by Politic X
Fandom: The Devil Wears Prada
Pairing: Andrea / Miranda
Disclaimer: The Devil Wears Prada is not owned by me; I'm not making money.
Summary: An elevator story.
Beta: sheknowsnofear, a fearless editor and a fantastic teacher, she has my many thanks. If there are errors, grammatical or otherwise, they are no fault of hers, particularly as I was scurrying around making revisions behind her back.
Nobody at Elias-Clarke is allowed to accompany Miranda Priestly on elevators; it's a fact. It's a fact not just at Runway, not just throughout the corporation of Elias-Clarke, but in the broad fashion arena itself. Designers titter over it, but they don't press their luck. When Miranda visits them, they send their assistants to greet her. And when they visit Miranda, they travel in packs. Safety in numbers.
I've been with Miranda for almost two years now, and there have been times when it's been necessary to share an elevator with her, but I don't push my luck. I stand and wait for the next elevator cab, or run the stairs, or whatever, unless she gives me the okay - the irritated jerk of her head or roll of her eyes - but I don't push my luck. In some areas, yes, but on the elevator, no. The elevator is the only place where she can be alone.
Today was going to be an exception, I guess, to me not pushing my luck. An emergency, even, because one of the building management personnel called Jessica and told her that Miranda was on the elevator, and that the elevator was stuck between the twelfth and thirteenth floors. I found this out when I was depositing Miranda's Starbucks and a box from Calvin Klein in her office; I found out when I heard Jessica give a little scream. She was white and pointing at her phone, and then my cell phone was ringing, and that jarring, ugly ring could only mean Miranda. I didn't even look at the display, just answered it. She only said, "Get me out of here," before hanging up, but Miranda can say a lot in her tone, and her tone was seething.
That was when I looked at Jessica and asked her where Miranda was. "Elevator," she squeaked, and collapsed into her chair. "It's stuck, Andy. It's stuck! Oh god!" She looked at me in abject horror. "She called and hung up on me twice without saying anything and I didn't – I didn't know until building management called."
Reception can be bad in elevators, but our phones typically reach throughout the building; it's one of the reasons we use the carrier we do. I wondered if Miranda's anger was hiding her panic. I grabbed a bottle of water, searched my cell phone contacts for the director of building management and headed for the door. "Call Nigel and tell him we have to postpone his 9:00 with Miranda. Don't tell him why and don't give him another time yet; we don't know how long the elevator will be stuck. Don't let any calls go to voicemail. Don't, don't, don't," I paused to emphasize this. "Don't leave your desk for any reason."
There were three other working elevators, but I wasn't about to take any chances, so I took the stairs down to the thirteenth floor, talking to the building management company even in the stairwell. Our cell reception was fine; Miranda had hung up on Jessica because she was freaked out or pissed. The director of building management never had much direct interaction with any of us, but he knew who Miranda was, and he put me in touch with the elevator maintenance guy who was already onsite working on the problem.
My plan was to get on the elevator - that was plan A; there was no plan B. Because if Miranda was stuck in it, if she was freaking out because she was trapped in there, once she got out, all of our lives would be hell, especially mine. And I couldn't stand to think of her trapped like that, even though I knew she was okay. Technically.
The elevator guy met me on the thirteenth floor and he looked me up and down when I told him I had to get inside. He shook his head, even when I told him who was stuck in the elevator, and he said there was no way he would let me on. It would cost him his job, he said. I explained to him that not getting me on that elevator would cost him his job and any future jobs. I explained that very, very carefully, until he finally unlocked the elevator door and jumped down into the shaft. I watched him, peering over the side.
He hopped to the top of the elevator cab, opened the trap door in the roof of it, and then I followed suit. I could see down into the elevator: the marbled walls, the handrail, Miranda. I bent down, checked her placement and dropped my $400 Manolo Blahniks (courtesy of Runway's closet) inside. I slipped through the small opening, and the elevator guy was telling me not to jump when I jumped, and I think I sprained my ankle, because it hurt to put weight on it instantly. Of course, that wasn't my immediate concern.
The elevator guy closed the hatch and I was alone with Miranda, who was shielded behind dark Prada glasses with her head twisted at an uncomfortable angle like she did whenever anyone was being grossly idiotic. I handed her the bottle of San Pellegrino. "Here."
"Have you lost your mind?" she snapped, snatching the water from my grasp.
My ankle was killing me already. I tried to put weight on it and winced and leaned against the cab wall and just gave her a flash of a smile. Of course, I've lost my mind. I began losing it two years ago when I decided to accept this job. I was punished on a daily basis for accepting this job, and now I was enclosed with the woman who delivered that punishment with a certain amount of glee, it seemed. She must get off on being nasty to everyone. Only, to be fair and accurate, she wasn't really that nasty to me anymore. It was her constant abuse of Jessica that felt like my own punishment. The way Jessica took it and took it and then cried over nothing. Kind of like I used to.
