I am so wrung out and medicated, it takes me a second to figure out why my alarm is ringing.
Then I remember. I throw the covers back and stumble out of bed, bleary-eyed. It is five o’clock and I look like something a gillnetter has dragged in with the day’s catch. I don’t suppose a show like Teen Beat has a makeup person, so I ready myself as best I can. I put on a black suit that is too tight, with a white blouse, and leave my condo. In no time, I am pulling up to the studio.
It is a nice Seattle predawn morning. I check in at the desk (security since 9/11 has changed everything about my profession—even on a nothing show like this) and go to the studio. A producer, who is young enough to be my son, greets me, mumbles something that might be recognition, and leads me to the set.
“Kendra is pretty green,” he says as we stand behind the camera. “And challenging. Maybe you can help her.” He sounds doubtful.
The moment I see the set, I know I am in trouble. It looks like a stuck-up teenage girl’s bedroom, complete with enough sports trophies to sink a small yacht.
And then there is Kendra herself. She is tall, and Q-tip-thin, wearing tiny denim shorts, a plaid shirt with ruffles around the collar, a fedora with a gold lamé hatband, and what we used to call come-fuck-me pumps in the old days. Her hair is long and curly and makeup enhances her spectacular natural beauty.
She is leaning back against her dresser, talking to the camera as if it is her closest confidant. “… Time to talk about texting rules. Some of the kids I know are, like, making Herculean mistakes. In the old days, there were, like, books to tell you what to say and how to act, but we, like, don’t have time for old school now, do we? Teens today are on the go-go-go. So Kendra is going to step in to the rescue.” She smiles and moves away from the dresser, walking casually toward the bed. There is a blue X on the floor—her mark—which she misses. “I’ve come up with a list of five things that should never be texted.” She moves across the room, misses her mark again. Tully hears the cameraman curse under his breath. “Let’s start with sexting. Face it, girls, boob shots to your guy are a no-no—”
“Cut,” the director says, and the cameraman breathes a sigh of relief.
“Kendra,” the director says. “Can you stay on script?”
Kendra rolls her eyes and starts playing with her phone.
“Go on,” the producer says, giving me a shoulder pat that might have been meant to be reassuring but feels more like a shove.
I square my shoulders and walk onto the set, smiling.
Kendra frowns at me. “Who are you?” she says to me. Into her mic, she says, “I have a stalker.”
“I am hardly a stalker,” I say, fighting the urge to roll my eyes.
She pops her gum. “You look like a waiter in that suit.” She frowns. “No. Wait. You look kinda like someone.”
“Tully Hart,” I say.
“Yeah! You look like her, only fatter.”
I clench my jaw. Unfortunately, my body picks this exact moment to overheat. A hot flash tingles uncomfortably across my flesh. Pins and needles. My face turns beet-red, I’m sure. I can feel myself sweating.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I snap. “I’m Tully Hart, your new cohost. There’s nothing for me to do on today’s script, but we can talk about tomorrow. In the meantime, you need to hit your mark. It’s the sign of a professional.”
Kendra stares at me as if I have just sprouted a beard and begun braying. “I don’t have a cohost. Carl!”
The young producer is beside me in an instant, pulling me back into the shadows.
“And Carl is?” I ask.
“The director,” the producer sighs. “But it really means she’s going to call daddy. Did they tell you she’s already had four cohosts fired?”
“No,” I say quietly.
“We call her Veruca Salt.”
I look at him blankly.
“The spoiled brat in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
“You’re fired,” Kendra yells at me.
Beside me, the cameraman takes his place. The red light comes on and Kendra smiles brightly. “We were talking about sexting before the break. If you don’t know what that is, I don’t think you need to worry about it, but if you do…”
I back out of the studio. My hot flash is abating somewhat. I can feel the drizzle of sweat on my forehead drying up and my cheeks are cooling down, but my shame is not so easily retracted; neither is my anger. As I leave the studio and step back out onto the Seattle sidewalk, I am consumed by a sense of failure. This is what I have fallen to? Getting called fat and being fired by a talentless teen?
More than anything I want to call my best friend and have her tell me it will get better.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
Calm down, I tell myself, but I feel sick to my stomach and feverishly hot and I can’t catch my breath. Pain squeezes my chest.
My legs give out from underneath me and I fall to the sidewalk hard.
I get up, stumble forward, flag down a cab, and get in. “Sacred Heart,” I gasp, fumbling through my purse for a baby aspirin, which I chew and swallow, just in case.
At the hospital, I throw a twenty-dollar bill at the cabbie and stagger into the emergency room. “Heart attack!” I scream at the woman at the front desk.
It gets her attention.
