The following work day starts like any other. Everyone around me is bustling and hustling to handle their assignments. Kate gives me an icy glare when I pass her by. Lucas gives me a wink when he passes me by. Mary Ashford summons me to her office around 3:30 PM. My heart races as I head over to her office, wondering what she could possibly want to talk to me about.
“What’s going on?” I ask her, shutting the door after myself.
“Why don’t you have a seat,” she says pointing at the chair across from her desk.
I sit down and she pushes a stack of five of my designs towards me.
“What about these?” I ask.
“I need to discuss with you the simple fact that for 3 of these designs, I have your name listed as a collaborator… but on two of them, I won’t be crediting you.”
“Um. Okay, why not?”
“The validity of my brand is all about my name. My name, Mary Ashford, being attached to a particular dress or outfit means everything. The name Nora Michaels… doesn’t exactly hold any weight in this industry. When my new line launches, I need the most powerful designs in my lineup to appear as though they were thought-of entirely by me. You understand.”
“I… I don’t actually. I poured my heart and soul into these. These designs mean everything to me, Mary.”
“Relax, dear. Your name will still be credited to 3 of them. As a collaborator.”
I sit there, silent. I’m stunned. I don’t even know what to say.
I might have spent the last two years of my life focused on the pageant circuit and not even realizing how much art and design actually meant to me, but now that I know how much it actually matters, it’s made a huge difference to me in my life and my mindset. The way I feel about myself was once totally wrapped up in my outward appearance… being able to express myself through my art has shifted my way of thinking entirely. It feels like she is somehow taking that away from me.
“I’m going to need you to sign this non-disclosure agreement stating that you won’t try to come forward and claim credit for these designs to the press or anyone else.”
She hands me the documentation and then waves me out of her office.
Would I be kissing this dream life of mine away if I refuse to sign this paperwork? Because I’d be entirely selling myself out if I do.
I walk over to Lucas’s desk and yank his arm, indicating that I need him to follow me. We leave the building and sit in his car for privacy so that we can talk.
“What am I supposed to do?” I ask him, showing him the NDA. “I never thought she would genuinely rip me off like this.”
“I mean… this is just the way the fashion industry is, Nora. It’s cutthroat when you’re at the bottom. Cause a stir and you’ll lose all momentum before you’ve even made a name for yourself.”
“So you think I should sell out?”
“It’s not selling out. Your name is still going to be listed on 3 of the dresses, right?”
“You don’t get it. The two she won’t give me credit for are the two that mean the most to me.”
“So what matters more? Fighting for credit and getting sacked or taking one L and coming out on top later on down the line?”
“One L?!” I ask him, exasperated. “Who’s to say she won’t do this to me again? She was so matter-of-fact about the whole thing as if I had no say in the matter!”
“You sort of… don’t,” he says shrugging.
Something about Lucas suddenly seems very unattractive to me. The fact that he isn’t fired up to be on my side about this whole thing is making me look at him just a bit differently. How hard is it to support the person that you care about when they’re upset about something as serious as this? He doesn’t understand what it feels like to have something meaningful snatched away from you. He works as a marketing manager in the fashion industry… The severity of this situation is going right over his head.
“You’re no help whatsoever,” I groan, climbing out of his car and slamming the door.
I find an empty room in the office and close the door after myself to call Tony.
“Hello?” he asks, answering the call.
“Hey... Are you busy?”
“Not particularly,” he says, sounding very monotone.
“I need to talk to you about something going on at work. I don’t know what to do.”
“What’s wrong?” he asks with his voice sounding completely lifeless.
“First of all, what’s wrong with you? Why are you talking to me like that?”
“I don't know anymore, Nora. Things between us just aren't sitting right with me.”
“Do you not understand how busy I am with this job?”
“I do. I just feel like I have instinctual feelings that lead me to believe that your job isn’t the only thing keeping you so busy.”
“What are you accusing me of?” I ask.
“Clearly you have something you want to say so go ahead and say it.”
“Why don’t you, Nora?” he asks me
After a few moments of silence, I finally admit, “Well yeah. To be honest with you I sort of met someone.”
An argument begins.
“I knew it,” he snaps.
“You did? So you were that quick to already make negative assumptions about me before giving me the chance to explain myself to you?”
“I was right, wasn’t I? So what’s the problem?”
“Things just kind of happened and it’s not like you and I are an official couple!”
“Don’t give me that BS, Nora. Come on, don’t play that game. You know how we were feeling about each other before you left.”
“Yeah… before I traded up out of my wretchedly lame and boring life in Indiana.”
“Traded up?” he sighs. “You changed. And in the worst possible way.”
“You have… you have a small-town mentality,” I snap back at him. “Do you know how unattractive that is?”
“You weren’t even gonna go to LA!” he finally unloads. “You were never even going to show your designs to anyone. I’m the one who told you to even do this! You were going to let it all sit there in your room, collecting dust… You were probably going to ignore how talented you naturally are and wait around for next year’s beauty pageant to try and redeem yourself for the one you just lost. And you’d get up there during the talent round to draw for 5 seconds in front of a group of judges who could honestly care less about you and everything that you’re capable of. I’m the one who saw how much bigger you were than that… and the only thing I asked of you was to not forget about me! That was literally the only thing!”
I sit there silently with the phone pressed against my face. I have no words to say. He’s right.
“I have loved you since first grade. You never paid attention to me once until that day in the store after Trixie verbally burned you. When you walked up to me that day I was thinking… finally. I get a chance to talk to Nora. I had no idea I was so forgettable and replaceable to you after all the time we spent hanging out.”
I continue to sit there in silence. Unable to come up with the proper response… unable to think of something he deserves to hear.
“You knew I was waiting until we were face to face to ask you to be my girlfriend.”
Click. He ends the call.
I roll up a wad of tissue and dab the tears from under my eyes.
I hear a light tapping sound on the door.
“Come in,” I quietly mumble.
Kate walks in and closes the door after herself.
“Is it cool with you that I’m in here?” she asks.
“What’s up?” I ask flatly, trying to hide the fact that I was just crying a minute prior.
“I saw you come in here and I just wanted to let you know that I apologize for the way I treated you when you first showed up at the office. I definitely didn’t take you seriously but I have a good reason behind that… I see a lot of people pass through this office with big dreams and big goals and they never get too far. I kind of sort of thought the same situation was going to happen with you. Then again, I hadn’t seen how talented you are. Obviously, Mary Ashford saw how talented you are and that’s why you’re here today. So I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. I understand if you don’t like me and if you are never gonna want to be friends with me. But I just wanted to put this out there."
I break down in sobs right in front of her and reach towards her for a hug. I’m usually not one to express emotions in front of strangers but at this moment, I don’t know what else to do.
She gently hugs me back, probably filled with total confusion about what’s going on.
When I finally settle down from the tears, she asks me what went wrong.
“You were right about Lucas,” I say quietly. “He’s a total tool.”
“Trust me, I know,” she says laughing.
“He called me a ‘youngster’ by the way… like, as a way of insulting me. How old is he anyway?”
“36 maybe. No, I think he just turned 37.”
“I had no idea someone nearing his forties could be so dense.”
“What did he do that was dense?”
“I opened up to him about this issue I’m having and he didn’t back me up at all.”
“He’s definitely a shallow thinker.”
“I appreciate you for trying to warn me about him. I'm sorry for how I came at you so foul.”
“All is forgiven. I really do hope we can be friends. This industry is cold and lonely. I’ve been working here for a couple of years now and it doesn’t seem to get easier.”
“I’d like to be friends too,” I tell her.
It feels nice to connect with another female, who isn’t Riley and Ruthie, for the first time.