I expected a caustic remark about the water I brought her because it wasn't coffee. And then I saw the tremor of her hands as she opened the bottle, her shallow, fast breathing. Definite panic attack. She had always seemed acutely uncomfortable in small spaces. "I thought we could go over your schedule today while we wait." I hadn't thought that at all, but maybe it would help relax her. My roommate in college used to have panic attacks before exams. I'd recite poetry to calm her. I'd start with a long one, one that we both knew, one that we had studied together, like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or Song of Myself, or something equally obvious, something equally, torturously long, and sometimes I had to recite most of the poem before she could get herself together and calm down. But when she did join in, her contributions were meager: Emily Dickinson or Carl Sandburg or someone else succinct. Miranda, though, didn't strike me as someone who would be tolerant of poetry recital as a method of relaxation.
She was cloaked in a double-breasted cashmere coat that was probably Alexander McQueen. It was too severe and too stylized to be Burberry, and I couldn't think of anyone else on Miranda's short-list who had done double-breasted cashmere this season. Though shivering in the long camel coat, she looked ready to do battle with her rigid posture and her scowling face, with her large Jérôme Dreyfuss bag on her arm like an escutcheon. "How long…?" she asked.
"They couldn't tell me," I said, wondering how the hell I was going to get her warm. Miranda, whom no one ever touched. Wondering how the hell I was going to calm her down; Miranda, who always thought she had everything under control.
Miranda's breath quickened. She bowed her head.
"But they're here now working on it, as you know, and I'm sure it won't be long." I pulled up her calendar on my cell. "I've had Jessica postpone your 9:00 with Nigel's team. They needed more time, anyway."
Miranda didn't make a sound. She didn't flinch, didn't grimace or appear the slightest impatient, which wasn't a good sign. She was standing stiffly, head bent toward the floor.
"Miranda?" This was worrisome.
She made a flicking motion with her hand, as if I needed to continue.
"Take your glasses off," I suggested. "It will help."
She was almost panting now, breathing through her mouth. She didn't take her glasses off.
"Here." I hopped a couple of steps to her. "Let me take these," I said, and gently removed Miranda's sunglasses. She managed to open her purse, which shook from her hands, which were now trembling worse, and I removed a case and slipped them inside and closed the purse. "There," I said, and took it and the water from Miranda's hands and put them on the floor, and placed my cell phone beside them, and I took a leap of faith and closed my warm hands around Miranda's cold ones. "There. Now look at me," I said, and Miranda did, briefly. She looked at me until I said, "Breathe."
Then she looked away, tried pulling her hands away, but I gripped them a little tighter. "Let's just give this a try, okay?" I offered humor. "We need to get your breathing under control before you hyperventilate and subsequently fire me because I witnessed a chink in the armor and dispelled the long-standing myth that you're too good to share an elevator with others." A look of surprise briefly flashed across Miranda's face. I held up two fingers in a pledge. "Scout's honor - what happens in the elevator stays in the elevator." At which Miranda seemed irritated, but she didn't look away.
I smiled gently. "Now, don't look at the floor. Don't look at the doors. Keep looking into my eyes."
Miranda frowned and quietly did as she was told.
"There. We're going to talk about your day. Not a lot going on, kind of a quiet day." It was very odd for Miranda to be silent and attentive. I kind of liked it. "So. Jessica postponed your nine a.m., which gives Nigel's team a little extra time to impress you." Miranda rolled her eyes, a much more appropriate reaction this time. "Exactly," I murmured. "Which means you're free until your 10:15 web conference with H&M, in which you expect them to introduce a new designer on their team."
I proceeded to remind Miranda of the young designer she'd already met, how the assistants at H&M were all agog because he had flounced in and ruffled feathers and did not care a whit who the senior designer at H&M was. He did, however, care who Miranda Priestly was, which made me hope that the web conference wouldn't be a total disaster.
I realized I had Miranda's entire focus and that this was the longest we'd ever held each other's gazes. It was very intense and intimate, and I was glad I had stopped being quite as intimidated by Miranda at some point in my tenure with Runway. Paris that first year, I guessed. Seeing Miranda stripped of makeup, with tears in her eyes, had done it.
Miranda was calming down. Her hands still trembled, but her breathing appeared more under control. Next, I launched into the latest on the twins' tutor, a man who seemed to have engaged in some sort of power play with Miranda, making himself unavailable for phone updates that I attempted to schedule on her behalf. Everyone in the universe bent their schedules to accommodate Miranda. The fact that her daughters' tutor didn't, spoke volumes. I wanted to fire him, but Miranda's tolerance of his attitude made me wonder if the man had a family connection. Still, I had gathered resumes of some likely candidates for a replacement, because, as I reminded Miranda, the twins' grades had not met the expected improvement.
Miranda didn't respond with a cutting comment, but remained silent. She seemed almost completely normal now. Normal enough that she appeared to be staring holes right through me about the tutor. I wondered if I had overstepped. I always tried to push my job up a notch so that Miranda had less to worry about, but she'd never indicated a preference for me actually thinking about what I was doing. Sometimes I wondered if it would be best to keep it simple like Jessica did. Jess never thought beyond what Miranda told her to do; she just did it and that was that.
