Betty had always meant to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to see the city late some night – or, as the case might be, early some morning. But she'd always wanted to do that with a man she loved, or at least a very good friend.
It doesn't matter that I'm here alone, she told herself. It matters that I'm finally here.
So many things she'd meant to do. So many dreams she'd wanted to fulfill. Only four short years ago, Betty had been determined to let nothing stand in her way. Her memories of herself then seemed like so much longer ago. Then, she'd been a child who believed in dreams, Prince Charming and happy endings. Now she was a woman who knew better.
But all the same, she'd made it to the bridge at last. So even if she couldn't quite see how to do it yet, there had to be ways for her dreams to come true.
Betty hugged herself tighter against the early April night chill as she looked out on the view of New York. During four years spent mostly in suburban Baltimore, she'd forced herself not to think about her native city too often, lest the homesickness prove too much to bear. Now, though, she was free to fall in love with it all over again. As she watched the city lights gleam in the relative silence of 1 a.m., Betty thought it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen – and, despite herself, once more wished that she didn't have to see it alone.
Then she realized – she wasn't alone.
Betty gasped as she looked farther down the bridge, perhaps 30 yards away; there, barely visible in a black coat in the night, stood the form of a man. Instead of walking along the pedestrian crossing the way she was, he was up on the rail, arms outstretched. About to jump.
"Hey," she tried to call, but fear strangled the word into a croak. But Betty started running toward the figure, summing her courage and her voice. "Hey! Don't jump! Don't do it!"
The figure – a man – startled so badly that she at first thought he would tumble down into the water. But he righted himself, without stepping back to safety. He remained still as Betty closed the distance between them, heart pounding in her chest. Obviously she had to deal with this situation, but just as obviously, she'd have to try to get over the shock of it first.
But she hadn't even discovered the biggest shock yet. That came when she finally came to a stop near his feet and realized she knew him.
Eyes wide, she somehow managed to say, "… Daniel?"
Daniel Meade squinted down at her. His arms remained outstretched for balance; in one hand, he clutched a beer bottle. Her erstwhile boss was slightly thinner than she remembered, and his chin was covered with something too scraggly to be a beard but too scruffy to be a face. But there was no mistaking him. He croaked, "Betty Suarez? Is that you?" He blinked, squinted, blinked again. "Or is this, like, one of those visions you see before death?"
For a moment, they simply stared at each other. She almost couldn't believe he remembered who she was, much less recognized her; they'd worked together for only two weeks, almost four years ago. When his asshole behavior had finally gotten to be too much to take, she'd stormed out. To Daniel's credit, he'd come to her house to apologize and ask her to come back, but in the end, she'd told him no and figured she was better off without those MODE jerks in her life. Besides – she'd told herself – she truly loved magazines, and she had real passion, and nothing was going to keep her from making it in the media world, not even her disastrous brief stint at Meade Publications. She'd been a lot younger four years ago.
Daniel had been younger too. Betty remembered him as polished, confident and proud – and handsome enough for her to see it despite his attitude. Now there seemed to be nothing left of Daniel Meade but the wreckage.
She took a deep breath and summoned her courage. "Daniel, come down from there."
He looked away from her, back out at the river. "It makes sense that you're here. Somebody ought to see this. Somebody who'd enjoy it."
"Maybe you're mean enough to enjoy seeing somebody commit suicide, but I'm not," she snapped. Wait, that wasn't helping, was it? "You don't want to do this."
To her surprise, he laughed. "Why wouldn't I want to do this? You must have been a newspaper sometime in the past few years."
What the media blogs hadn't told her, Justin had. Betty remembered Daniel's public shaming by her idol, Sofia Reyes – an event so tailor-made to soothe her ego that she sometimes guiltily wondered if she'd wished it into being. But after that, Daniel's travails had only worsened: His dead brother had turned out not only to not be dead but also to have turned into a woman hell-bent on his destruction. His father's arrest for murder, which ended only with the confession of his mother; Claire Meade was currently doing 30-to-life in an upstate prison. Bradford Meade's death from a heart attack. Daniel's "transition" – really demotion – to editor of PLAYER, as Alexis and then Wilhelmina took over MODE. Alexis' ascendance as CEO of Meade, and Daniel's abrupt departure from PLAYER within the year. In the time since then, his media presence had dwindled to the occasional picture of him drunk at some seedy promotional party that hadn't been able to afford Paris Hilton's appearance fee.
