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All I Learned
by Lori B.

As a child, I believed I was cursed. I used to lie in bed and listen to my parents argue about it. They’d go on and on.

“We need to change her birth certificate!” my mother would insist. “That date’s a bad omen. It’s evil!”

“Enough with your stupid theories,” my father would growl through clenched teeth. “According to Numerology, she’s destined for leadership, unless her ambition leads to self-doubt and failure …”

“But my friend Helen says …” 

“Helen’s a nut job!”

“She is not! It’s three sixes, Bill. Everybody knows what that means!”

“It means she’ll either be a go-getter or a flop, Maureen, and that’s all it means. End of story!”

They were talking about my birth date, 06-06-1996. It was an easy one to remember, but a sure sign of the devil to my superstitious mother, and a life path set in stone to my Numerologist father. All their incessant arguing about it just confused and demoralized me. It’s no wonder I suffered from anxiety and depression as an adult.

And maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a dark cloud did seem to hang over me each time my birthday rolled around. Every June 6th was marked by loss and disappointment. I lost two front teeth, homework, and candy bars. I lost socks, jewelry, and my pet hamster (R.I.P., Hamilton). I even lost my virginity on my birthday. I swore off birthdays after that particular disappointment.

But last year, as soon as I’d flipped the calendar to June, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my 24th birthday was approaching. I'd moved in with my cousin Sheila, and she'd circled the date in red. Then I learned she'd bought birthday candles and balloons, and had even ordered a cheesecake from Junior’s in Brooklyn for the occasion. I didn’t want to let her down, so I went along with her plans.

As it turned out, that birthday wasn’t so bad after all. True, I did lose three things, but I managed to get two of them back (and said good riddance to the third).

Sheila had always been like a big sister to me. She was an artsy type, and she seemed right at home in Alphabet City, a neighborhood on New York City’s lower east side described as “colorful” and “bohemian” on several tourist and real estate websites. She wore vintage clothes, made jewelry and sold it online, and was a part-time dog walker. When I graduated with a journalism degree, she urged me, a country mouse from upstate, to move in with her. “Maybe you can get a job at The New Yorker,” she teased, knowing how I devoured every issue of that magazine. I needed to get out of my parents’ house, so I didn’t hesitate to say yes, even though I was terrified of living in the big city.

The apartment was old (a one-bedroom, rent-controlled, third-floor walkup). My bed was a short futon in the living room. Noise from the street kept me up at night, and I had to walk through Sheila’s bedroom to get to the bathroom, which didn’t have a sink. On the other hand, rent was cheap, Sheila was fun, and my parents were 300 miles away. I decided to stay.

After living there only two months, I managed to get a temp job as a proofreader at The New Yorker. I couldn’t believe my luck. Now all I had to do was write something amazing to get the editors' attention. But the old self-doubt kicked in. I developed a bad case of writer's block.

Sheila gave me the nudge I needed. “Write what you know,” she told me. All I really knew about was my old life. That didn’t seem very interesting, though, so I looked around at my new one and jotted down a few sentences about Alphabet City. The pandemic had struck it a harsh blow. Many of the bodegas, restaurants, and vintage clothing shops had closed. On top of that, gentrification was creeping in, forcing store owners to move elsewhere. Our apartment wasn’t gentrified yet (unless you considered cockroaches landed gentry), but high-rises were going up all around us. The neighborhood was in danger of losing its character, and I wanted to capture some of that before it disappeared.

On the morning of my birthday, Sheila read my article at breakfast. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “Can you spell Pulitzer?” She pronounced it as Pew-litzer, but I didn’t correct her, even though I knew it should be Pull-it-sir.

“You’d better turn this in to someone at The New Yorker, immediately,” she said. 

“I don’t know. What if they don’t like it?”

“Just do it. After all, what would your idol, Dorothy Parker, say?”

Sheila knew how much I admired the famous writer. I gazed at Dorothy's black and white photo, the framed one I’d bought at a used art sale and hung on the wall over the futon. An outspoken poet, journalist, and screenwriter, Parker had worked for The New Yorker for almost 40 years, beginning in the 1920s. She was also a political activist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

I wanted to be like Dorothy Parker: strong, confident, outspoken. I was nothing at all like her.

“I said, what would Dorothy Parker say,” Sheila repeated, taking the picture off the wall and handing it to me. That's when I felt a small hole in the frame's crumbling paper backing. I turned it over to examine it and noticed, for the first time, a small, yellowed slip of paper sandwiched between the photo and the backing. I pulled it out. It was a line from one of Parker's poems.

“And if my heart be scarred and burned … The safer, I, for all I learned,” I slowly recited, feeling a shiver of excitement run through me.

“Go on, then,” Sheila advised. “Submit your article. So what if your heart gets a little … what was it? Scarred and burned? Won’t you learn something?”