But Miranda didn't seem angry, because she shifted her hands, and her thumb passed over my knuckles. It was a brief touch and definitely accidental, but Miranda never touched me or anyone else. I blinked and looked at her, and she was staring at me with those piercing eyes.
"Then there's the lunch with Stephen." She had unnerved me with her little thumb touching, and I totally forgot myself and scrunched up my nose as soon as I said his name, because I despised Stephen. I didn't know why Miranda would waste thirty seconds of breath on him, especially because they had long since parted on less than amicable terms. And then I realized: oh, I just made a face in front of Miranda. "Um, sorry," I said.
But I guess it wasn't necessarily a bad thing, because it elicited an almost smile from her. "Then you go straight from there to your meeting with Irv." Another time sucker that would make Miranda's day more stressful.
I shifted and the pain shot up my leg and took my breath away. I lost my balance and thought I was falling to the floor.
"You've sprained your ankle, I think," Miranda said, catching me swiftly. This was as much of a shock as the pain, but then she draped me against the elevator wall, effortlessly, as if I were thin, as if she were strong, and I was even more shocked. "Unless, of course, you've fractured something, which you could've done at that height."
"Wow. You, um… have quick reflexes."
Miranda frowned. "That was a ridiculous thing to do, climbing into the elevator like a monkey. At least you had the sense to take your shoes off before you jumped."
I realized I had given Miranda quite the show, wearing my tiny skirt, and I was glad my undergarments were as pretty as my outer garments. "Well," I said. "I couldn't leave you in here alone."
"I was fine."
"I know you were," I said reassuringly. I gave her a small smile. Her secret was safe with me.
Then I knew I was in surreal land because Miranda stared at my lips. She stared at my lips when I smiled and she kept staring at them, and the quiet now was laden with something, and it made me nervous. I didn't get nervous around her that often anymore. Working for her for two years did that to a person. It wasn't a nightmare like it had been in the beginning. Miranda was still very demanding, but when you knew what to expect, things flowed smoothly. I liked for things to flow smoothly. I liked ironing out her chaotic world. I wondered if she'd ever been stuck in an elevator before. I wondered why she rode alone if she was so frightened of elevators. All she had to do was snap her fingers and tell someone to ride with her every morning, tell them to stand in a corner and shut up, and it would be done. "This shouldn't have happened," I told her.
Miranda's eyes moved to mine, but the look in them, whatever it was, didn't change. I wondered if she had any idea what that did to a person. I may not have been intimidated by her on a regular basis anymore, but she was Miranda Priestly, and she was staring at me with something like contemplation on her face. Maybe she forgot that I was her assistant. I swear to god, sometimes she would act like we were on intimate terms, like I was her close personal friend, and she'd reveal something – a flash of humor, an angry comment regarding Irv, a concern about her daughters – but the moment would pass, and she'd start speaking to me like a second-class citizen once more.
"I don't want it to happen again." This slipped out of my mouth, which I should have kept closed. "You should have me ride up with you every morning, Miranda. I can have Tyler phone me as you're on your way in. And I'll meet you in the lobby and we'll ride up together." Tyler, Miranda's latest soap-opera-stud-wannabe driver, would be more than happy to cooperate. He'd like the gossipy feeling of being an informant. He loved the gossipy feeling of being driver to Miranda Priestly (and Miranda Priestly only), that much was certain.
"Absolutely not." Miranda's emotions flashed now and she actually came to life. She didn't seem angry, exactly, or irritated, but wary, as if I were plotting something.
"I should have thought of it before. We can discuss your day, make sure everything's in place, on the ride up."
"No. Andrea, I will not-"
"Or I can be perfectly quiet."
Miranda gave me a thunderous look.
I should have been shaking in my shoes, but I knew if she didn't want me to do this, it wouldn't happen. If she did, she'd make it unpleasant, but no harm would come to me. "Look, I can meet you at the car if you want. Open your door," I teased. "Take your arm and escort you into the building." A shift across Miranda's eyes again - wariness strung taut.
"Oh, oh!" I decided to be a goofball to try and break the tension; sometimes it worked with her. Sometimes it didn't. I always found myself willing to take the risk of irritating her, just to push further, to be more. "I can wait for you outside your townhouse every morning and we can ride in together and gab about what your neighbors are up to and compliment each other's choice of accessories, and run by Starbucks for coffee, and then, then we can go over your schedule in the elevator…"
Miranda turned away.
"Or, we could just meet in the elevator lobby."
Wonder of wonders, she gave a slight nod.
My victory felt brief. I knew I would pay for managing her in this way; I'd be the first on the firing line. I'd walk in the door of Runway each morning laden beneath her coat and purse and Starbucks and wrath. She would insult me just to start her day off right. She would enjoy it.
This was something that still got to me, her insults. I tried to guard myself from them emotionally; everyone was insulted, after all. But they hurt. I worked extraordinarily hard for Miranda – I gave and gave and gave – and was rewarded by being told I looked fat, or that I was dense, or my ideas were stupid. I was never told that I looked slender, that I'm smart, or loyal, or hard-working, or kind. She'd never uttered one word of appreciation.
