Below is the opening chapter of Friendship, the new novel by Emily Gould, who we’ve featured often on Longreads in the past. Thanks to Gould and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community. You can purchase the full book from WORD Bookstores.
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The temp agency’s application was only four pages long, but somehow Bev hadn’t managed to fill it out. She’d told herself that she would do it on the subway on the morning of the interview, but then the train was so crowded that it was impossible even to reach into her bag to get the form. Also, J. R. Pinkman was in her subway car, waving to her from his own packed corner. She smiled—it was nice to see someone she knew, in this context, to be reminded of who she was underneath her costume. “Dress corporately,” the woman at the temp agency had told her in an email, and now she was riding the B train at 8:30 a.m. in a taupe trench coat over a jacket and skirt that were slightly different shades of black. But while it was good to catch a glimpse of a familiar face, she didn’t want to actually talk to J.R. She wanted to grab a seat when the train let half its passengers off at Grand Street and then use the remaining ten minutes of the commute to fill out her form. She waved back at him, but dropped her gaze and dipped her head down, conveying preoccupied busyness and giving him tacit permission to do the same.
The train stopped at Grand Street, and J.R. bumped and pushed down the length of car between himself and Bev. They’d worked together at Warwicke Smythe, a literary agency, and Bev had even maybe had a slight crush on him when she’d first met him. But in this morning subway light no one looked too great. J.R. was also carrying several dingy tote bags, presumably containing several different shitty manuscripts, in addition to the one in his hand.
“Where are you headed?” he asked, gesturing at Bev’s outfit.
“I’m temping,” she said. It felt good to admit it and then, in the silence that followed, less good to have done so.
“I thought you were in grad school!”
“I was, for a year.” She smile-winced. “It, uh, it just started seeming like this huge waste of money. But now I have to start paying back the huge amount of money I already wasted.” She pointed at the manuscript he was holding, desperate to redirect the conversation and to remind him (and herself) that she’d left the literary agency for a good reason. “Reading anything good?”
J.R. shook the sheaf of printed-out pages in his hand. “Ha, are you kidding? It’s just more of Warwicke’s memoirs.” J.R. was one of a team of assistants employed mostly to type up and copyedit their ancient boss’s never-to-be-published memoirs, and also to roll him to the restroom every half hour or so. “You must be so thrilled that you don’t have to think about any of this bullshit anymore.”
“Ha, yeah. Thrilled. Unemployment is thrilling.”
The train shuddered to a halt at Broadway-Lafayette. “Well, tell everyone I say hi!” Bev said as J.R. gathered his tote bags and prepared to disembark.
“I will. I’ll make an announcement about it in the morning meeting,” he shouted over the mechanized command to stand clear of the closing doors.
“Don’t tell them I’m temping!” she called after him as he left the train, but he didn’t turn around and Bev wasn’t sure whether he’d heard her.
She climbed up out of the subway into Bryant Park five minutes before the interview was supposed to start and looked around for a spot where she could huddle and fill out the application. The first raindrops of a sudden storm were falling just as she got aboveground, and her taupe trench coat immediately developed ugly dark blotches. She was going to have to buy one of those street vendor umbrellas. They cost only five dollars, but they were pretty much worthless, so it always seemed like a shame, and five dollars represented a depressingly large percentage of Bev’s current net worth. Ducking under an overhang by the library steps, she checked the ledge at her elbow for pigeon poop before putting the form down on it. The standard stuff—references, employment history—she completed quickly, then found herself unexpectedly stymied, with only a minute left, by a question on the last page.
“What are your grandest aspirations?”
There were spaces for three grand aspirations, each space about half a line long. Not even long enough for a full sentence. Bev glanced at her watch, then spent an infinite frozen moment watching a pair of finches hopping around in the grass, yelling their little heads off over a scrap of chain-café cookie. The last time she’d confronted this stupid question had probably been in high school, or in church as a teenager. She imagined teen Bev filling in the blanks with zero hesitation: 1. Serve God. 2. Marry a good Christian. 3. Raise children in the ways of the Lord. Had she believed these were her true goals, even then? By freshman year of college, the grand aspirations would already have shifted to 1. Read every book. 2. Live as far away from the Midwest as possible. 3. Never turn down an opportunity to get shitfaced.
But what were her grandest aspirations now, and more important, what could she pretend they were so that the last page of this godforsaken form wouldn’t be empty? She peeked at her cracked old iPhone to make sure her watch was correct, saw the time, and then hurriedly began to write. The truth, as usual, came to her more easily than fiction.
