Marcy Dermansky | Excerpt | October 2016 | 12 minutes (2,933 words)
In The Red Car, Marcy Dermansky’s newly released third novel, 33-year-old Leah Kaplan is lured away from an ill-considered marriage and taken on a surprise hero’s journey.
With deadpan humor, in dreamlike, Murakami-inspired unvarnished prose, Dermansky tells the story of Leah’s adventures after a former boss dies and bequeaths to her the red sports car Leah never liked in the first place.
This curious inheritance, and her boss’s funeral, leads the Queens-dweller back to San Francisco, where she’d worked and lived just after college. There, Leah gets to back up in reverse to relive a bit of her youth, and to reconsider her life choices from a better informed perspective before moving forward into a more intentionally designed adulthood.
Can a novel about a 33-year-old woman qualify as a coming-of-age story? When she was interviewed by Steph Opitz at Kirkus Reviews, Dermansky argued in favor of that possibility.
“Maybe coming of age is happening a bit later,” she said. “Maybe people find themselves a bit later. It’s funny because you’re not supposed to come of age in your 30s, but maybe people are allowed to keep reinventing themselves. Maybe it doesn’t stop.”
As a 51-year-old late bloomer I’m encouraged by that idea. And it supports a hunch of mine: that the older women are—the more entrenched patriarchy was when they were growing up—the longer they might need to be allowed to arrive at true self-actualization. Here is Dermansky’s excerpt.
* * *
Judy shook her head when she saw me the next day, dressed in the same clothes I had worn to work the day before. “We used to call that the walk of shame,” she said.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” I said.
If only I had rolled out of my boyfriend’s bed.
I always felt pleased by the fact that Judy liked me. Before getting this job, I had only temped at a couple of places. I had, in fact, started out temping for her. Even before the interview, I had that going for me. I had showed her a shortcut in Microsoft Excel that she thought was clever. “You can make spreadsheets!” she said, surprised and delighted.
It was true. I had skills. I also told her about an Italian movie I had seen at an art house theater that I thought she would like. She went to see it and she liked it, too. It turned out she created the position for me. Until then, she had never had a full-time assistant because everyone bugged her too much. Judy had also tried teaching me how to knit, but it turned out that I did not have the patience for it.
I would not know until later, years later, when I didn’t work for her, when I had left San Francisco, that I loved her. She looked like Liza Minnelli. She was divorced. She liked to paint. Almost everyone at the office was scared of her. She said what she thought. She had the power to hire people and also fire them. And she did fire people, frequently. Drunken custodians, incompetent receptionists, high-paid managers who went over budget. Rarely did anyone get a second chance.
I told Judy about my night, leaving out the part about sleeping on the floor of the hallway. I knew about Judy’s ex-husband, an alcoholic who used to beat her before she got the hell out. She knew about my anorexic roommate and my boyfriend who was not actually my boyfriend. Still, I had to keep some things to myself. She had some clothes back from the dry cleaner, which she told me to wear.
“Really?” I said.
“You can’t work looking like that,” she said.
I was not only creased. My clothes were dirty. I put on Judy’s black skirt, the white silk shirt, and then, the blazer.
“You look like a different person,” she said. “Bad?” I asked.
I felt uncomfortable in Judy’s clothes. Like an impostor. She was six inches shorter than I was and so the skirt showed off way too much leg. Otherwise, her clothes fit.
“No,” Judy said. “You look incredibly put together. I am surprised.”
What this told me, of course, was that normally I did not look put together. I supposed I knew that already.
“You need a new boyfriend,” Judy said.
The observation made me wince. “I know that.” “And a new place to live.”
“I know that, too,” I said.
Judy sighed. Sometimes she knew when to back off. Sometimes, she reminded me too much of my mother. Other times, just as irritating, she reminded me that she was boss. Now, she handed me a folder.
“Work,” she said. “We have a job opening for a new admin, level three, who is going to work for Harry over in contracts. Here are some job descriptions for similar jobs for you to go on. Can you write this up for me? I need a classified ad and the job description itself.”
“Okay,” I said.
I reluctantly took the folder.
There were days at this job I didn’t have any work to do at all. Judy liked that I worked on my fiction at the office, advised me to lie to anyone who asked me, to always say that I was working, even when I wasn’t. Judy had high expectations for me. She quizzed me about my life. She always wanted me to write more, do more, be more. There were moments when I wanted to tell her to shove it. It was not like her paintings were showing in galleries, that she had a boyfriend. But I never did. At all costs, as a rule, I avoided confrontation.
“Why don’t you get this done by lunch?” she said. She saw the surprise on my face. “And then we’ll go out. I have something special to show you. There’s a new tapas place I want to try. Does that sound good?”
“It sounds good,” I said.