* * *
Dr. Grant peers down at me. He is wearing the kind of cheater glasses Costco sells in a multipack. Behind him, a lackluster blue and white curtain gives us what little privacy exists in a big-city ER. “You know, Tully, you don’t have to go to such lengths to see me. I gave you my number. You could have just called.”
I am in no mood for humor. I flop back into the pillows behind me. “Are you the only doctor in this hospital?”
He moves toward the bed. “All kidding aside, Tully, panic attacks are a common experience during perimenopause and menopause. It’s the hormonal imbalance.”
And just like that, it gets worse. I’m unemployed, apparently unemployable; I am fat. I have no real family, and my best friend is gone, and Dr. Granola here can take one look at me and know I’m drying up from the inside.
“I’d like to test your thyroid.”
“I’d like to host The Today Show.”
I throw the flimsy sheet back and climb out of bed, not realizing that my hospital gown has flashed the doctor a shot of my middle-aged ass. I turn quickly, but it’s too late. He has seen. “There’s no proof I’m in menopause,” I say.
“There are tests—”
“Exactly. I don’t want them.” I smile grimly. “Some people see a glass as half empty; some see it as half full. I put the glass in a cupboard and forget it’s there. You get my point?”
He puts down my chart. “Ignoring bad news. I get it.” He comes toward me. “And how’s that working for you?”
God, I hate feeling stupid or pathetic, and something about this man and the way he looks at me makes me feel both. “I need Xanax. And Ambien. They helped before.” I look up at him. “My prescription ran out a long time ago.” This is a lie. I know I should tell him that in the past year, I’ve gotten these prescriptions from several doctors and that I am taking higher dosages, but I don’t.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. With your personality—”
“You don’t know me. Let’s be clear on that.”
“No,” he says. “I don’t.” He moves closer. I fight the urge to step back. “But I know how depressed sounds and how broken looks.”
That’s when I remember about his wife and daughter who were killed. He is thinking about them as well, I think. I see a deep sadness in him suddenly.
He writes a prescription and tears it off for me. “This won’t last long. Get some help, Tully. See someone about your menopausal symptoms and your depression.”
“I haven’t confirmed either one of your diagnoses, you know.”
“So, where are my clothes?”
As an exit line, it pretty much blows, but it’s all I can think of. I stand there, staring at him until he leaves. Then I get dressed and walk out of the hospital. In the pharmacy downstairs, I fill the prescription, take two Xanax, and start the long walk home.
The prescription does what it’s supposed to: it calms me down, makes me feel bubble-wrapped and protected. My heart is beating normally. I take my phone out of my handbag and call Fred Rorback.
“Tully,” he says, and I can tell by the tone of his voice that word of my departure has reached him. “I should have warned you.”
“I’m sorry, Fred,” I say.
“Thanks, Fred,” I say. I am about to do more, maybe even grovel a little, when I pass a Barnes & Noble bookstore. The book in the window catches my eye.
I stop dead. Of course. I should have thought of this before. “I have to go, Fred. Thanks again.” Before he has even answered, I hang up. The Xanax is making me light-headed. So much so that it takes several tries to call my agent.
“George,” I snap when he finally answers. “Guess where I am?”
“Well, you’re not cohosting a low-rent TV show on an also-ran local station.”
“You heard about that?”
He sighs. “I heard. You should vet these choices with me, Tully.”
“Forget Kooky Kendra, who’s an idiot. Guess where I am?”
“Outside a bookstore.”
“And I care, why?”
“Because I’m looking at Barbara Walters’s new memoir, Audition. It’s in stores now. If I remember correctly, she got five million for it. And DeGeneres scored a huge deal. Hell, didn’t she get a million for her book of essays?” This may be the best idea I’ve ever had. “I want a book deal.”
“Have you written any pages of a memoir?”
“No. But how hard can it be? I’ll start tonight. What do you say?”
George says nothing for so long, I prompt him again. “Well?”
He sighs. “Let me throw out a line and see if anyone bites. But let me ask you this, Tully: Are you sure about this? You’ve got some dark things in your past.”
“I’m sure, George. Find me a deal.”
* * *
How hard can it be? I am a journalist. I’ll write the story of my life. It will be a bestseller—inspirational and heartfelt.
By the time I get home, I am excited for the first time in forever. I change out of my black suit and put on sweats and pull out my laptop. Then I curl up on my sofa with a cup of tea and begin. I type: Second Act.
Then I scroll down, indent for the paragraph, and stare at the blank screen.
Maybe the title is a problem.
I stare at the blank screen for a while longer. A long while, long enough to decide that tea is the problem. Maybe wine will help.
I pour myself a glass and return to the sofa.
The blank screen again.