Which was exactly the kind of life Betty would have assumed he really wanted, based on their time together as editor and assistant – if not for the apology he'd made in her home, and the fact that he was now standing on the side of a bridge.
There was something better hidden inside him – deep, deep inside, incredibly well hidden – and that was what she wanted to save.
She began, "While there's life, there's hope."
"Thanks for that insight. Normally I'd have to buy a greeting card to get wisdom like that."
"Excuse me, but the time when you could be nasty to me ended a long way back." If kindness wouldn't cut it, she'd have to be firm. Betty dared to step closer. "You owe me one, Daniel Meade. You know it; I know it. So I'm calling it in. You have to get down from the edge and not jump off the bridge."
Daniel let his arms drop, defeated. "Wait and cash that in later. I wasn't really going to jump."
"You looked like it."
"I thought about it." He looked back out at distant New York, those far-away brilliant lights. "I think about it a lot. I've come out here before, even. But – see, Betty, jumping off – finally ending this stupid sham of a life – it would involve actually doing something with myself." Daniel tried to take a sip of his beer, but the bottle was empty; he tossed it riverward with a grimace. "And I'm really good at avoiding that."
Her heartbeat finally back to normal, Betty offered him a hand. "Come on down, then. It's cold out here."
Daniel took her hand and started to step off the edge – but either his foot slipped or the bridge shook or God was angry, because Daniel lost his balance and fell.
Betty shrieked as his gut slammed into the railing, but she hung on tightly as Daniel scrabbled for purchase with his feet.
"Oh, shit," he gasped, his face ashen. "Shit, shit, shit."
"Hang on to me!" Betty cried, though he was already clinging to so tightly the bones of her wrist and fingers ached. The chilly late-night wind tore at her hair and made the edges of his jacket flap in the wind; the only heat seemed to come from the friction of their fiercely entwined hands. Together, with her pulling and him pushing, they got him back over the rail to collapse on the bridge beside her. She sat down with a thump, amid the grime, grit and flattened cigarette butts that lined the walkway, and tried to catch her breath.
In a shaky voice, Daniel said, "Okay, so, actually I don't want to die. Cleared that right up."
"You know what they say – one near-fall off a bridge is worth years of therapy."
"…they actually say that?"
"Of course not, Daniel, but right now I'm totally freaked out and I can't come up with anything else, okay?"
"Let's get off this bridge." He got to his feet – steadier than she would've thought, though he held one hand to his no-doubt bruised ribs. Apparently he wasn't that drunk, which made his decision to step to the brink of suicide even more disturbing. "I don't want to look at it again."
"Great plan." It surprised her that he thought to give her his hand to help her up.
They walked in silence at first. Betty kept trying to think of something to say, but Daniel's gaze was distant. Clearer, somehow. Maybe his near-fall really had made him realize that he wanted to live – but she had to admit, she wasn't sure what exactly a guy in his situation would be living for.
Stop it, she told herself. You don't know his life. You don't know that it's all as bad as the gossip blogs say.
Glancing sideways, she again took in his thin, drawn face, the unshaven chin, the way that his expensive, well-cut clothes were nonetheless grubby and untucked.
It was that bad.
Only when they reached the Manhattan end of the bridge did they break their silence; Daniel spoke first. "Where do you want to go?"
"I want to get you back home, where you're safe. Do you still live in the same apartment?"
"Nope. Meade Publications owned that condo, not me." He tried to smile as he said the rest, though the effect wasn't convincing: "These days, I think Alexis uses it for her shar-peis."
"So, you're living – "
"I took a suite at the St. Regis – for a couple of weeks, originally. But I've been there about a year now."
"A hotel room isn't a home." But of course he didn't want a home; he didn't love himself enough to provide even that basic level of stability.
Daniel gave her a sidelong look. "Why do you care?"
She held up her hands, as if in surrender. "Sorry. None of my business."
