June 21, 2022
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“I’m here and I have coffee!”
After five years as a personal assistant, I have found that entering a chaotic scene with caffeine is the quickest way to ease panic. It’s a distraction, it boosts morale, and if you’re working in the ever-intense theater world, it’s often as necessary as breathing.
Roshni, our second assistant, is quick to approach as the penthouse door swings closed behind me. She’s wearing a knee-length floral romper, and her flawless ebony hair is parted just off to the side. If I wore a romper, it’d look like a man’s bathing costume circa 1916, but on Roshni, it’s the ultimate embodiment of summer fun. I’m still not positive if I want to be her or marry her, but we’ve happily settled on being ride or die work friends in the meantime.
“Thank you so much,” she says, scooping her iced hazelnut coffee out of the to-go tray I’m carrying and casting a nervous glance over her shoulder. “Okay, so, two things. One, I accidentally knocked a pile of papers off Juliette’s desk, which then led to her calling me an anarchist and threatening to have me arrested. And two, she thinks you’re going to London.”
“What makes you say that?”
“She straight-up told me you were going to London.”
“I am not going to London,” I announce, making my voice loud enough to carry through the spacious four-bedroom apartment. With almost a decade of drama study under my belt, my vocal projection is legit.
“Why are you always so resistant to anything remotely ex-citing? To stand still is to go backwards, Winnie.”
I hear her before I see her. Juliette Brassard. My boss of five years, my pseudo-mother, my often-combative sibling, and the perpetual bane of my existence. Working for her is tiring, demanding, slightly monotonous and bizarre, but I love every second of it.
She looks the same as she does most days. Wide-legged pants and a layered top. Always layered. Today it’s a beige cotton shirt and a charcoal vintage vest. Her straight gray-brown hair just reaches her shoulders and thick-rimmed glasses cover her ceaselessly curious chestnut eyes. Her style is a fair reflection of her life—eclectic and casual but secretly expensive.
“It was never the plan for me to go to London,” I tell her. “Roshni is going with you, and you were perfectly happy with the arrangements yesterday.”
“Yes, well, happiness is fleeting, and I realized today that I need my whole team with me if this trip is going to be a success.”
“I checked with the airline this morning,” Roshni says, taking a tentative step forward. “And apparently there’s one seat left in first class.” I shoot her a loving glare as Juliette raises a victorious arm in her direction.
“You see? It’s a sign from the universe.”
“It’s not a sign from the universe,” I counter. “It’s a ridiculous amount of money to pay, and you’re probably the only non-tech billionaire who’s willing to spend that much for a fully reclining seat.”
“A noble sentiment. You should preach that sermon to the bare foot that caressed our cheeks the last time we sat in coach.”
“Okay, we had one uncomfortable flight from LA, and you know full well that the guy was wearing socks.”
“I don’t know that, Winnie. I’ve repressed the memory so deep into my subconscious that I’ll be shuffling around this apartment and whispering about phantom feet until I’m ninety.” She spins away with her typical dramatic flair, opting to walk over to the windows and gazing out at the traffic below. She also covertly checks to see if I’m still watching her.
I choose to ignore her attention-seeking behavior and in-stead place our drinks down on an antique side table. With my hands now free, I pick up a stack of opened event invitations that I left there the day before, giving them one final look over before handing them to Roshni, who’s still standing nearby.
“I’ll reorganize the papers on her desk,” I tell her. “Just RSVP to these, and then we can go over tomorrow’s itinerary. Blue Post-its are a yes. Yellows are a no.”
“Blue, yes. Yellow, no. Got it.” She exits the room with her coffee and the invites, seemingly happy to get out of the fray. If only I was so lucky.
Juliette’s been dropping hints about me going on this trip with them for the past week, but I’ve always managed to side-step the issue. And now, she’s brought the battle to my door-step. Or I guess it’s really her doorstep, since she lives here. And what a doorstep it is.
Twenty floors up on a cobbled Tribeca street, you’d either have to be born into money or wildly successful to own one of these grandly scaled units. Juliette is both. Already a border-line heiress thanks to her Manhattan real-estate mogul father, she then went on to become one of the city’s most celebrated playwrights. She was given everything but still hustled like crazy for her career and threw all of her time and energy into mastering her craft. Luckily for her, it proved to be a lethal combination.
As a native New Yorker and a fiercely proud West-Sider, Juliette’s lived in this apartment for as long as I’ve worked for her. The furniture is mismatched and romantic, and white walls are splashed with green from her dozens of potted plants. Every available surface is covered with old scripts, books, or mugs with half-drunk cups of tea. It’s scholarly chic. If Jane Austen ever traveled forward through time, I like to imagine that this is what her apartment would look like. Alas, dear Jane is nowhere to be found as Juliette steps away from the windows, moving through the space to sit on the arm of her tufted couch.
“Give me one good reason why you can’t go on this trip.” I roll my shoulders, trying to relieve a sudden stress knot before taking a much-needed sip of my latte. “Because you’re leaving tonight. I’m not mentally or physically prepared, and this is supposed to be my yearly vacation time. I have projects that I need to work on, too.”