The closest she'd ever come to showing thanks was by tossing her unwanted freebies in my direction. Everyone wanted them, but I always had first pick. So I supposed that counted for something.
But better than her discards were the looks she occasionally, rarely, gave me. She would look at me, not one of her masked stares, but a totally readable look, a look I knew, and it would be gone in a moment, but that look would tell me that she was proud of me, or that she thought me witty, or that I was smart, or that I had made a good clothing choice. The things I wanted her to say and she never did.
I leaned against the wall and slid down so that I squatted on my good foot. The other was well and truly hurting now. I reached out and grabbed my phone from the place where I'd left it beside Miranda's water and I was scrolling through it for the elevator company's number, when Miranda bent down beside me. She was so close that she looked larger than life at this angle, in her McQueen coat and perfect hair and flawless makeup, like a rock star. I tried not to gasp. Even after working with her for so long, she could still blow me away like that. Most of the time she was Miranda, of the tremendous work ethic and unbelievable talent and barely controlled anger, but sometimes she was Miranda Priestly - the legend - famous and powerful almost beyond comprehension.
She very gently touched my ankle, then held it and turned it carefully. "When we're out of here, have Roy take you to my physician," she said, holding my ankle in both hands. Just as gracefully, she released it.
Then she gave me a look that really unnerved me. I tried not to back down from it. I was a great assistant. I busted my ass for her, and there was nothing she could be unhappy with.
"Why did you refuse my offer?"
Oh shit. "What?" My review had been a couple of weeks ago. My second annual review, scheduled more than a month early because of the endless upcoming fashion shows. The review in which Miranda made it clear that she expected me to move on.
Her look turned ice cold, and she let a pause settle between us, during which time I felt sweat dampen my armpits. "Why did you want to stay at Runway?"
I figured a quick answer might save me. "I knew there was still so much I could learn."
"No, that's the excuse you gave to both of us. I'll give you another chance to tell me the truth, Andrea, and if you lie again, you will no longer be employed by me."
A chill swept over me.
"When I brought you into my office for your two-year assessment, I gave you a wide range of options. Like jewels spread before you, vast riches - any magazine you wanted, any newspaper - I would make it happen for you. Your dreams of writing. It was a just reward for someone who had worked very hard for me." Miranda's face was impenetrable. "But you rejected my offer because you wanted to stay at Runway. Tell me the real reason and tell me now."
She was going to fire me? After all I had done? Simply because I wanted to stay and work for her? Anger swept through me so quickly it was shocking. I was slow to anger, always, except Miranda had found my button a long time ago, and she pushed it occasionally, and she knew. She pushed it deliberately, like a vengeful child. I kept my mouth closed for a moment, to bite back what might jump out. If I told her the truth - that I stayed because it thrilled me to see her day after day - she would fire me. If I lied, she would see right through the lie and fire me. "Because of you."
Miranda's gaze was cutting. "Obviously." She rose and moved as far from me as physically possible. "Today is your last day at Runway. Get me out of here."
The pain was shocking, and it was as physical as it was emotional. I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach, hit me over the head, torn out my heart. And spat in my face. It felt so vindictive, so ungrateful of Miranda, and so … illogical and wrong. I assisted her. I helped her. I was loyal to her. I did a thousand things to make her life easier. I protected her. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes and didn't realize I was even crying, that tears were even sliding down my face, until I heard her voice, and I kind of came to my senses again. I wouldn't give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry. This was what I told myself as I listened to her.
"…Begged me to stay, sniveling just like you. 'Please Miranda, I want to work for you,'" Miranda intoned in a British accent. She dropped the accent and scowled. "I should have fired you in Paris the first time, when you abandoned your job and threw your cell phone away like an obnoxious child, but you had shown so much promise up to that point. And all of this time I've wasted, nurturing you to have you turn out to be another Emily…I cannot tell you how disappointed I am."
There wasn't anything nurturing about how Miranda worked her employees like dogs; nevertheless, that wasn't what cut. She was full of knives, but her self-image, her idea that she was nurturing me, didn't cut at all; it was too ludicrous to cut. That she didn't see me, after all this time, that I could be any assistant, hurt. "I'm not Emily."
Miranda was standing with her arms crossed. "That's what I've told myself for two years, but it seems that you are. What will happen next year when your review comes up? Will there be more to learn? Will you throw away your dreams because you're so devoted to mine that you'll remain an assistant forever? Emily."
There were times when Miranda acted every bit her daughters' age. She threw her coats and purse at Jessica like a twelve year-old would. She bitched about her coffee not being hot enough like a twelve year-old would. She made scornful remarks about other people's clothes, their weight, their looks, like a twelve year-old would. This name-calling was her being twelve. Calling me Emily with the same tone of voice in which she would say ' idiot'.