"I wasn't snarking at you. I'm serious. Why do you care where I live, or if I live? I was a total ass to you." He jammed his hands into the pocket of his dark coat, no longer able to meet her eyes. "I've thought about it a lot, what I did to you. How badly I screwed everything up from the get-go. That stunt with the Fabia shoot – that was like a sign of just how wrong I was going to get everything at MODE."
Betty couldn't quite speak the full answer out loud. She went with the simplest part of it: "I guess because you apologized to me."
"My apology wasn't enough to get you to come back and work for me again. Which was probably a good call on your part, seeing as how that wouldn't have lasted – wait, are you crying?"
"No," said Betty, through tears.
Daniel fished around in his pockets and came up with a lighter, a condom and a packet of airline pretzels before finding a handkerchief. "Here."
It was kind of linty, and smelled of pretzels, but it was better than nothing. "Thanks."
"I guess seeing me – seeing somebody on the bridge like that was upsetting for you." Guilt clouded his expression, the way it had when he'd tried to follow her after the debacle that led to her quitting. "Selfish of me to pull a stunt like that."
"No. I mean, yes, that was upsetting, but that's not why I'm – not crying," she said, sticking to her denial even as she dabbed at her eyes. "It would take a long time to explain."
He hesitated a long moment before saying, "Well, if you want to talk, I'd listen."
Betty could only stare at him.
Embarrassed, he shrugged. "I wouldn't blame if you didn't. But – I'm just saying – I know I'm not the only person in the world with problems."
Maybe, somehow, the past few years had taught even Daniel Meade to be kind. Or maybe he was just lonely enough to hear anyone's troubles. Either way, Betty knew – she was lonely enough to tell them.
"You know what?" She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "Talking would be good."
They hailed a cab to the St. Regis. Betty had to pay.
"I didn't bring a wallet," Daniel muttered. "I had it in my head that it would be harder to ID the body that way. So maybe Mom wouldn't have to know."
"You don't talk like a guy that didn't really mean to jump," she said, thrusting a $20 through the small window to the front of the cab.
"Maybe I was building up to it. I don't know. I'll pay you back."
Like most New Yorkers, Betty had walked past the palatial St. Regis, but had never been inside. A full staff, cheerful and attentive, greeted them as they walked through the lobby, even though by that point it must have been nearly 2 in the morning. Nobody seemed surprised that Daniel was bringing in a girl at that hour, and – unlike the MODE folk – the hotel staffers were far too polite to show any sign of noticing that Betty didn't look like Daniel's usual trawl.
A hotel room wasn't a home, but Betty had to admit his suite came closer than she would have thought. It wasn't just a bed and a TV, but a sort of impersonal luxury apartment, complete with blue wallpaper striped in gold and ivory, a thick carpet, and a living room with sofa, chairs and a wet bar. Two ornate white wooden doors were propped just open enough to reveal the bedroom, complete with sumptuous covers turned down and a mint on the center pillow.
Nice, for a night, or a week. But she wondered if Daniel stayed in this place precisely because all evidence of his existence was erased every single day.
"I think a drink is called for," Daniel said as he went toward the bar.
"Don't you think you've had enough?"
"Just a couple of beers, but yeah, enough. I meant for you."
Since the moment of Daniel nearly falling off the bridge was apparently on permanent replay in her head, Betty decided he was right. "I don't do mixed drinks much. Just – pour me something."
As she sat on the plus sofa, he handed her a glass of something golden brown that stung her throat and made her lips numb. From Betty's limited knowledge of whisky, that meant it was good. A warm glow spread in her belly, and a combination of exhaustion and relief made her sag back into the cushions.
"You're wearing black," Daniel said.
She looked down at her sweater, which was pretty ordinary stuff, just like her Levi's and her shoes. "Yeah."
"You always used to wear bright colors. Patterns. You were always – " As Daniel's voice trailed off, she silently supplied the missing word tacky. But he surprised her by saying, "—cheerful."
"Yeah. I was." Betty took another swallow of her drink, which sent fumes through her entire respiratory system – but that wasn't why her eyes were stinging. "Not so much, these days."
