At 5:56 p.m. on Wednesday, Mike sends me the following text:
Almost done? Really need you tonight.
Ah, yes, a witching-hour text. I’ve sent many such guilt-inducing missives myself. I know the scene well: Will whimpering; Nick racing a mixer truck down the hall; a weary adult trying to cook. But here in Mike’s office on the other side of the East River, I’m returning e-mails and waiting for “redlines”: copy-edits on a piece.
When I get home it feels like cheating: angelic wet-headed boys attach themselves to my legs. I play with Will on the bed, making sure that, like a doll, he still has that weighted feeling at his head and legs, and the squishy middle. Babies grow in bursts; by the weekend he could be like Nick, a solid child. Both boys go to sleep quickly, and their departure from my day seems punishingly swift. Mike is grouchy that, after an annoying evening, he still has to write his entry. I actually do say, “See? This is what it’s like.” Immediately I feel guilty. I stay up with him in solidarity until he’s finished, folding the laundry nearby on the floor.
This morning, Mike is the one who remembers it’s school picture day. Luckily there’s a gingham oxford available, not just a Batman shirt. At the bus stop, I brush Nick’s hair and warn him that at school another mother might do the same. Nick does not like the sound of this. “Will they do it to everyone’s hair?” he checks. He names a friend: “To Elliot?” It will be OK if they will also do it to Elliot. I have always wanted to volunteer on picture day, to be one of the mothers squatting before a child with a black plastic comb. My own school pictures are like flash cards, a deck that tells the story of all my years.
After I drop off Nick, I take an express train to the office. When I transfer to the local, there are several girls in square eyeglasses reading page proofs. We all get off at what I think of as the publishing stop. At Mike’s desk, I spend the morning e-mailing with Slate writer Dana Stevens about her review of Where the Wild Things Are. When I get her draft, I print it out, even though most people here edit onscreen. Mike encouraged me to do so as well, because that’s the way readers will consume the text. But Wild Things is a big movie, and I want to be careful. Besides, there’s something satisfying about making copy-editing marks, little scratches of an ancient code. Who knows how long there will still be a publishing stop.
When I get to the end of Dana’s (typically great) review, I e-mail her back, and as I wait for her reply, I think about how I am usually at her end of such an exchange. When I am at my desk in the kitchen at home, waiting for an editor to get back to me, I imagine that editor in a busy, climate-controlled world of decisions and quips, a world in which people are looking over their shoulders and joking on the way into meetings, and other people are just back from outside, setting down paper cups of coffee and refreshing their screens, coats still on, half-leaning over their desks. When I am here at Mike’s desk, I imagine the writers whom I e-mail as always being in the productive late-morning stage of a mental day. They sit before laptops that contain their lives; they go to counters and return to tables carrying perfectly pulled triple ristretto shots; they e-mail things off, then chat with a fellow neighborhood fixture or go for a run. I guess all this means is that I toggle back and forth between fantasy versions of each world in my brain.
When I first began freelancing 10 years ago, I missed being attached to an institution. I coveted letterhead. I’d forgotten that sensation, but it’s come back now that these two weeks are ending. I like fumbling for Mike’s ID in my bag as I approach the building. I take pride in Slate; I check it all the time. I have opinions about the cover. I feel proprietary about the place. Yesterday I walked to the kitchen, where I washed my apple over a sink filled with dirty mugs, one of which contained bloated shredded wheat. Nearby was a vending machine referred to as the Obesotron, because it won’t let you buy just one item at a time. Back at my computer, I recalled an e-mail thread from a day earlier about a nice cashier who was being let go from the cafeteria. Could her job be saved? I’m starting to feel like I’m in Then We Came to the End just as I’m getting ready to return to Prospect Park West.