Whatever fury gripped me earlier was nothing compared to what hit me now, and I pushed myself off the elevator floor without thinking, and launched myself at her. You spoiled brat, I thought. You spoiled, ungrateful brat. I came down on my bad ankle, and the lightning pain struck me, and I think I passed out for a millisecond, because when I became cognizant, Miranda was holding me again. She was holding me upright and I was standing on my good foot, and I hadn't hit the floor. I tried to breathe. Miranda's hands were on my waist, holding me as if I were a model, thin.
"I'm not Emily," I said, but the pain caused it to come out less than vehemently. And her proximity, and her perfume, and the way she held me.
Miranda's look challenged me to that statement.
I was angry not just for myself, but on Emily's behalf, as well. "There's nothing wrong with her, you know. She adores you. She used to knock herself out for you every single day, sometimes from the crack of dawn to midnight, and she did it gladly. She worships you, Miranda."
Miranda gazed at me pointedly.
Something clicked. Will you throw away your dreams because you're so devoted to mine that you'll remain an assistant forever? "Oh." Was it possible Miranda cared that I threw away my dreams? It was what she said, wasn't it?
I would've left it at that, probably kept my mouth closed, in silent recognition that maybe she really was concerned about me, about what I did with my life, but she was still holding me up. Her hands were touching me. By choice. On purpose. Miranda was hands-off. She didn't touch people, and they absolutely did not touch her, for any reason. But here she was, touching me. Her palms were on my waist, and she was holding me in a way that somehow made me feel slender and beautiful. How did she do that? Nate hadn't held me this way; no one had held me this way. "You're… concerned about me."
"It was self-serving for me to keep you when you asked me to. I should have let you go," Miranda said. Her face was a mask, but oh my god, her hands were on my waist.
"I do good work; I know I do. This is what I want to do right now."
"Emily," Miranda said contemptuously, and her grip on me slackened, and she guided me to the wall, where she propped me up and kept a hand on my side, as if afraid I'd fall. This confounded my perception of her. It blurred things a little bit. Being completely alone with her also shifted my perspective. It was just us in the elevator, and we were never alone. We were always in a glass box of some type – the office, the car, a designer's studio, a runway, her townhouse. And I was typically one of many; one of her entourage.
Being alone with her reminded me of the Miranda I tried to remember whenever the twelve year-old came out, the Miranda that apparently enjoyed hiding in plain sight – the Miranda that wrote the monthly editor's letters that graced her magazine. Sometimes they were so revealing that I'd actually gasp as I was reading them - she'd divulge something tender about the twins, make a remark about the body of work of some singer like Tori Amos, articulate Lady Gaga's influence on fashion, share her experience dancing with Diddy at a fundraiser, relate an incident that happened while she was on vacation (the terrifying moment a wave swept Cassidy far from shore), disclose something Karl Lagerfeld had whispered in her ear, share a wish (warm socks) from a friend dying of AIDS (Miranda, I knew, though her readers didn't, had purchased this friend a box full of hand knitted cashmere socks at $300/pair). The letters from Miranda always captured my imagination, and frequently touched my heart. It was difficult, placing that woman with the one whose scathing remarks could reduce business associates to tears. It was easy, placing that woman with the one who kept her hand at my side after she helped me lean against the elevator wall.
Let me stay, I silently thought, over and over, as she remained silent.
But she looked away and removed her hand. When she spoke again, she sounded detached. I stared at her face, at her neck. Her skin was beautiful, even very close. There were no blemishes. "How are you going to feel in six or eight months, when you could have been writing at Harper's, if you're still fetching coffee and clothes for me?" She pressed her lips together. "How will you feel about me then?"
Good god, as if she cared. Did she care? I felt tender and protective. "I won't hate you. I won't blame you. I'll be grateful you let me make the choice."
Miranda gazed at me long and hard, her face closed to my mirrored scrutiny. "The offer is on the table but it's about to go. Stay only long enough to train another assistant for me and I'll place you anywhere your little heart desires. But refuse once more, and nothing like this will be offered again."
I breathed. Tried exhaling this fury, because there was no fighting with Miranda, was there? You never won. She was illogical and irrational and twelve. And obviously trying to goad me into anger or hysterics or something. So, she wasn't firing me? But bribing me to leave? "I don't want that. I don't want your reward, if that's what it is. I don't want anything from you."
Miranda looked momentarily surprised, then she laughed at this, a cold mirthless laugh, and it almost pushed me over the edge. "You don't want to be placed in a position that would take you – I don't know… ten years or more of hard work, incredible skill and a huge amount of luck to attain on your own?"
"Don't fool yourself, Andrea."
From the beginning, Miranda had pushed me to the edge, time and again, until I felt like I was being pushed right through my own skin, constantly shedding and growing a new one. I always felt raw because of her merciless nature. "I don't care if you believe me," I said, turning away from her. "I don't want anything from you."
Miranda's hand was on me, grasping my shoulder like a claw, turning me back to face her. Her short nails dug into my flesh. "Everyone wants something from me, Andrea," she hissed.
I looked straight into her eyes. "I don't."