Daniel took a seat in the chair nearest her, forearms on his knees. His face looked so different when he wasn't thinking of himself. Instead of asking her any questions, he simply waited. Betty fished in her pocket and withdrew a single golden ring. As she showed it to him, Daniel frowned, then said, "I'm guessing you're not proposing to me."
"Strangely enough, no. This is mine. Was mine. My divorce was finalized earlier today." Betty turned the ring back and forth between her fingers; the lamplight gleamed dully on the metal.
"Oh. Is that – that's why you were on the bridge. To throw it into the river."
"No. I don't know what I'm going to do with the ring, but that's not why I went. I'd always wanted to visit the bridge late at night. So I could see the city, you know?" He nodded, although she felt sure he didn't understand. At least he was trying. "Maybe I was reminding myself how I used to be so much more – optimistic. And dreamy. Back before my marriage broke up."
"I'm sorry about the divorce."
"I'm not. I'm just sorry I married Walter in the first place."
In the aftermath of her time at MODE, she'd been unable to find work, unsure of herself, and seeking direction. Walter had wormed his way back into her heart – and when he got the promotion that took him to Baltimore, he'd popped the question. At the time, she had told herself that maybe everything happened for a reason. Maybe Meade Publications hadn't worked out because she had another, better destiny waiting for her.
Or, as it turned out, maybe not.
"He cheated on me." The words still stuck in her throat.
Betty pushed her hair back from her face. "It's not like Walter's some kind of player. Hardly. But he's weak." In a lower voice, she muttered, "And you would not believe what some women would do for an electronics discount."
"Why did you put up with it? Doesn't seem like you." Daniel half-smiled, sheepishly. "I remember you as someone who knew where to draw the line."
"When I took my vows, I took them seriously. Til death do us part, remember? And by then I had a life in Baltimore. You know how it is."
He shook his head. "I'm a New Yorker. I don't acknowledge the possibility of life in Baltimore."
Betty laughed – the first real laugh she'd had too long. For his part, Daniel looked almost pitifully pleased to have made a joke she liked. It was so much easier to talk about this while she was smiling, "Well, I had what passes for a life in Baltimore, then. I got a job at the Baltimore City Paper – "
"Oh, the Sun?" Bradford Meade must have made his son study a national media guide, once upon a time.
"No. The City Paper, which is ... the free paper but also a totally respected local news source. I freelanced some reviews and essays at the alternative newspaper. It wasn't what I'd dreamed of, but I was writing. So I was invested in what Walter and I were building together, or what I hoped we were building." She took a deep, shaky breath. "The first time he cheated, I told myself we would work through it. The second time I was angrier, but I still thought we might get past that. The third time, I kept trying, but I was losing faith, so – this last time – I couldn't even pretend he was going to change. Not anymore."
"Walter's an idiot, then." She didn't reply to this, which was too obvious to require further comment. But it felt good to hear Daniel say it. "So you moved back here to New York? To your dad's house?"
"My father was deported a few years ago. I didn't even know he was illegal until – anyway, he's back with his family in Guadalajara now. God, I miss him so much." Talking about this was harder than talking about Walter. "I've only been able to afford to visit Dad once so far. Late last year – well, the recession hit the paper hard, and I got laid off with about half of the rest of the staff, so things have been tough."
"Did you come back to New York for a job?"
Betty shook her head. "Just to live with my sister and nephew until I figure out what's next. But she couldn't keep the house on her own without dad, so now she's in this little apartment in Flushing, and we're kind of all tripping over each other. Guess I better figure it out fast, huh?"
"You will." Daniel sounded so earnest, so down-deep nice, that it put a lump in her throat. Sometimes Betty could handle all the meanness the world had to throw at her, until one kind word sent her defenses tumbling. "You're talented. You're smart. And you're a good person. There's got to be a place in the world for someone like that." The way he said it made it clear that he didn't think he fit into that category himself, or that there was a corresponding place in the world for him.
"I know I'll make it. I still have my clips, and my friends, and my blog – I even got nominated for a Blobby this year!"
"Fantastic!" Daniel said, so convincingly she could almost believe he'd heard of the Blobbys before, if she hadn't been oblivious to them herself before her nomination.
