Lori Gottlieb,

       A call from my lawyer jolts me awake, and since I’m up, I decide to go running. There’s an old man I always see on my route, a dead-on doppelgänger for George Burns in the Oh, God! movies. We have this ritual: He smiles, I smile, he tips his hat, I wave, he nods a greeting, I grunt “hi.” We’ve been doing this five times a week for almost two years.
       Today, though, for some reason, I want to know his name. I wonder if he has children, a wife, grandchildren. I wonder if once he was a CEO or a plumber or an entertainment mogul. I wonder if he has a gravelly voice. So I slow down to a jog as we approach, but then I can’t figure out what to say. This must be how men feel in bars when they want to approach a woman but can’t come up with a catchy line. I want to tell him: It’s hot. I want to advise: Lower your hat, cover your face, wear sunscreen, drink extra water. I want to blurt out: Hey, I love seeing you here in the mornings. What’s your name, anyway? But instead he smiles, I smile, he tips his hat, I wave, he nods, I grunt “hi,” and I’ve missed the opportunity. I consider turning around, running back, and asking my questions, until I remember that George Burns didn’t talk to John Denver until John was ready, and maybe I’m just not ready yet.
       After I shower, I’m about to go get some passport-size photos taken for my med school applications, but I can’t decide how I should look. I leaf through the glossy academic brochures featuring page after page of pubescent-looking med students with huge glasses and nerdy haircuts. They’re peering into microscopes, grinning goofily and holding up test tubes, masked and standing intently over cadavers on cement slabs. “For just $120,000,” the brochures seem to be saying, “all this could be yours!”
       I go to the mirror to try on some expressions: serious, with a crinkle between my eyebrows; empathic, with my head tilted slightly to the left; no-frills, with a naked face and wavy, unkempt hair; pathological genius, with a maniacal glimmer in my eyes, like Ted Kaczynski in his Berkeley photos. In the end I decide to go like me, except I stop at the drugstore on the way and pick up a pair of gigantic plastic glasses, just in case. At the photo shop I take two shots: Brentwood Lori and Med Student Lori. I’m versatile, like a Barbie doll.
       There’s a message from the physicist when I get home, but I still can’t hear how to pronounce his name, so I play the tape over and over like a Berlitz language cassette. A college friend calls from back East. She’s a writer who’s finishing her Ph.D., and we talk about the cult of celebrity feminism and biological clocks in the same breath. We decide we’re confused as a gender. I call two famous writers who helped me out recently when I was looking for an agent. I thank them and forget to mention that I saw one of the writer’s editors, Jason Epstein, written up in this week’s New Yorker. I realize I’m not cut out for networking at all.
       At 3:45 I get in the car and drive to the shrink. On the way to his oceanfront office, I plan on telling him how I should have mentioned the Jason Epstein thing on the phone, but the minute I get inside I start babbling about how unfair the MCAT was, how my bio section had four microbiology passages and the guy’s next to me had all the stuff I can do in my sleep–the kidney, the heart, the hemoglobin saturation curve–how I’ve never taken microbio so it’s not a true test of my knowledge, and how if only I’d been one seat over I would have got the other test form. I notice that my shrink is smiling at me. “What?” I ask. “What’s so funny?”
       “Nothing,” he replies. “It’s just that if the queen had balls, she’d be the king.”
       “I said,” he repeats, matter-of-factly, “if the queen had balls …”
       “That’s what you have to say?” I interrupt. “I tell you that I got screwed over by one seat on the MCAT, and instead of being empathic, or feeling bad for me, all you have to say is ‘If the queen had balls, she’d be the king’?” I make a mental note to skip psych rotation in med school.
       Around 7, I meet some friends at the local sushi place where Spielberg goes every week. The conversation revolves around diametrically opposed frustrations–careers that pay a lot but aren’t satisfying, careers that are satisfying but don’t pay enough, relationships kept unduly alive for fear of being alone, relationships aborted prematurely for fear of being too close. I don’t want to discuss this stuff over spicy tuna rolls; I want to enjoy my dinner, I want to laugh and have fun and not indulge in all this whining. It’s very 1992, I think, when all the self-help books with complementary workbooks and audiotapes started popping up in Borders.
       “So,” Allison, a studio vice president, says, stuffing a piece of California roll into her mouth, “if I’d just gone to Fox when I was offered that job, if I hadn’t taken the promotion and just gone to Fox instead, if I’d just …” She trails off, looking around the table for support. Sarah nods in agreement. Elizabeth takes her hand. Tom says the Fox job wouldn’t have been that great. Everyone turns to me, waiting for my two cents, my words of encouragement. I consider saying that maybe something else will happen at Fox, maybe the new studio president will mellow out. I think about offering bromides like: Maybe it’s for the best, maybe there’s a reason things happen. I dip my chopsticks into the wasabi, buy some time, then finally say, “Well, Ali, if the queen had balls, she’d be the king.”
       The table is silent for what seems like an eternity, and we sit, the five of us, a frozen tableau. But then Ali laughs, and we order more sushi. And for a few hours, at least, we somehow manage not to take ourselves so seriously.