“Yes, your grand opus of a play that you’re forever editing. Maybe the change of scenery will inspire you. In London, love and scandal are considered the best sweeteners of tea.”
“Don’t try to mind-trick me with John Osborne quotes.” Juliette groans and pushes up off the sofa. “I’m only trying to help you.”
“It would help me if you read my play and told me what you think.”
She just looks at me then and says nothing, no doubt trying to come up with another lackluster excuse. I’ve asked her to read my play dozens of times over the years, but she always finds a reason not to. She’s too busy, her mind is clouded, she’s not in the right mood.
“I’ll read it when it’s finished. Whatever I say now would alter your creative course.”
Ah, so she doesn’t want to sway my process. Not likely. Juliette’s perpetually happy to give her two cents on everything, especially on another playwright’s work.
“As far as London,” she goes on, “you just need to think about it more. Mull it over, let the idea sink in, and if you could agree to come with us in the next ten to fifteen minutes, that would be great.” She goes to leave the room after that but stops short when her cell phone starts ringing. She looks around but doesn’t find it. I do the same until she digs into the couch cushions and eventually plucks it out. She checks the caller ID and smiles as she answers.
“Liam! To what do I owe the pleasure?”
A little out of breath from her impromptu sofa wrestling match, she twists around and away from me, walking over to the windowsill and picking up a small watering can. She sprinkles her first row of plant babies as she listens to his response. Liam is her nephew and lives in London, which is also where her sister, Isabelle, has lived since she moved there in her twenties. I’ve never met her or him, but I have sent Liam gifts on Juliette’s behalf every Christmas and on his birthday.
“That’s right,” she says, moving on to the next row of plants. “I’m getting in tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. Will I be seeing you?” She tries to water the oversized ficus in the corner, but the can is empty. “Sounds great! Here, I’m passing you over to Winnie for a second. Do me a favor and convince her to come on the trip with me. She’s being obstinate.”
“What? No.” My protest is in vain as Juliette’s phone is already in flight. I barely catch it as she disappears into the kitchen, shaking the empty watering can over her shoulder in response.
I clear my throat and put the phone to my ear. “Hello, Liam.”
“Hello, is Winnie there, please?” he asks with mock seriousness.
I fail to suppress my involuntary smile at his polite request and inviting British accent. “This is she,” I answer back.
“Excellent, just the person I was hoping to speak to.”
“My sentiments exactly. To be honest, I’ve secretly been dying to talk to you for years.”
“Have you really?” he asks, surprised.
“No, not really. I don’t even know you.” He says nothing, and I think I might have scared him a bit. “Sorry,” I lightly amend, “I thought we were pretending that we actually meant to have this conversation.”
“Yes, well, that was my initial intention, but it turns out you’re much more convincing than I am. I can only assume that you’ve had formal training?”
“That assumption would be correct.”
“I should have figured.” His voice is surprisingly calm, sounding more like one of my old improv buddies and less like a stranger who’s thousands of miles away. “So,” he goes on, “I’ve been instructed by my aunt to convince you to come to London.”
“She does seem to have that idea stuck in her head.”
“There’s much to recommend it, of course. Red buses. A phenomenal bridge. How do you feel about museums?”
“I hate them,” I tease.
“Absolutely. Nothing to be learned from there. And what about parks?”
“Not into them at all.”
“Couldn’t agree more. I’m violently allergic to pollen, and why should I be forced to carry an EpiPen just so everyone else can enjoy natural beauty? Pure selfishness on their end.”
I smile to myself and pivot around so I’m no longer standing still. “I knew you couldn’t be as normal as you originally sounded. It’s to be expected, though, since you do share a bloodline with Juliette.”
“Yes, we had hoped lunacy would skip a generation, but apparently not.” He pauses then, and I somehow know that he’s smiling, too. “So, how am I faring on my quest so far? Are you packing your bags at this very moment?”
“Unfortunately not. I somehow forgot to bring all my lug-gage and clothes with me to work today, but still, this has been a very pleasant verbal exchange thus far.”
“For me as well. Can I ask what’s holding you back from taking the trip?”
“You may, but I may also choose not to answer.”
“Ah, a lady of secrets, are we?”
“Oh yes,” I answer dramatically. “A lady of many secrets and a play that I need to finish in seventeen days if I’m going to make a contest deadline.”
“Really? I take it that you’re a playwright as well, then?”
“In that case, as you have a very good reason to stay at home rather than crossing the Atlantic, I won’t try to sway you any further…but know that I do so very reluctantly.”
“I appreciate that.”
Juliette sashays back into the room then, the watering can forgotten as she plops down onto the couch with one of her many notebooks. I’ll have to see to the rest of the plants later. She props her feet up on the coffee table and begins to write as I make my way towards her.
“Alright, well, your aunt is now back, so I’ll get going.” “It was very nice meeting you, Winnie.”
“We didn’t actually meet,” I say, correcting him.
“But it sort of feels like we did.”
I find myself grinning once more and shift away so Juliette won’t notice. “I guess it does,” I admit. “Bye, Liam.”
“Goodbye, Winnie.” I pivot back around and hand the phone over. Juliette looks at me with a mischievous sort of smirk as I shake my head and step away to hang my bag in the entryway closet.