"And even if things are kind of tense in the apartment right now, I know Hilda and Justin love me. I know I'll see Dad again before too long. I just have to have faith. To keep trying."
"I've made a lot of bad judgment calls in my life – nothing but, it seems like. None of them were as off as underestimating you." The compliment would have made her feel better if she hadn't been able to see depression settling over Daniel again.
She took another drink, searching for the right words. "When we started talking about this, it was because I wanted to explain to you why – well, why I don't hate you."
He sat back in his chair as if this had put him off-balance. "Please, tell me. These days, it's an original point of view."
"Every time things were rotten with me and Walter in Baltimore, I would think about MODE. About how that was my one real shot at my dream."
"And about how I ruined it for you." The self-loathing in his voice scared her; it was too like the bitterness she'd heard from him on the bridge.
"You didn't ruin it. You made it tough. You hurt me. But you apologized, and you gave me the opportunity to come back. I'm the one who walked away. And so many times, over the past few years, I thought, I shouldn't have done it. I should have gone back to MODE. I should've given Daniel Meade one more chance." She looked into his eyes. "So maybe you should give yourself one."
Voice ragged, he said, "I told you, I won't jump. I promise you that."
"It's more than not jumping. Don't just … not die. Live."
Daniel nodded. He was blinking fast, and on the whole, Betty thought it was kinder to turn away. The two of them sat in silence for a few moments before he whispered, "Okay."
Somehow, that was enough to tell her he wouldn't go back to the bridge any time soon.
She drained the last of her drink, which had her feeling both very sleepy and somewhat wobbly in the knees. "I should go. They'll get me a cab downstairs, right?"
"It's a long way to Flushing."
"It's okay. At least the traffic will be light. Besides, unlike some people, when I leave the house, I carry my wallet."
"No, I mean – " He ran one hand through his ill-kempt hair. "Why don't you crash here? Take the bed. I'll sleep on the sofa. It folds out."
Although Betty felt awkward about that, she also felt incredibly tired, and incredibly not like sleeping on her sister's sofa, which did not fold out. Plus, Hilda and Justin got up around 6 a.m. And somehow, Daniel seemed … safe. Daniel Meade, of all people. "You know, I think I will."
He showed her where the bathroom was, loaned her a T-shirt and grabbed clothes and a couple of blankets before closing the bedroom doors to give her some privacy. She felt acutely aware of his presence on the other side of the doors as she removed her jeans and sweater – not like he'd come barging in to ravish her, but this was almost as close as she'd ever come to undressing with a man besides Walter. Which wasn't that close. Which was depressing.
Her awareness extended into hearing him shuck his own clothes. The corners of her mouth lifted as she heard the click-clank of hangers. So he was folding everything up nicely. Thinking about tomorrow. Maybe that was a good sign. She might have made a difference – even saved a life.
Betty realized that, for the first time in a long while, she felt strong. If she could save Daniel, she could definitely save herself.
Once ready for bed, she slipped between the covers and almost groaned in the sheer pleasure of a real, soft mattress and good sheets. Tiredness and the comfy bed conspired to make her even drowsier than before.
Betty managed to stay awake long enough to text her sister: DON'T FREAK, SPENDING THE NIGHT WITH …
She considered it for a long moment, then typed the simplest word for a complicated new truth.
…WITH A FRIEND.
When Betty awoke, she didn't initially remember where she was or why. She had a moment's blurry flashback to one of her favorite childhood books, A LITTLE PRINCESS, where the impoverished heroine had wakened one morning to find her attic garret transformed into a luxurious hideaway.
But this was the St. Regis, and Daniel Meade's suite, and holy cow, was last night somehow not just a dream? Apparently.
The clock said it was 9 a.m., early enough to get home, change and still make something of the day. Betty dressed quickly and stepped out, afraid of waking Daniel – and yet knowing she wouldn't leave without saying goodbye.
However, the sofa had already been folded up, embroidered cushions replaced, and Daniel was dressed. He wore clean clothes this time, and had even shaved. Although he still had the starved, unhappy look he'd worn the night before, he no longer seemed to be a guy who wasn't trying. "Hey." He set aside his iPhone. "You're awake."