I could not tell her that I had hoped for a different morning. To play video games on my computer and drink coffee. She hired me to be her friend, but she also needed an assistant. The work was real. I wondered what it was that Judy wanted to show me.
I walked back to my cubicle. I noticed so many people looking me up and down and I wondered why. In general, I was not liked at my workplace. It was known that I was Judy’s pet. The other administrative assistants knew I did not value my job. I understood this and had respect for their contempt. Many of the other employees were in their thirties and forties and even fifties. They had kids and mortgages and I did not know what else. Credit card debt.
“You look nice,” Beverly called out from her cubicle as I passed by. Beverly was one of the admins in her fifties. She had long gray hair and wore oversized linen clothes to work. “What’s going on? Big meeting? Job interview?”
And then, it clicked.
I was wearing Judy’s clothes. “A date after work?”
I shook my head. “I generally don’t go out on dates,” I said, admitting to too much.
“And that is one of the problems of your generation. All sex. No romance. No love.”
I could not disagree with that.
“I spilled coffee on my shirt,” I said. “Judy lent me this outfit.”
Beverly nodded her head. “That explains it. The skirt is a little bit too short for an interview.”
I nodded. I stood at the edge of her cubicle. It was not that I did not like Beverly. She made me nervous. She told me once that she only had fifteen more years until her pension. So she was going to keep on doing the job that she had for fifteen more years, even though she hated it. I felt like it was necessary to stay away from Beverly; I did not want her resignation to rub off on me. That was how I felt about pretty much everybody in my office. That they were all resigned to mediocrity. And who was I, after all, to want so much more? Even Judy, so high and mighty. She seemed hopelessly stuck to me.
I held up my folder. “Work to do,” I said.
Beverly gave a wry laugh. She and Judy used to be friends. They had had a falling-out. This was years ago, long before I had started working there. That was another reason I avoided Beverly, not wanting to get in the middle. But really, it was because Beverly was preparing herself for death, and while I was not entirely satisfied with the circumstances of my existence, I felt like the possibility of improvement still existed. That I could make happiness happen. That night, for instance, I was determined not to sleep on the hallway floor.
To get to my cubicle, I passed four more cubicles, and then Diego’s office. Diego, he was different from the rest. He was also young, only a couple of years older than me. He wore slick suits, crisp shirts, silver and navy blue ties. He had a degree in architecture from a good school. He was from Costa Rica. I had an enormous crush on Diego. We were friends. He was clearly not interested in me and so it helped when we out for lunch or hung out by the water cooler that he knew that I had a boyfriend.
“Leah,” he called out. “You look so nice today.”
It was an invitation. I came into his office, sat on his desk. It was a flirtatious move on my part. That was what we did. Besides lunch with Judy, flirting with Diego was my favorite part of the job.
“You should dress like that more often,” he said.
“They are Judy’s clothes.”
“Let’s go out for lunch today,” he said.
I shook my head. “Can’t,” I said. “I am having lunch with Judy.”
“We are going out for tapas.”
It was revelatory, really. If I dressed differently, the hot guy in the office would ask me out, even if it was only for lunch. Who knows? I might even get ahead, succeed, earn more money. That, of course, wasn’t what I wanted. My position at the office wasn’t temporary, but I continued to think of it that way. I wondered if I could cancel on Judy and then go out for tapas with Diego instead.
“Work to do,” Diego said.
I slid off his desk, brandishing my folder. “Me, too,” I said, and I did.
The funny thing about doing work at my job was that I was good at it. I was able to blend three old job descriptions from other positions into a new one for Judy. I knocked off the ad to post on the HR website, another one for the newspaper, and coded all of the entries properly with ID numbers, the proper codes and HTML tags. I knew that Judy would be pleased with my work. She would review, approve, make one unnecessary change just to prove her superior position, and then the job would be posted.
Judy was smart and Judy had hired me. She had seen something in me. Even if I didn’t want to get ahead in the field of human resources. The job actually paid well. I had enough money to rent my own apartment, buy my own furniture. No more crazy roommates. But I was afraid to do it, afraid that renting an apartment meant that I was forever compromised. Whereas Judy said what it would mean was I had a nice apartment and nothing more. Judy often had smart things to say to me. Most of the time, I didn’t listen to her.
She was not surprised when I showed up at her office at noon and handed her the completed work.
“Thanks, doll,” she said, giving it a cursory glance. “I knew you would get this done.”
Going out to lunch with Judy was usually expensive, but Judy was my boss, and most of the time, if it was just the two of us, she paid, putting the tab on the office account. We walked to the parking lot together. I felt myself growing excited. A new restaurant. A long lunch.
“Look,” Judy said, squeezing my hand.
“What?” I said, surprised but also pleased by the physical display of affection, not usual for Judy.