She gave me a calculating gaze before sliding away, removing her coat as if dropping a shield, leaving it where it fell. She leaned against the elevator cab and looked at me through hooded eyes. "Yes, you do."
Miranda was wearing an amazing historic Mandarin war jacket, the real deal, tailored to fit her perfectly. I knew all about it, because I was there when it came in, when her eyes lit on it. It was a gift from a diplomat; silk in green, indigo, gold, and white, with three-quarter sleeves. She wore it opened to reveal a red ruched blouse beneath. Except for the softly draped cowl neck, the blouse hugged every inch it touched. Her rather staid pencil skirt was Alexander McQueen; I knew it because I saw it come through Runway's doors in a presentation - tweed with a frayed chiffon hem - that somehow looked sexier on Miranda than it had on the model thirty years her junior. How she had put an antique Mandarin jacket with this skirt, with that long cream cashmere coat, was beyond me, but she had, and the result, complete with outrageous Prada pumps that I had seen earlier, but not in this context - not with that blouse or that skirt - was breathtaking.
I became a little dazed again. Miranda, who displayed the tiniest fragment of herself in her magazine each month, could have charmed anyone with just that sliver, even if she had been unattractive. But she wasn't unattractive.
She pressed her palms flat on the wall of the cab and sighed almost languorously, as if she had all the time in the world - all the time in the world to spend in this elevator, which had caused that little panic attack earlier, all the time in the world to get to the bottom of what exactly I wanted, since everyone wanted something from her. She raised her left foot to press it against the wall behind her, jutting her hips out a bit. She did it with effortless sensuality. "What do you want?" she asked quietly.
Oh. She hit the nail on the head, didn't she? Seeing Miranda turn on the seduction for me, it all became clear. The answer I kind of knew but kept pushing away. Why did I want to stay at Runway? I wanted to stay because of her. What did I want? I wanted her complete attention. I wanted every morning to begin like this, just the two of us, alone. I wanted to be the first to see her outfit every day. I wanted to see her. I wanted to make her smile. I wanted to make her proud. I wanted to help her. I wanted to be the one she confided in, talked to, trusted. I wanted to yell back when she made me angry. I wanted to make her cry. I wanted to make her cry and scream and moan and come. Oh.
"Oh," Miranda smirked. Her eyes were on my face, and my eyes were all over her.
Oh god. Images flashed in my mind and I tried to push them away, but oh god. Being alone with her without any distraction, and the coat was finally off, and she looked so good. Shit. I turned away. Shit.
"You're fired," Miranda said.
Shit. Of course I was. Of course, because I couldn't be attracted to someone with a heart, could I? Or someone remotely attainable? Maybe it was better to move on. Maybe Miranda was right; I couldn't be an assistant forever. That was just ludicrous. Throw my dreams away for her? I ran these thoughts like a mantra through my mind, and tried to still my pulse and clenching heart. I tried very hard to postpone the emotion of this until I could be alone and let it all out. This was what I should have spent all this time learning from Miranda – controlling my emotions.
"I see it now," Miranda went on after a moment of silence. "Your little crush. Never really noticed it before. You're not so blatant as Emily… but hers seems insincere in comparison."
I focused on holding myself completely still. I held myself still and thought of my ankle and how it hurt, because that was a pain I could deal with.
Miranda kept talking, probably in an effort to make me feel even worse. "Most of my assistants can't take working for me more than a few months; few make it a year, much less two, when the natural order of things would dictate that two is an acceptable term – a year as the second assistant; a year as the first assistant. And typically if they make it two years, they're anxious to leave. It's become a legend in its own way, I suppose. Emily needed to leave us, Andrea. She's growing under Nigel's direction. She's gaining confidence… and her eye for trends already has been put to good use by Runway."
Miranda became quiet, perhaps allowing time for me to say something, but I kept thinking about my ankle. I would go to the doctor and make sure it wasn't broken, and I would go home and plan my future. Away from her. This fifty year-old who acted like she was twelve so much of the time. Firing me. There couldn't have been a better assistant to her.
"You need to go, too. Whether or not you believe me, were I to let you stay, you would regret the decision. And it wouldn't do for me, either, you see, because I'm accustomed to the turnover, the unvarying flux. I don't allow myself to grow attached to my assistants because … well, there's no reason, is there? Most are substandard at best. And no one's ever wanted to stay before you two. But Emily only needed a gentle push."
I scowled at the description. Gentle. Right.
"I know what you're thinking. Unlike you, she didn't want to stay as my assistant, she wanted to stay with Runway." She paused. "But this isn't about Emily, whom, I might add, is overjoyed with her current position, as you know. No, this is about you, who didn't want to work for me at all."
Miranda allowed a lengthy silence that I wasn't about to interrupt. "Sometimes someone different comes along… a rare occasion … and she performs her job in a far superior manner than those before her. And I find myself constantly reminded of the two year deadline. Because it will come up, just as things are running smoothly and I'm able to get some work done because I'm actually surrounded by something like competence, the deadline will come up. And this rare person… If she were to stay on…" Miranda sighed. "I might allow myself to become attached… and when she decided to leave, because she would – because no one wants this job, Andrea… Andrea, look at me."