"Yeah. And you – you look good."
"So do you."
A little furrow appeared between his eyebrows, the way it had last night when he'd been worried about her. "I mean it."
With a nervous tug at her hair, which now that she thought about it probably was in lots better shape than when he saw it last, she said, "Well, it's amazing what getting braces off can do for a girl. Thanks for letting me crash here, Daniel, but I should get home."
Was it her imagination, or did Daniel look disappointed? "Oh. Right. Well – stay for breakfast, maybe? Room service. On me. To make up for the cab ride."
Well. She was starving.
After they called in their orders – an omelet for him, French toast for her – Daniel said, "Listen. I woke up after sleeping just a couple hours, so – I've been thinking."
"What about?" Hey, it turned out super-nice hotels had coffee and tea stations. Betty set about making herself a cup of joe.
"An old friend of mine from college, Connor Owens – he just started up this new company. It's basically like a futures market for gossip, at least, gossip and other kinds of stories reported online."
Obviously he meant to explain more, but he didn't have to; Betty saw the potential immediately. "You mean, like, people see a story and bet on whether or not other people are going to be interested in it. Everybody would do it – just for fun – but you'd have this up to the minute data on what's about to be hugely popular online. So you could target ads?"
"And websites can raise ad prices accordingly." Daniel looked at her, almost in wonder. "God, you're quick."
"I try." She pulled the foil off a tub of creamer. "If you can buy stock in that company, I say, do it."
"It's not public. He's still getting it off the ground back in Melbourne – his hometown. At first I thought it was just something to do after his wife died; I never met her, but apparently the loss hit him hard. But now I think he's serious."
"He wants you to invest?"
"Yeah. And he even asked me to take a role in the company." He straightened on his chair as he looked at her. "Before today, I just thought, why bother. I'll screw it up. But now – now I think I'm going to do it. It's worth a try, anyway. And I think getting out of the St. Regis might be a good first step."
Betty felt herself start to smile. "Good for you, Daniel. I'm glad. New city, new start."
"Speaking of which – " Daniel rose to his feet to face her. "If I – when I join the company in Melbourne, I'll need an assistant."
He did not just say that.
Oh, yes he did.
"Daniel, are you – offering me a job? In Australia?"
He stepped forward, boyishly eager. "I know it's not the writing you love, but we'd have good start-up capital, so I could offer you a respectable salary and relocation costs. Plus it's a small shop, so you wouldn't just be getting me coffee."
Folding her arms, she said, "Or picking the cabbage out of your sauerkraut?"
"Oh, God, I'd forgotten that part." After wincing, Daniel plunged ahead. "You'd get a lot to do, from the beginning. Plenty of responsibility. And you'd make contacts at every website worth knowing, so it could be a stepping stone to what you really want to do. At least it would be … a new city. A new start. Like you said."
"You're serious." Move to Australia? To work for Daniel Meade again? It was so absurd – the last thing she would ever have thought of doing with her life – and yet here it was. Possible. Real. Something not exactly like, but awfully close to, her old, almost-forgotten dreams.
Daniel turned out to have serious puppy-dog eyes when he really wanted something. How amazing, that he really wanted her. "This isn't exactly a reason for you to accept my offer, but I just wanted to say – I've always hated that I messed up your job at MODE. Giving you another chance would mean a lot to me. Particularly now that I think I might have another chance because of you."
"You're right," she said. "Your feelings aren't a reason for me to accept. But … all the same, it's nice to hear."
"Listen. Take some time. Think it over. Talk about it with your sister."
"I don't have to." Betty took a deep breath. "I'm giving you a seriously overdue yes."
She could hardly believe it herself, but at the same time, she knew. Sometimes, not often enough, life actually lit up a sign showing you the right way to go. "Really."
His face split in a winning smile. Okay, she needed to stop thinking he was cute right around now, though Betty sensed that would be easier said than done. "Oh, my God. Betty, thank you. You won't regret it."
Normally, the person getting hired was the one saying thanks, not the one doing the hiring. However, it might be a good idea to stop assuming that "normal" was the way things were going to be between her and Daniel. She thought they might be able to do a whole lot better than that.