This story is by Jay Harold and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
From the moment he first saw her, Jason Rory regretted firing her.
Jason lived in the worst house on Padaro Lane—which is to say a small but well-furnished shack in one of California’s most expensive beachfronts. His house was tucked between the estate of one of the best known filmmakers in the world, the offshore investment of a Russian oligarch, and the cozy home of a nice, elderly woman who had been living there for fifty years—and who happened to be his landlord. When he walked his dog, it was as if they had invented a new reality TV show, “B.M. Bagging with the Stars.”
Jason was a writer. He contributed to magazines, had written three books, and each year his blog was read by as many people as live in Philadelphia. All of this earned him just enough exist in one of the top area codes in the country.
Besides the quality of his writing, all Jason’s success could be tracked back to just one person, Natalia. Natalia had been a new literary agent when she picked Jason’s first book out of the slush pile, fought for him with her boss, and then was assigned the arduous task of representing him. Together, their careers had blossomed. But somehow, despite years of working together, they had never met. He had never seen her apart from that little icon beside her email address wearing sunglasses.
“Natalia has always done a good job,” Jason told Oscar, his speckled dog, one grey morning. “This year, it’s like she doesn’t have enough time for me. Too many big-name clients, I suppose.”
All might have been forgiven if Jason wasn’t also being courted by the top literary agent in the country, Jan, who had all but agreed to have Jason’s children, flying him to New York and Paris, taking him to his favorite restaurants, even introducing him to George R.R. Martin, who smelled older than he looked, which is saying something. At last, the time had come to send the email. “Natalia. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Unfortunately, I’m changing agents. All the best. Jason.”
But then there she was, unannounced, somehow not in New York, but the coffee shop where he wrote.
“I can’t believe you! You’re going with Jan?” she said.
“Natalia? What are you doing?” he said. “And how did you know I’d be here?”
“Because you always write at the same, stupid coffee shop, Jason,” a few hipsters looked up. “I’ve worked with you for six of the longest years of my life. You think I don’t know where you write?”
Jason knew he should be listening, but he couldn’t help but notice how smooth her skin was, her long neck, her ballerina-like figure, and earnest brown eyes. He had emailed back and forth with her so many times that he thought he knew her, but now he realized he had no idea who this woman was.
“Jan is a parasite,” she said. “She will use you up and then spit you out.”
“Listen Natalia. I’m flattered you came. It’s great to see you . . . meet you, in person. We’ve had a good run. But I’ve just decided to go another direction.”
“You’re making a huge mistake.” She put on her sunglasses so that she looked like a beautiful, ballerina-like bug, “I’m in town until tomorrow if you change your mind.”
“I can’t tonight. Deadline. I’m sorry, Natalia.”
After she left, Jason looked down at his half-finished article. He looked back to the door she just left from. He thought about his silent house where he would return later that night.
He had always been alone. He was not unhappy, but for as long as he could remember he had wanted a witness, someone to see his life for all its beauty and dull sadness, someone else to feel the inside of his existence and affirm it as true and good.
He finished the article. It was a mess. He couldn’t get a vision out of his mind. She was walking with him along the beach, her cheeks flushed red from the cold. She followed him to the shore and they waded in, pants rolled to their knees. They splashed each other, giggling like children, and then sat on the bank and looked at each other, trying not to smile.
But it was all just a story. He was a good storyteller. It was real life that slipped between his toes.
“Hey,” he said when she picked up his call later. “Did you know we’ve never met in person? This afternoon doesn’t count, right?”
“No, I guess not,” she said.
“Do you want to?”
“How about French Press at six. Do you need directions?”
After hung up, he checked Instagram and there she was, first on his feed, a selfie at the hotel bar with another guy, a bearded lumbersexual with his arm around her. “Cocktails with a client!” said the caption. He wondered if he would vomit. He wanted to hate her, failed, and hated the lumbersexual dude instead.
Later, they were sitting outside, not touching their coffees. “Can we not talk about Jan?” Jason said.
“Do you want to tell me about your book?” Natalia asked.
He told her the idea for the story he had been thinking about for months.
“It’s really good, Jason.”
“Yes. It’s brilliant.”
They talked very little about business after that. He told her about Eleanor, his elderly landlord, and he asked her about her family and her childhood. Soon they were leaving for dinner. Their knees were touching and she was leaning forward, her chin on her hand. He paid the check when he went to the bathroom, and she hit him in the arm when she found out, “That’s what per diems are for, you dork.” The next morning, when he called her to get breakfast, she told him she already had plans. She sounded happy to hear from him, though, disappointed she had to say no.
After she got back to New York, he found excuses to email her: feedback on a new chapter, networking with bloggers in New York, teasing her about the typo in her client’s books. He thought about hiring her back. It felt like caving.
It was a Thursday night and he had just gotten an email from her when he decided to walk out to the beach. It was a rare night with the temperature below freezing. The pale moon stood above the palm trees. He didn’t take off his clothes, just walked out into the waves. The cold made his breath come in starts, and he felt the way his body wanted to flee, how his pulse thumped against his throat.
He knew then he would never have her if he stayed. She would be in New York and he would be on the beach. Hiring her back wouldn’t be enough. He would have to either give up hope or move. Could he really move? For a girl? Really? What did he want?
What did he want?
What did he want?
The moon looked like a spotlight. He wondered where she was and what she would think of him standing there in the ocean in November. He thought of her laughing at him, shaking her head. The thought steeled him.
“I’m a writer. I can live anywhere,” he told his acquaintances. “Why not try New York? Yes, I’m staying with a friend until I can find a place. No I don’t have a plan. Yes, I’ll make sure to get a plan. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll come back. Ok thanks for the advice. Ok. Sure. Ok. Thanks.”
The last part was the hardest: “Take good care of Eleanor, Oscar,” he said to his speckled dog. “She’s a little old, but that won’t stop the gold-diggers. You make sure to guard her purity, okay?”
Just a few days later he was in his car, packed to the brim with boxes, three-thousand-odd miles ahead of him.
And then he was in the city. He dropped off his things at his friends apartment, took a cab to a small office in Manhattan, and somehow found his way to her desk.
“Jason!” she startled.
“We need to renegotiate our contract,” he said.
“We don’t have a contract, Jason.”
“I want you to fire all your clients.”
“I’m not going to fire all my clients.”
“God, you’re a tough negotiator. I always liked that about you. Fine, just fire that bearded guy you met in Santa Barbara. And then I’ll come back.”
“I might be able to pass him to another agent.”
“And get rid of those bug sunglasses. They’re hideous. You’re beautiful, but those sunglasses are hideous.”
“Oh really?” she smiled. “Is that all?”
“Yes. You’re re-hired.”
She hugged him then for the first time.
“By the way, can you help me find a place to live?”