When I get the job at the literary agency, I am relieved. I am months away from turning 26 and being kicked off my parents’ healthcare plan. My current cobbled-together schedule of part-time and freelance work gives me neither insurance nor the amount of money I would need to purchase my own. The new job does not pay well, but I will get healthcare and overtime pay.
The salary is $32,000, but, my new boss says, “With the amount of work you’ll be doing, you can make $50,000 a year, easily.”
On my first day of work, a steam pipe bursts and sends billowing clouds of unidentified smog around the neighborhood. Later, someone who lives in the area will tell me he bagged up and disposed of all the clothes he’d been wearing that day. I sit in the office, being trained by a departing assistant to answer the phones, use the filing system, and manage the mail until a firefighter comes up and tells us we need to go home.
My boss does not live or work in New York City, and so every time somebody calls for her I have to transfer them to her cell phone. For the first few days, the transfers do not go the way she expects, and she screams at me over the phone, telling me to follow the directions in the guidebook the previous assistant left behind. This is the way I’m doing it, I tell her, on the verge of tears, but however I’m doing it is wrong. I place test calls using my cell phone and other phones in the office. Nobody else works in the office every day, so I need to do it myself, scurrying from phone to phone. It transpires that the desk phones have been switched, and the mechanism is slightly different than the instructions I’ve been given. I figure out how to do it.
Every time the phone rings, my stomach jumps into my throat.
One day my subway stalls and I am fifteen minutes late. I miss a call from my boss, who immediately emails and texts me to see where I am. I start leaving my apartment at 8 AM so I can be at my desk by 8:30, giving me a buffer in case the trains are disrupted. I pick up a large iced coffee on the way, no breakfast.
My boyfriend has been trying to get me into eating fish, and he makes a lovely meal of confit salmon over pasta that I cannot take a bite of.
“What do I do?” I ask. I am two weeks into the job and have cried every day.
He tells me to start looking for other work. Maybe it’ll get better, he says, but it doesn’t hurt to keep applying in the meantime.
It has taken me months to get this job. The idea of sending my resume out again, after ten- and twelve-hour days that leave me physically and emotionally exhausted, makes me feel ill. I stir the pasta around my plate and nod.
My new healthcare does not cover my current therapist. She reduces her rate for me. These out-of-pocket costs and the money I still contribute to my useless health plan add up to almost half my salary. My parents pay for the therapy, and I feel small and guilty every time I write my therapist a check for the lowered fee.
A main part of my job is reading submissions from authors to see if they are good fits for my boss to represent. Ostensibly, I could offer to represent any of them myself, but I have never sold a book to a publisher and cannot imagine when I would find time to do so. I am supposed to read all the submissions and forward them to my boss with a sentence or two explaining my take. I have always felt like taste is subjective, but I learn quickly that there are right and wrong answers. If I say a submission has “strong prose,” my boss will pull out sentences in her reply that she thinks are clunky and say, “Really? You think this is strong?”
I agonize over every word I write to her, and it takes me longer than she would like. I read on the subway on the way to work, on the iPad she has insisted on buying me for this purpose. I read on my lunch break, if I take one. If I’m meeting a friend for drinks at 8 or 9, I stay in the office until then, my eyes itchy against the blue light from my screen. I read on the train home and in bed before I go to sleep.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book for fun. When I see a book on shelves at the store or on my bedside table, I imagine all the sleepless nights of assistants behind its pages and have to look away.
I can’t eat anymore, not like a normal person. My stomach is constantly roiling, and I don’t register being hungry, especially when I’m at the office. I make myself drink smoothies from expensive juice shops, packed with protein powder and nutrients. I eat saltine crackers with American cheese torn up in wonky slices on top. I eat handfuls of salted pistachios, cracking the brittle shells with snaps that feel more satisfying than the nut inside. Sometimes I eat half a bowl of soup before the texture starts to feel strange against my tongue and I throw it away.
At Christmas, authors and publishing houses send us holiday gifts. I have to take pictures of each of them and send them to my boss, telling her who they’re from. Many of the gifts are candy or cookies, and other agents in the office will often leave their gifts out for people to snack on. My boss wants to regift hers to her daughter’s teachers, so I box them back up and send them on to her house.
One day, I mix up two brands of chocolate when I email her the rundown of the day’s gifts. I realize my mistake and correct myself, but she still calls me yelling, saying that I need to be more careful. If she thanked an author for the wrong gift, how would that make her look? I’m being thoughtless, and it’s reflecting badly on her.
After the call, I take a slow walk around the block, breathing in the sharp, cold air and trying to calm my racing heart. Tears freeze on my cheeks. When I get back to my desk, new emails from her are stacked at the top of my inbox.
I edit manuscripts that her clients have written, and sometimes she gives me feedback on my work so positive that it feels like my entire body is glowing. I save these few emails in a separate folder, coming back to them after each scathing reply she sends me on other days. I don’t know why I want this praise so badly, why every email with a compliment in it feels like a long drink of cold water when I’m parched. These kind words are not frequent, but they come just often enough to make me think, Maybe I can do this job.