I looked and what I saw was the parking lot. I saw parked cars. I looked for Judy’s car and I did not see it. I followed Judy’s extended arm, not sure what I was looking for. My gaze traveled from her arm down to her red nail polish to a blindingly red car, gleaming in the sunlight. A sports car. I blinked. I felt as if I had gotten something in my eye.
“It that yours?” I asked.
“I have always wanted a car just like this,” she said. “Come see. Can you believe it? It’s a dream come true.”
I wasn’t convinced. It was a car. Who dreamed about owning a red car?
Judy had once told me she wanted to go to Hawaii. She told me she wanted to paint large canvasses. A mural. This, this was just a car. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew that I didn’t like it. It was a feeling I had. I shivered.
“It drives like a dream, too,” Judy said. There was that word, again. Dream.
A bad dream, I thought.
I thought about spending the night on the floor in front of my apartment. I hadn’t had any dreams. Strangely, I had slept well. I followed Judy to her new car. She unlocked the car with a loud beep from her key chain and I got in.
“I didn’t know you wanted a red car,” I said. I felt almost betrayed, that she hadn’t told me.
“All my life,” Judy said.
I touched the smooth leather of the upholstery. I put on my seat belt. I checked to see if the seat belt was secure. The car was too low to the ground. It had new car smell, something chemical and cloying, and I opened the window even though it was cold outside.
“I feel like something sinister has happened in this car,” I said. “Or could happen. I don’t know. Something bad.”
“I don’t know what you are going on about,” Judy said, her voice sharp. I hated it when Judy was displeased with me. “But save it for one of your short stories. This car is all good. It’s brand-new. It is perfection.”
I looked away, stung, not sure if Judy was putting down my short stories. But that wasn’t it. I had responded wrong. A gesture had been required and I had let her down. It was Judy who was disappointed.
I hated that I had disappointed her.
I had disappointed my mother, moving so far away after college. By not calling home. By keeping secrets. I did not want to be a disappointment.
“Congratulations,” I said. “Don’t listen to me. What do I know? I take the bus. This car. It’s beautiful. Look at this leather interior. It’s so soft, Judy.”
The leather, it was soft. I did like it. I looked at Judy, her short dark hair, her red lipstick. I saw how pleased she was, with her car and even with me, once again, pleased with the compliment I had paid her new car.
“You are beautiful,” I said, meaning it.
I had never thought that before, about Judy. Because she was small and she looked like Liza Minnelli. But she was, beautiful.
Judy smiled at me, placated.
“This is the nicest thing I have ever bought for myself,” she said.
“That’s nice,” I said.
Judy started the engine. It was loud. Too loud. My feelings for the car, despite what I had said, had not changed.
“This is it for me,” she said. “This car.” “That’s not true.”
“You’re just a baby,” Judy said. She put the car into reverse. “I forget that sometimes.”
“No,” I said, offended. “I am not.”
But I had never had tapas before. She drove us to the restaurant she had picked out. I was distracted. I realized I was not sure what I would do, after work, what I could expect. If I had a home to go back to. I let Judy order. The car had upset me. Judy had found a parking space right in front of the restaurant and I could see the red car from our table. Taunting me. There was something about the way she talked, too, that reminded me of Beverly. Of fifteen more years at the office. A life sentence. I wanted Judy to return the car. To quit her powerful job. But she would never do these things. This, as she had said, was it for her. I was not a baby. Somehow, I felt older. Like I had aged in a day. Judy ordered a carafe of sangria. The waiter asked to see my ID. The sangria was delicious.
“I have high hopes for you,” Judy said, refilling our glasses. “You know that. You are going to do incredible things.”
“No,” I said, though I wanted to. “I am not.”
“I am going to make sure of it,” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Celebrate what?” I asked.
“The day,” Judy said. “This lunch. My red car. To our future good fortune.”
The waiter came to our table with a tray full of small plates of food. Judy had ordered well. Fried potatoes, roasted artichoke hearts, sautéed mushrooms, calamari.
We made a toast.
“This is the best calamari I have ever had,” Judy said.
I smiled at Judy. It was also the best calamari I had ever had, though I couldn’t say how many times I had had calamari. Three, maybe. Perhaps four. I was not a baby, but I had more to do. I felt content again in the moment, with the food, with her company. I didn’t even mind the red car if it made Judy happy. It was not my car, after all. It was not my life. We were both a little bit drunk by the end of the meal.
“I can’t drive like this,” she said, laughing.
We drank one espresso and then another.
We sat at our table in the window, unable or unwilling to leave. “Screw the office,” she said.
I laughed, delighted to hear these words come out of my boss’s mouth. I think I knew even then, that afternoon, when we never ended up going back to the office, that this day was something special. The waiter brought us an order of caramel flan, on the house. We shared the dessert, taking small bites with small silver spoons.
“Delicious,” Judy said, smiling at me.
* * *
Excerpted from The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky. Copyright © 2016 by Marcy Dermansky. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.