I knew she was right. With more resolve than I’d ever felt in my life, I slipped my typewritten pages into a manila envelope and put it in the briefcase that held my notes and rough drafts. “I’ll do it today,” I said.

But in my enthusiasm, I’d forgotten it was my birthday.

* * * * *

An hour later, I arrived at my office in the basement and got right to work. My boss was breathing down my neck. My co-worker, C.J., had gone off to a meeting and we were up against a deadline, so I had to wait until later to get away.

Finally, at lunchtime, I grabbed my envelope and rode the elevator to the fourth floor. The editor’s office was directly across from the elevator, and the secretary looked up when the doors opened. She’d seen me; there was no turning back.

“Is Ms. Blake accepting submissions?” I asked, trying to sound sure of myself.

“Whatcha got there?” the secretary inquired, eyeing my envelope.

“Just something I wrote the other day," I said, laughing nervously. “I’d love to get Ms. Blake’s feedback, if it’s not too much trouble.” I handed my packet to the woman, who took it and tossed it nonchalantly into a basket on her desk.

“I … I work here,” I added. “In Proofreading. My name’s …”

She cut me off. “Is your contact information on it?”

“Yes, on the cover page.”

“Then she’ll get back to you within six weeks.”

Six weeks? I tried to hide my disappointment. Just then, Ms. Blake’s door opened, and a tall woman in a burgundy suit stepped out. It was Vanessa McDermott, one of the senior writers on staff. I remembered her from the times she’d come down to Proofreading to give C.J. some work. I’d noticed her flirting with him, too.

“Yes, that’s Calvin Jones, with a C, not a K,” Vanessa was saying. “Make sure you get it right. And I agree, his writing talents are being wasted in Proofreading.”

Did she say Calvin Jones, a.k.a. C.J.? Calvin Jones, who sat next to me in Proofreading? Calvin Jones, whom I’d secretly been dating for the past two and a half months?

Vanessa gave me a weak smile as she brushed past me and got into the elevator. Her perfume lingered in the air. I was too stunned to follow her. Besides, what would I say? I didn’t want to seem too curious about C.J. But why had she mentioned his name to Ms. Blake, and why did they think he was talented? I’d seen the adventure novel he was working on, and he was no Ernest Hemingway.

I spun around, hoping to catch Ms. Blake’s eye before she closed her door again, but I was too late. It had already swung shut.

C.J. still wasn’t at his desk when I got back to mine. I’d hoped to ask him what Vanessa was talking about, but I’d have to wait till later. He was supposed to be coming over for the birthday celebration Sheila had planned.

My phone buzzed at four-thirty. It was Ms. Blake’s secretary. “You’re wanted up on the fourth floor,” was all she said. Could it be that Ms. Blake had read my story already, and liked it? I started fantasizing about bylines and Pulitzers on my way upstairs.

“Please have a seat,” Ms. Blake told me, sounding troubled. I sensed something was wrong, especially when I noticed the head of H.R. sitting in a darkened corner. Had I misspelled the headline, forgotten a comma, stapled the pages in the wrong order? Was my writing second-rate?

The truth was even worse.

“I’ve read your article,” she said, peering at me over her reading glasses.

“Thanks,” I said. “They say ‘write what you know,’ and I live …”

“Alphabet City seems to be a very popular topic,” she interrupted.

“It is?” I asked, my voice shaking.

“Yes,” she said, her tone flat. “In fact, yours was the second story on the subject that’s come across my desk today.” She glanced over at the H.R. man.

He cleared his throat. “Let’s get to the point,” he barked. “There’s no room for plagiarism here at The New Yorker.”

“P … plagiarism?” I squeaked, looking from him to Ms. Blake. She was scowling. My stomach clenched.

“I’m sure you know what we mean,” Ms. Blake answered. “How is it that your article is so similar to this other one, the one delivered to me this morning by Ms. McDermott?” She held up both versions of the story, one in each hand. From where I sat, they looked identical, except for the font.

I was aghast. How had this happened? For a moment I started to doubt myself. Had I inadvertently seen Vanessa's notes, and they’d subconsciously seeped into my brain? Was I just an imposter with an impossible dream? Was I, in fact, dreaming?

I looked down at my hands. “I wrote it myself,” I managed to whisper. “I still have all my notes and drafts,” I offered.

“If that’s true,” the editor told me, “then prove it. Show me those notes. But you’d better hurry. I have a dinner engagement.”

I ran down the stairs to my office. But when I got there, my briefcase was gone.

I searched under desks, behind doors, even in the closet. It had vanished, and I knew there was no way to prove the story was mine. I couldn’t very well say, “I lost my briefcase.” Who would believe me? It would be like claiming that the dog ate my homework. I assumed Vanessa McDermott had peeked in my briefcase one day while I’d ducked out to use the restroom, and that she was claiming the story as her own. She had seniority, and a title. It would just be my word against hers.