I make a typo in adding a contact to our database, writing “Kathryn” instead of “Katherine,” and my boss emails me a message full of angry punctuation, asking where I got that spelling from.
It’s a mistake, I want to say, I made a mistake.
Every day, I make these small mistakes, my nerves frayed to the point that I barely register what I’m doing. Of course my emails have errors in them, of course I’m saving royalty statements to the wrong folders, of course I added a meeting to the calendar at the wrong time. It is not acceptable to my boss, which I suppose is fair—she has hired me to make her life easier, to do the work she doesn’t have time for, and because my anxiety is so high, I’m not getting better at it the longer I’m there.
One morning she calls me and asks why this keeps happening, how I keep letting things fall through the cracks. I take a shaky breath, say, “You make me very nervous,” and burst into tears.
She seems genuinely shocked, which I cannot fathom—this is not the first time I’ve cried on the phone with her, although I usually save it until right at the end, until the click of the receiver can obscure the first gasp of weeping, after which I speed-walk to the bathroom and lock myself in a stall, sobbing into my knees. This time, she apologizes profusely. She Venmos me $50 “for coffee” and tells me to take a break. I walk around the neighborhood. I wonder if it will get better after this.
In the publishing world, the word “hungry” is thrown around a lot. A young, eager editor or agent might be described as “hungry,” which usually means they are willing to work long hours and attend endless networking meetings in order to get good submissions or new clients. People talking about their taste in books might say things like, “I’m hungry for a good domestic thriller,” as if ready to cut up the manuscript with a knife and fork.
I have spent so long trying to gauge my boss’s taste, making recommendations and edits based on what I think she wants to see, that I have no idea what to tell people when they ask me what I’m hungry for. When I go to networking events, my mind feels smooth and blank. I can’t remember the names of books I’ve read, can’t express a preference for one sort of book over another. I pretend to have read everything my conversation partner mentions and tell them I’ll send them a submission when I have something I think they’ll like. I have nothing.
I sit across from these editors after work, at bars with good happy hours that are close to our offices, my one or two glasses of wine making my head swim dizzily. I can never remember if I’ve eaten that day.
At these networking events, I listen to other agents and editors talk about the books they’ve represented or acquired. One editor talks about missing her stop on the subway because she was so engrossed in a manuscript. One agent says that over the weekend, she read an entire submission that moved her to tears. She was so affected by it she emailed the author at midnight on Sunday offering to represent her. It feels like a competition, like everyone is trying to outdo each other with their dedication and their emotional responses to their work. I wonder if these are true stories. I have never felt like this about a single manuscript I’ve read on submission.
As a child, I would stay up late reading, moving the book across a shaft of light my open bedroom door let in from the hallway. I would take five books out of the library and finish them all before the week was done. The bigger the book, the better. I craved the satisfaction of having more pages behind me than in front of me. Sometimes I would finish a book and immediately start it over, not ready to leave its world. I miss that feeling.
I assist another agent, too, aside from my main boss, but he is mild-mannered and sweet and as such becomes less of a priority because I know he won’t yell at me if I’m late doing something for him. One of my tasks is to manage his inbox—he is older, not as tech-savvy, and so I wade through his incoming messages and flag anything important.
One day, I see an email in his inbox that just has my name as the subject line, from my other boss. My stomach drops as I click into it.
I read through the thread. They are talking about how I don’t work hard enough, about how I’m not dedicated to the job. “She never seems excited about anything I ask her to do,” one says. “I think that’s just her personality,” the other replies.
When I tell my therapist about this, she tells me I need to quit. I know she’s right, and I cry with relief. I have been at this job for under nine months.
When I call my boss to quit, she says, “How could you do this to me?” I nod through the conversation, apologizing, as she berates me, convinces me to stay a little longer by doubling my salary for the next few weeks. I have been applying to other jobs for months but so far have no new job to go to, so I agree, even though the idea of coming back to this dark, brown-carpeted office one more time makes me feel sick. When I hang up the phone, I go to the bathroom and throw up.
My boyfriend has booked us a trip to Mexico for a few days. It’s a last-minute surprise, and we’re scheduled to go a week after my last official day at work. Two days after I leave my job, I get two new job offers and take one, which nearly doubles my salary and promises I can work 9-5.
In Cancun, I lie on the beach and read. I listen to the waves go in and out and pull the book into myself the way I used to when I was little, inhaling hundreds of pages in a single sitting. When I’m done, I feel full, not empty. The shadows start to lengthen on the sand. We go back to the hotel room, shower, and go to dinner. I can’t wait to eat.
Eliza Kirby is a writer and children’s editor based in New Jersey. She has been published in outlets like The Dodo, Podium, and the young adult writing community Figment.
Wondering what to read next?
Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.
“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
—Kirkus (starred review)