Chapter Excerpt

Ask Again Later

Chapter One

I can remember the first Christmas after my father left. I was five. We didn't get a tree that year. We didn't buy gifts. Somehow it seemed pathetic to deck the halls and all—when Dad wasn't there. We missed opportunities. And I got really good at missing opportunities.

I am Emily. Emily Rhode. When I was in second grade, I experimented with changing my identity by misspelling my last name. I had hopes that a new spelling might transform me and permit me access to a new home, and a new life.

Sometimes it was Road. Or Rowed, and even Rode. Almost no one ever noticed the way my name was spelled. People just assume you're going to get your own name right. Except for Miss Bryan, my English teacher. She seemed curious. Or, at the very least, not comatose. She gave us an assignment.

"Write one paragraph about your home," said Miss Bryan. "Spelling counts."

Write about home . . . should I tell her the combination to the safe, too? I was eager to share, the perfect accomplice, and I didn't need more than one sentence. The sentence is as true today as it was twenty years ago: Home is a place you can never leave behind. I liked that it was both insistent and ambiguous. I spelled my name correctly, because spelling counts.

While you can't leave it behind, you can look at the events of your past from a new point of view. Turn them around. See all the angles. Consider it your second chance. Second chances do come your way. Like trains, they arrive and depart regularly. Recognizing the ones that matter is the trick.

My office chair is parked behind a small desk, and on the desk is a giant phone. I intentionally use the word parked because the chair is enormous and—if you believe the old wives' tales—engineered by the Ford Motor Company.

In front of my desk is an impressive wall of bulletproof Plexiglas. It's the one thing I'll miss about this crappy job when I leave. I've been able to work in confidence knowing that if someone tries to shoot me—the fabulously sultry gal who answers the telephone—the bullets will bounce mockingly off of the Plexiglas and not disturb me from the important business of answering the telephone.

When the phone doesn't ring for a while, I start to think about bringing in my own gun and taking a couple of shots at the Plexiglas to test it. Sure the manufacturer says it's bulletproof. I don't own a piece though, and when I call a shooting range somewhere in Millbrook, New York, they tell me not to call again. Ever. They refused to answer my question. How much will it cost to hire a guy to take a couple of shots at a piece of Plexiglas in a Midtown high-rise? It isn't their line of work, they claim.

"Yeah, but bottom line it for me, sister. Send a body out to gimme an estimate. Bottom line it for me," I say.

"You're crazy, lady," they say, and hang up. I'm just killing time and hoping they'll play along, and I'm disappointed when they refuse. For a moment I worry that I work for one of those companies that monitors its phone calls under the guise of quality control. I am instantly comforted when I realize I work for a law firm too disorganized to tap its own phones.

To say all I do is answer phones is to seriously downplay my role around here. I also control the buzzer button that opens the main door, allowing lawyers into their offices after they get off of the elevator, or return from the bathroom.

Sometimes I fail to push the buzzer with the deftness they might like. I eat up a second of this person's life, five seconds of that person's life. The ones who grow impatient quickly and who are easily angered are the ones I steal twenty seconds from for the sheer pleasure of it. They grunt and growl in sincere pissiness, and it makes me feel terrific, alive in that way that you don't feel often enough.

I daydream—and get paid for it. I recall a scene from An Officer and a Gentleman. At the end of the movie Richard Gere, dressed in his naval whites, goes into a factory, picks up Debra Winger, and carries her out of that depressing place with all of those dirty machines.

I wish that would happen to me. Of course the whole time I'd be worried that the guy was trying to guess my weight or something. I realize how truly pathetic I am. Some guy in a uniform drags his woman out of the workplace to stick her in a house to cook and possibly even clip coupons, and I am starting to buy into it, into the antifemale propaganda disguised as romance. As soon as he picks her up, things have to head south from there, because at some point, he has to put her down.

I blame my father for my current situation. It's so much easier to blame him than rehash my past and actually work through it. Instead, I pin all of my disappointment and loss on my current post. I can't decide what's worse, clock-watching or minimum wage. Luckily, I'm steeped in both, so I don't have to choose.

The world of nepotism is ugly and dark. I know. There are people out there paying their dues who probably deserve to sit behind this Plexiglas more than I do. If not for the fact that my father is so well connected, I'd be forced to do a job I got solely on merit. I'd be working as a lawyer, on track to make partner, at a firm where a senior partner was not 50 percent responsible for creating me. I would be boosting my résumé and sleeping with young enthusiasts of all things legal. The notion of being shot would, in all likelihood, not even occur to me. It certainly wouldn't preoccupy me. I may be the only professional in history to take several giant steps backward by cashing in on my "connections."

Ask Again Later. Copyright © by Jill Davis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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