I didn’t even bother to go back and plead my case. I couldn’t bear to hear the words “you’re fired,” not from someone at The New Yorker. I simply cleaned out my desk and walked out.

* * * * *

The noise and heat from the street slapped me in the face, and it felt personal. I was crushed. I’d wanted to be a writer, but it looked as if the only writing I’d be doing would be filling out job applications. The words “failure” and “flop” that I’d heard so often as a child echoed inside my head. I started to spiral.

Without a job, I couldn’t afford to pay my share of the rent. I’d have to move back in with my parents, which meant enduring more of their ongoing, senseless arguing. I’d never been suicidal before, but for a moment, I considered sticking my head in the oven at Sheila’s place and turning on the gas. But that was crazy. It was an electric oven.

I walked to a bench (I think it was in Zuccotti Park, but I was in too much of a daze to really notice), sat down, and did some breathing exercises to calm myself. Then I texted C.J. He’d understand what I was feeling. He knew how hard I’d worked on my story. He’d even read it, standing behind me while I typed the whole thing out one night.  “Not bad,” he’d said. A man of few words, that C.J. was.

I sent him a crying face emoji. We usually just sent emojis and saved the actual conversation, if you could call it that, for when we saw each other. I decided to add something else to get his attention. “WTF!” I typed, and hit “send” again.

When he didn’t answer that time, I followed up with “I was fired!” I waited ten minutes and then started walking up Broadway. It was a good street for walking and thinking. Not so crowded that you’d come to a complete standstill, but not so empty that you’d fear for your life.

There was still nothing but silence from C.J. Maybe his phone was turned off. It was a warm but mild evening, so I kept walking. I walked for over half an hour. Before I knew it, I’d reached City Hall Park. I found another empty bench and tried to reach him again.

“Where are you?” I typed, and this time I included not one, but three crying face emojis. Suddenly, three small dots appeared, then disappeared, in the chat thread. Obviously, he’d seen my message, so why wasn’t he texting? In fact, why wasn’t he calling me?

Another fifteen minutes went by, which had given me time to ponder all his recent avoidances. I was starting to suspect I was being dumped.

“Hey,” he suddenly texted, plus a sad face emoji. I waited for him to go on, but he didn’t, so I stepped in to fill the awkward void.

“Cheesecake?” I typed, adding the birthday cake emoji. 

“Cake?” he answered, with no emoji. I hadn’t realized just how dumb he was until that moment. I spelled it out for him.

“Birthday cake.”

Three dots appeared, and disappeared. That bastard, I thought. He’d forgotten my birthday.

“I think we need a break,” he texted, adding, confusingly, a heart and another sad face next to the words. 

The coward! He was breaking up with me by text! I thought about sending this: “Thanks for signing up for a Cat Facts subscription! >o<.” I’d follow that up with two or three cat facts a day, a fake option to cancel his subscription, and then, a few days later, one hundred more cat facts. (He hated cats.) But I decided he wasn’t worth the trouble, so I just sent this well-composed text instead: 

“K.”

And suddenly, I had an epiphany. Vanessa McDermott had said, “With a C, not a K. Make sure you get it right.” She must have been talking about a byline! C.J. somehow had gotten his hands on my story. I knew I shouldn't have let him see it. And then he'd convinced Vanessa it was his, and used her as his unsuspecting messenger.

I knew what I needed to do. I hailed a cab and gave the cabbie C.J.’s address. He had my briefcase, I was sure of it. He couldn’t write a well-composed sentence himself, but he was perfectly willing to steal mine. I’d barge into his apartment, ask for my Adele CD back (I really did want it back), and locate my missing briefcase. I knew he was too clueless to think of hiding it anywhere. 

In the cab on the way there, another Dorothy Parker quotation resonated in my brain. It was one I’d read years ago, and it had convinced me to agree to move in with Sheila and apply for a job at The New Yorker, despite my fear of failure. I reeled the memory in and spoke the words aloud:

“London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.” 

My cab driver heard me. He nodded his head in agreement and stepped a little harder on the gas.

* * * * *

Epilogue, June 6, 2021.

Happy birthday to me. I turned a quarter of a century old today, and I didn’t lose a thing. 

A year ago, I’d lost my briefcase, my job, and my boyfriend. I got the first two back and said good riddance to the third. Even though I wanted to, I didn’t press charges about the stolen briefcase. After all, as Dorothy Parker once said, “Living well is the best revenge.”

Sheila and I ordered another cheesecake tonight from Junior’s. We ate it while watching the 1937 version of A Star is Born (co-written by Dorothy Parker). Then we went for a walk around the neighborhood. It was still colorful and bohemian, in spite of all the recent changes. I felt kind of colorful and bohemian, too. I had the definite feeling that “something good was about to come off.” 

The only thing to do after that was to hurry to meet it, so I did. I went inside, sat down at my desk, and started to write.

 

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