and friendly. No rude hipsters on those dangerous scooters. No traffic. No homeless, not that I don’t care about the homeless, of course I do, but really, it never gets any better. And now I can paint. Rudolph is building me a studio that faces the ocean. He’ll commute back here for another year or two. Just to feather the nest egg.”
Eleanor’s heart sunk. Today was not the day to hear about someone else’s nest egg.
“What’s going on with you?” Freddie cut ahead and ordered a drink.
“Oh, nothing that dramatic.” Eleanor forced a smile.
“And how’s Duke?”
“He’s fine.” If “fine” meant running away to Yosemite in response to the business and his general existential pain.
“He’s still acting?”
“Uh huh.” Eleanor didn’t add that he was acting the part of an Uber driver lately which contributed to the existential pain.
“And are you still an assistant,” Freddie’s smile was sympathetic. “At that magazine?”
“I’m more of an associate,” Eleanor said.
“They should have moved you up by now, you’ve been there long enough.”
“When my boss retires, I’m sure I’ll move up,” Eleanor said.
Freddie picked up her drink and glanced at her phone. “Well good luck with that. It’s hard growing old in this city. Everyone’s thirty and gunning for your job.”
With an air kiss goodbye, Freddie left with her macchiato and her nest egg and her easy street living.
Bon Voyage, Eleanor thought. She made a note not to visit Cambria anytime soon.
As she drove to work, Eleanor tried not to feel envious of Freddie. Tried not to feel small and ashamed of her lack of success. Tried not to feel resentment at Duke’s (not) acting career and all the sacrifices they’d made to it, no, that she’d made to it.
But her chest grew tight and her hands grew sweaty on the wheel. Jeez, was it hot in here? She rolled down the window and sucked in the cool June air, but it didn’t help. Seeing Freddie so happy and solvent made her feel like a hopeless loser. She was still an assistant; her present job just the longest in a series where she’d assisted, aided, helped, managed, and midwifed someone else’s career.
Plowing further into dangerous territory, she did the math on her house. They had refinanced twice to cover debt – college loans and emergency cash to live between Duke’s jobs. No, they didn’t have enough equity in Ambrose Avenue to move to coastal California and live out their golden years in a golden place. But they were still (sort of) young. If Duke landed a gig as a series regular...Eleanor braked hard at the light. What were the chances of that happening now, in his mid-fifties? Oh, why hadn’t she and Duke been as savvy as Freddie and her husband? And why the fuck had she done the math???
She crossed the L.A. River at what used to be called Frogtown but had recently been rechristened Elysian Valley. The offices of Golden State Living were on the east side of the river in an aging industrial campus with offices, a test kitchen, native plants and culinary gardens.
“Hi Helen,” Eleanor waved through the open door at her boss, a sixty-five-year old earth mother with waist-length gray hair and a wardrobe of colorful, ethnic tunics and billowy pants.
“How was your weekend?” Helen didn’t look up from her laptop.
“Fine,” she said. “Everything’s good.”
“I saw my mother,” Helen went on, “She thought we were having tea at Bullock’s Wilshire. I reminded her that Bullock’s is long gone and a minute later she asks me again. Do you think I should correct her? I mean, what is the point?”
“You’re in a difficult situation.” Eleanor settled in the chair opposite Helen and wondered, yet again, why she wasn’t the editor of Specialty Books. After all, she did a lion’s share of the work while Helen chatted on the phone to friends who had retired or moved away; enjoyed long lunches with Chardonnay; and stalked her high school boyfriend, Jeff, on Facebook.
“I think Jeff’s afraid of commitment,” Helen was saying, “His ex-wife was bi-polar. And maybe agoraphobic. I think he feels too guilty to move on.”
Eleanor was not interested in Helen’s imaginary love life. But this was always the precursor to any discussion of the work at hand. Which currently was Chicken.
“I had another idea for Chicken,” said Eleanor. “Urban chicken farmers love exotic breeds – they look so stylish pecking in the yard. What if we had a breed chart at the back of the book?”
“He was the one that got away,” Helen said wistfully.
Hoping to avert another discussion about Jeff, Eleanor tried again to change the subject. “Have you thought about who should write the book,” she said, knowing it would be Kara or Phil.
“Kara or Phil,” Helen said.
Kara Kornstein, a chain-smoking motor mouth who - Eleanor just knew! - never tested the recipes; or Phil Lannis, a quiet, nebbish man with exceedingly boring head notes were, in Eleanor’s view, uninspired choices.
“What about Lorraine Gutierrez?” Eleanor said. “She wrote that touching memoir about raising and butchering cows in a deeply humane way. She has a clear voice.”
“Ugh, I’m getting a mental image of all that cow blood.” Helen twisted a ghostly plait of hair around her fingers. “Ultimately, we have to think what June would want.”
Eleanor glanced up at the photo of June Crary, the founder and eternal Godmother of GSL. In a salmon-pink twin set and pearls, June was standing on a California beach holding a glass of wine.
“To June, Golden State Living was a beach at sunset,” Helen sniffed. “She would never have hired a butcher.”
I’m not sure about that, Eleanor thought, as she returned to her desk and opened her email. June Crary loved everything about California – the poppies, the produce, the gardeners, the greatness. She would certainly have loved a butcher.