My second job was as a ghostwriter for a woman who hoped to make it big with a bestselling novel. Her name was Joy, shortened down from Joyce. She was slim, tense, edgy, mega smart with platinum blond hair twisted in an elegant knot at the nape of her long, pale neck. The first time I saw her I knew she was kooky, but that didn’t matter. She was the quintessential New Yorker – brash, outspoken, feisty, in your face, just the sort of personality Ted Cruz railed against in his much-reported anti-New York comment during the debate last week. Perhaps that was what drew me to her – shameless honesty and a bold, almost pushy self-confidence that I had missed during my many years out of the city. You could say (as Cruz seemed to imply) that it’s a Jewish manner, but the same could be said of many Italian, or for that matter, Chinese women. My sister had that manner and it always made me feel that, bottom line, everything was going to be okay.
I met Joy through a boardroom connection of my father’s. She was a businesswoman, married, with a stepson. Her family lived upstate, near Albany, but she kept a pied-a-terre in town where she spent the week on her own. As I grew to know her, I realized she wasn’t cut out to be a hands on mom, or in this case, stepmom and that she needed an inordinate amount of time alone. She couldn’t write, but she loved stories and storytelling and that was where I came in. She figured between her ideas and my gift with words we could produce a big, juicy, soap-operatic novel that would earn us both a fortune. I had my doubts, but was willing to give it a shot. Besides, how could I complain about being paid to do what I loved best?
So three times a week I’d go to her little apartment in the east 70s and we’d put our heads together. She was usually in a tracksuit when I arrived, her platinum blond hair hanging stringily to her shoulders. Her face, without makeup, had a translucent pallor that was a little scary, and she invariably had dark circles beneath her eyes. I didn’t know why, but she never made appointments or went out into the world until early afternoon. I’d walk in, she’d give me a cup of tea or coffee, but if I wanted milk or cream I was SOL because her fridge, save for some jars of mustard and maybe a head of lettuce, was always empty. The apartment itself was kept dark all morning, just a little daylight trickling through the drawn curtains over the leather couch and chairs. You might say this sounds depressing, but Joy, despite her thinness and pallor, possessed an electric personality, wit and charm that bound people to her. We’d spend hours in her twilit living room tossing ideas back and forth, me smoking Marlboros, Joy drinking seltzer water and cracking her knuckles. The very first thing we always talked about before settling down to work was men, more specifically my non-existent love life. “I’m going to find you someone,” she’d say, and true to her word, she pimped for me everywhere she went, but that’s another story. After a month or two, we had a workable plot line and some decent characters. One morning Joy was really restless. As I sat in my usual chair, busy with notes, she disappeared into the kitchen, returning with a full tumbler of scotch and a head of lettuce. “Here, for you,” she said, putting the glass down in front of me on the coffee table.
She dropped gracefully onto the couch and began to devour the lettuce. Within seconds it was gone and she went back to the kitchen for more. “Don’t be shocked,” she said. “I’m going to tell you a little secret that no one but my husband knows. I’m a bulimic. Once I start eating, I’ll eat till I explode and then I’m so uncomfortable I have to vomit it up. That’s why there’s never any food here.”
I sat there, shocked. Without realizing it, I had picked up my glass and taken a large sip.
“You’re the same way with booze,” she said. “That’s the reason I trust you.”
We spent the next hour with Joy binging on everything she could find in the apartment, jars of nuts, stalks of celery and a second head of lettuce dipped in mustard, the odd carrot, a stale old piece of cake. In the meanwhile I downed at least three glasses of scotch. She told me her routine included taking upwards of twenty laxatives at bedtime (the reason she couldn’t leave her apartment before midday – she had to be near a toilet). After that would follow an afternoon and evening of abusing food, starting with innocent stuff like lettuce and moving onto bread, pasta, ice cream. She had been like this for years, a brilliant, beautiful, accomplished woman in the grip of a deadly habit she couldn’t break. It was scary and off-putting, but who was I to speak, slave to a similarly deadly habit?
That was the only time we buddied up with our addictive behaviors. But from then on, when I looked at her with her pale, somewhat shrunken face and scrawny body, it was like looking in a mirror. Only my face and body were going the other way – beginning to coarsen up from alcohol.
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