I pivoted awkwardly on my good foot and was astounded once more by the visual of Miranda in those clothes, looking like no one else I've ever seen.
"If you stay now, you'll eventually want to leave. And I won't want you to, and … how will you do it then?" Her voice was soft. "If it hurts you now to think of it, how will it feel in a year or two, or five? Don't throw your dreams away running my errands."
I gazed at her, trying not to hear this, trying to remain angry, but, oh god, her words, and her tone. She sounded soft, like the letters she wrote in her magazine. The carefully crafted, tactical letters that were nothing like her, I reminded myself. Nothing like the bitch I worked with day in and day out, who enjoyed making Jessica cry, who fired people for reasons as ridiculous as cold coffee and imaginary two-year terms.
Her soft voice wouldn't fool me. I was sure it was a ploy, another of her seductions, and it didn't mean anything; she didn't really care. She just liked change. It's a widely known fact. She liked change and young designers and fresh ideas - the unvarying flux, just like she said. But it was hard not to be drawn in when she started pulling.
"I want to put you at Harper's," Miranda said. "You're a very good writer. You'll go far."
Okay, then, I would surrender with a white flag and dignity. "Thank you, Miranda," I said coldly. I knew she dismissed people left and right, but I really wanted to believe that she was having a hard time firing me. She was letting me walk away with a primo job that a million aspiring journalists would die for. The irony.
"Of course, that girl isn't exactly competent yet; you've been carrying her load and yours. You'll need to find and train someone, and I want things running very smoothly before you leave, which means getting the girl up to your level before you can begin looking at resumes for a second assistant. Good luck with that. Fashion week is coming up; that throws a wrench in things. I want Jessica with me in Milan and London – she needs to learn, so you better get her up to speed between now and then. And then quarterly budgets will be a mess to prepare for. Ninety days. A season. Stay with me another season, Andrea, and then let's say goodbye."
Miranda was smiling softly, which seemed like the cruelest thing in the world. I hated her for smiling. I hated her for doing this. I was supposed to go to London with her, to Milan with her. Stay with her another season? She made it sound romantic and charming, when it felt like hell.
The lights went out. Miranda moaned.
Time to take care of her again. It was hard, shifting to her moods. It took an extraordinary amount of backbone or grace or maybe whipped-dog to do it. "It's okay," I said in what I hoped to be a soothing, not cold, not hurt, voice. I tried to clear my head of everything that had happened in the past few minutes and focus on what she needed. I tried to focus on what the icon needed, and be the assistant to the icon, because the woman was tying me up in knots. She was cold. The woman was heartless and she could have a panic attack in this elevator and I shouldn't care. But the icon provided my salary, whether she was cold or not, and I needed to pay my half of the rent.
The emergency light came on. Miranda was looking around, breathing shallowly, her eyes a little wild. She wrapped her arms around herself.
"Miranda, look at me."
She pulled her gaze back to me, and she looked so vulnerable, so lost, indeed like a child, in an entirely different way.
"Okay, we're going to do this again." I took a step, but pain shot up my leg and I had to close my eyes for a moment, swallow, grab the handrail. "You're going to have to come to me." I reached my hand out to her, as far as I could stretch my arm, and I knew it was silly, but the look on her face was awful, and she thought I was an idiot anyway, didn't she? I didn't care anymore what she thought about me. She had fired me. There was nothing to lose, but as long as I was working, I'd do my job well, because that's who I was; that's what I did.
Miranda looked at it for a moment, then stepped forward and tentatively reached her hand out. It was shaking rather than trembling, and her face was very pale. An immediate panic attack this time. I pulled her close, held her hands again. Wondered if she'd pull away, now that she knew my feelings for her were not quite professional. She didn't, though. Her hands were even colder than before. Why had she removed her coat, if she was still cold? For drama? A tactical maneuver?
"We have to get out of here," she said, sounding panicked.
"We will. Look at me."
But Miranda was cracking; being in the elevator so long was finally getting to her, and though she looked at me, she wouldn't calm down. She was beginning to pant.
I pulled her hands away so that I could push the hair out of her eyes, and she clutched my shoulders. Definitely a panic attack, because she wasn't just touching me, she was clinging to me. I dropped my hands, rubbed her arms, trying to warm her, but being careful with the Mandarin jacket, careful with her. Not wanting to break eye contact by bending to get her cashmere coat, not sure I could manage on one good foot, not sure she would feel it anyway.
"Don't close your eyes," I told her. I tried to think of something to say to calm her down. Not easy. "It sucks that you're firing me," I said, deciding to let loose. "Because I take good care of you. I do things like climb down into an elevator for you so you don't have to be alone when you're afraid."
She looked away.
"I'm going to miss you. I shouldn't. You burn me all the time. You ask for the impossible, like an unpublished Harry Potter book, and when I deliver, there aren't any thanks for it. But if I don't deliver… well, there goes my job." It stung. If she cared about me at all, she wouldn't do this. "I delivered every single time and you're firing me.