“1. Achieve financial stability” was real, if obvious.
“2. Find community” was vague, but who cared, and
“3. Feel like I’m playing an important role in life” was maybe too weird, but it was the first thing that popped into her head, and better than a blank line.
Ten minutes later she was sitting across a small table from a sweet-faced woman in a miniature windowless room with blank walls. It looked like an interrogation room. Bev resisted the temptation to make a joke about requesting that her lawyer be present. The application was on the table between them, and the woman flipped through it. She nodded, nodded, nodded, then wrinkled her forehead.
“There’s a little gap in employment here, Beverly. Can I ask why?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. I didn’t know how to indicate what happened there.”
The interviewer made a little mm-hmm noise, tilted her chin up, and widened her eyes, as though she were generously trying to keep an open mind.
“When I left the publishing house, it was because I moved to Madison to be with my boyfriend, who was going to law school there. I lived there for a year, and I had a service job, working in a wine bar. I didn’t think it was worth mentioning, and I don’t have the information for the manager or anything.”
“But then you moved back here and worked at the literary agency?”
“Yes, three years ago.”
“And then you quit working at the agency to go to graduate school.”
“I started a master’s program. I decided that particular program wasn’t for me, and I might, uh, apply to other programs. At some point.”
The woman grimaced, so quickly Bev almost didn’t notice. She was wearing a mall-jewelry necklace made of oversize knobs of fake silver and gold, in which Bev could see a distorted reflection of her own face. “So is your boyfriend all done with law school now?”
“I assume so. We broke up, and I moved back to New York. I mean, I obviously wish I’d never quit my job and moved to be with him, but what can you do?”
“I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up a touchy subject. And of course that’s not germane to the interview. I think we should probably say you took a year off to travel—how’s that?”
“And you’re a writer?”
“That’s so cool! So what kind of stuff do you write?”
Temp agency applications. “Oh, everything. I mean, all kinds of stuff. I’m working on some stories right now that are sort of … memoiristic?”
“I think that’s so interesting! Where would I have seen your work? I love memoirs! Right now my book club is reading Eat, Pray, Love. I love the author. She’s so … gutsy, you know? Just leaving her whole life behind and traveling alone for a year.”
“Yes, she was very gutsy.”
“What you did was sort of like that!”
“Sort of!” Bev felt an involuntary tightness in the back of her throat, as though she might start crying. She willed it away with a brisk shake of her head that she hoped was subtle. “So what kinds of placements, I mean, with my qualifications … what are you thinking? My friend who referred me to your agency said that potentially you could find me an admin assistant placement … I have lots of experience being someone’s assistant, as you can see…”
The interviewer’s eyes skimmed over the résumé again and then, unsubtly, over Bev, taking in the scuffed pumps, the mismatched blacks, the spill of corn silk–colored hair that Bev had hurriedly tried to corral with a chip clip because she couldn’t find a hair elastic. Bev had a natural, farmgirlish loveliness, but she had never been able to pull off what fashion magazines called a “polished” look, maybe because that look required either preternatural self-grooming talents or having been born rich.
“Well, a lot of those positions are in finance and law, and with your … qualifications it seems like you’d be better suited to publishing. I don’t have anything in publishing available at the moment, but we could wait a few weeks and see if anything came up?”
“Oh. Okay. Well, um, do you have anything that isn’t admin? I would be happy to do other kinds of projects. The thing is, I’d just like to get started as soon as possible.”
The interviewer flipped cursorily through her binder, but then something caught her by surprise and she stopped. “Oh! Wait. There is this. Commercial real estate company. They’re putting together sales report packets and need help collating the reports for distribution to their shareholders; they don’t want to outsource it to a document prep service because the material is confidential. What do you think? You’d also be filling in for a receptionist, but the work is mostly collating and binding. Maybe some light phones. Your own desk and everything.”
“That sounds perfect!” Bev said. All words spoken in this room were so disassociated from meaning, she thought, then reminded herself not to be a snob. This temp job wasn’t an option she could take or leave. It was the difference between eating and not.
“Great! You could start tomorrow, actually, if you liked. Oh, and it’s ten fifty an hour. So I’ll just get you a packet with your contract and some stubs for your hours, and we’ll be in business!”
“Wonderful!” said Bev. Ten fifty—minus the taxes they’d withhold, minus the hour-long lunch that would be deducted even if she spent it at her desk. If she could somehow work at this temp placement for the next twenty years and not spend any money on food or rent, she would be able to pay back her student loans by the time she was seventy-five.
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From Friendship, copyright 2014 Emily Gould. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.