"It's so unfair. To be fired. I worked so hard." I swallowed. "I guess it shouldn't shock me. Nothing about this place should shock me after that initial culture shock, everyone so self-important, everything so superficial. After learning that I'm no one of any importance. And in Paris, what you did to Nigel and knowing if you did that to him, you wouldn't think twice about cutting me loose… I knew it even back then. The realization that I wasn't important to you… it made me run away for a little while. I almost quit; I knew you wouldn't miss me. I knew it made no difference. You can't imagine how I feel, begging you to let me stay. What an idiot I am, like you've said, countless times."
I realized that Miranda was staring at me, and I looked at her. Her breathing had slowed and she was okay again, and maybe better than okay, because she looked somewhat shocked by what I had said, and irritated.
"You work so hard, everyone wants something from you - you're right - everyone's trying to take and take, and so I think, it's no wonder that you don't let anyone in. It's no wonder that you keep those walls around you; just like your office. It's so symbolic. Everybody can see you but nobody can access you. But I always hoped you'd realize you could trust me. And to know that you don't, to know you think I wanted something from you, a job or whatever after all this time… it cuts."
When it was apparent that I was finished talking, she just stood there for a moment, holding my shoulders, and her eyes swept over my face. Then she said, "You'll recover in no time. You're young."
"Not after this morning," I muttered.
She chuckled at that, and walked to the other side of the elevator and leaned against the cab wall again. "Emily would have us out of here by now," she said acerbically.
I swept my phone up from the floor beside me. No signal. "Emily would not have you out of here by now," I said, matching her sarcastic tone. She was chuckling. Providing an instant balm to my anger. "She wouldn't be down here, either. And if she were, you'd be hyperventilating all over the place. And so would she. You'd both die of asphyxiation."
Miranda pressed her lips together.
I leaned toward her handbag, pulling it toward me in a move that had her staring at me - but not offering to help. I opened it and grabbed her phone and fiddled with it, trying to see if I could get a signal. "Have I made any impression on you at all? Besides being the smart fat girl? Oh, wait, scratch that. You've said I'm stupid, incompetent, idiotic, foolish, an imbecile…"
I scrolled through her contacts, not being nosy, but seeing if she'd added any new ones, because I handled the input of new contacts; it was my job. When Miranda input contact info, it was as incomplete as a scrawled note on a bar napkin. And if I did it, I'd input the information into the shared database so that Jessica and I could sync our cell phones as well as Miranda's, so we'd all have the same info and that info would be more than an unknown number (cell? business? home?) and first name ("Christian" – Louboutin? Lacroix? Siriano? Thompson, even?).
I looked up. She was glowering.
"I guess I'll be the stupid fat girl, in your memory. If you remember me at all." I smiled to let her know I was teasing.
Her eyes flashed over me and then she looked away, and she was staring at the floor and I was staring at her when the elevator suddenly dropped slightly. It scared the shit out of me, so I could imagine what it did to her.
Bad ankle or not, I pushed myself away from the elevator wall and was at her side in a moment. "It's okay," I panted. I was dizzy. Sweat broke out on my forehead from the pain.
Miranda reached for me and held me up, and held me close to her. "This is ridiculous," she said, but she was gasping, too.
"You'll be okay," I murmured, but I wasn't sure I would. I leaned away, almost falling because I thought I would pass out from the pain. I ended up resting my forehead on the wall above her shoulder, so dizzy I thought I might be sick.
We remained like this for a minute or more - quiet except for our labored breathing - and then I said: "Everyone else will pale in comparison to you," thinking of future employers, future everyones. Her hair tickled my cheek.
Slowly, the dizziness receded, and Miranda's panting sounded more manageable. I lifted my head. A blush was on her face. I had embarrassed her, but whether from the closeness or my disclosure, I wasn't sure. She still held me, her fingers splayed wide, keeping me steady, but her gaze was on the elevator wall opposite us.
I knew there was something I needed to say. "I can't accept that I've done a good job yet I'm being forced out. Like Irv and Jacqueline tried to force you out a couple of years ago." Her fingernails cut into my waist and her entire body stilled; she even stopped breathing for a moment. "Do you see that this is how I feel? Only it's worse, because I trusted you."
She pursed her lips. She was back in control, breathing steady, eyes straight ahead. She was back in control, but I wasn't. I was too close to her, too aware of her, too cognizant of the impact her absence would have on my life. I wasn't going to make it ninety days. I wasn't going to be able to face a season of goodbye. "If I don't tell you before I go, it's been an honor working for you."
I said this with the utmost sincerity, but her eyes jerked to me, and what they contained was upsetting, because she looked appalled and then livid, as if she could see right through me, as if she knew I was going to ditch her.
The lights came on and the elevator began its ascent.
Miranda let go of me, pushed me away like I had the plague, and I almost fell. I caught myself on the wall, though, and we rose up through the building silently. I gathered everything: my shoes, the phones, her purse and coat and water, and hobbled to the office after her.