Writing interferes with the practice of social graces. Since my second wife divorced me three years ago, my world had been confined to the five-hundred square feet of my studio where I had produced four novels, bound my emotional wounds and considered the horrors of dating again. I hated bars, had not been in a church in many years and detested blind dates, so my opportunities to meet women were limited. The few close friends I had considered it their mission to find female companionship for me. I resisted their advances with the ferocity that one avoided Brussels sprouts. Lisa Catera, my literary agent and close friend, was correct when she speculated that it would take a miracle of God to remove me from my solitary state. And so it did.
My editor for many years announced, unapologetically, she was retiring, gave her notice and quit. She and her husband would be leaving on a camping adventure to Alaska. I had just finished a novel and I was pressed against my publisher’s deadline. They had offered to provide one of their editors to help until I found my own, but I had too much pride to turn over an unedited manuscript to them.
At Lisa’s suggestion, I called Stetson University and talked with the receptionist of the English department.
“My name is Jack McNamara. I am a novelist and live in Mount Dora.”
“Alright, how can I help?” Her voice was low and smooth with a hint of the south.
“My editor just retired and I was hoping to find an English major who might like a part-time job.”
“What kind of novels do you write?”
“Action-adventure. The Dana O’Brien Series?”
“Forgive me, but I’m not much of an action-adventure fan.”
I was a little put-off that dropping my name had so little impact. “I was hoping you might have a job-posting board or other means of communicating employment opportunities.”
“We do. You say you live in Mount Dora? I live there, too. I’d be interested in talking to you, but I’m afraid I don’t have any fiction editing experience.”
“What kind of experience do you have?”
“I just have a class to complete for my Masters of English.”
“Do you feel comfortable with grammar and content editing?”
“I’m not afraid of it. I was a paralegal in my former life, so I know my way around a dictionary and thesaurus.”
“I went through a divorce two years ago and decided I wanted to shuffle the deck of my life. I thought I might like to teach. So I went back to school. Call it my mid-life crisis. I worked in my ex’s law firm, so I couldn’t continue working for him. So I thought I might try something new.”
“I can’t offer you full-time work.”
“That’s okay. There are no teaching jobs available and it will take me a while to get connected. My divorce settlement was generous. So there are no wolves pounding on my door. When can we meet?”
She was confident. She wasn’t selling me or trying to convince. We were just talking, and it felt comfortable to me.
“Tomorrow? Mid-afternoon would be best for me?”
“That’s perfect! I have class in the morning and my afternoon is free.”
I gave her my address and directions to the detached studio behind my house.
“Marvelous. See you then.”
“Emily Pace. But everyone calls me Em.”
Em. I liked the name. Simple. Powerful.
When I got off the phone, I tried to match a face to her captivating voice. She sounded young. But she was divorced. And she had gone back to school. That would seem to put her, at the earliest, in her late twenties. She was educated. The fact that she had gone back to school showed ambition, but not so ambitious that she would consider a low-paying teaching career. What impressed me was the ease with which the conversation had gone. Creating dialogue between characters in my novels was easy. Conversing with strangers challenged me.
My studio was small, about the size of an efficiency apartment. It used to be a detached mother-in-law suite so it had a full bathroom, a small single-wall kitchenette, a queen sized murphy bed, and a desk with two occasional chairs. I am prone to binge write and while the Hemingway-style juices were flowing, I would write until either the writing ran cold or I collapsed from exhaustion. During these writing marathons, I would hole-up in my studio for days, until the food and beverages ran out.
Cleaning was an enormous distraction. While I had a housekeeper who came once a week, in between cleanings, my studio resembled a landfill. My housekeeper, who spoke little English, used every Spanish profanity as she bulldozed through my disheveled workspace. What she didn’t complain about was that I paid her to clean both my large lakefront home and my studio and I seldom set foot in the house. When I set up the appointment to interview Em Pace, I called Mrs. Flores and begged her to come immediately and together we worked until late evening transforming my slovenly environs into something resembling a professional office.
It was two-thirty when Em Pace pulled her Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country Convertible into the driveway next to my studio. The car was all beige with faux wood exterior body trim. The top was down and she had a scarf tied around perfect coiffed light brown hair. She loosed the scarf, tossed it on the driver’s seat, bent down to look at herself in the side mirror, straightened her hair, touched a finger to the corner of her mouth to remove some imperceptible flaw in her lipstick and, satisfied with her appearance, moved away from the car and strolled up the walk to the entrance to my studio. She knocked on the door, and through the glass, I could see her giving the main house and property the onceover.
To say that Em Pace was attractive was a gross understatement. I peered at her from the interior of my studio as she made her way to my door. I was ill-prepared for the impact that her fashion-model appearance had on my tongue as I opened the door to greet her. I can only guess at the expression on my face as I attempted to find the words.
She extended a hand to me, which I shook and realized that I was standing in her way. “Forgive me. Come in. Come in.”
She came through the door smelling of citrus. She was dressed in a pale autumn colored linen skirt, matching long sleeved jacket, high heeled shoes and white gloves. The cuffs of her long-sleeved, collared white blouse accented her jacket at her wrists. Her face was oval with high cheekbones, olive skin, light brown eyes, and flawless makeup. While “big hair” was the fashion of the time, Em’s was straight with a very slight flip at her shoulders.
“Please.” I gestured toward one of the chairs in front of my desk.
She glided past me, reading my face for clues. My insides were like melting butter and I prayed that my face did not betray how much I was taken with her.
“Would you mind if I took my jacket off. It’s a little warm in here.”
And it was. While it was early November, the days could be quite warm, and I had not yet turned on the air-conditioning.
“By all means.”
She removed her gloves and jacket. She placed the gloves on the edge of my desk and held out her jacket to me. It took a moment for me to realize that she wanted me to hang it up.
“Forgive my manners.” I took the coat to the only closet in the studio, found a hanger and hung it on a rack.
When I returned to the desk, Em was seated — well more like perched — on the edge of her chair, back straight with her knees together and her hands folded in her lap. Normally I would have taken a seat at the desk where I had all my questions handwritten on a legal pad. Instead, I grabbed the yellow tablet, walked around the desk, lifted the second chair and turned it to face Em and sat down.
I took in the picture of her and my first thoughts were that if this woman worked for me, she would be such a distraction I would never get any work done. I must have been staring at her, because within a short period, she began to squirm in her seat.
“Is there something wrong?”
“Absolutely not.” And then these words tumbled out of my mouth without a thought. “I was not prepared for someone so beautiful.” And then as the words left my lips, I knew that I had inappropriately crossed a line. I bit my tongue, trying to find the words to extricate myself from this awkward moment. And then a curious thing happened. With my eyes locked with hers, she began to smile. And the smile grew into a chuckle and she dropped her eyes to her lap and then up again at me.
“I think you’ve been spending way too much time cooped up in this office,” she said, almost in laughter.
“That was totally inappropriate, I’m so sorry.”
Her light brown eyes danced with delight. “That was a sweet thing to say. Thank you.” And then she looked at me in a disarming way, then down at her hands and then back at me and I knew that something had happened in that moment. After a stretch of silence, she said, saving me from my embarrassment, “So tell me about the job.” She scooted back into the chair, crossed her legs, folded her arms at her chest and waited for me to speak.
For the next ten minutes, I filled her in on what I felt were the requirements of the job. But in that “moment,” I had already decided to hire her.
There had been only one other time in my life when I had felt that overwhelming chemistry with another person. I was fourteen and met a girl named Jody. My sister introduced us in an ice cream shop and I knew in an instant we were connected. Since, I had given up on feeling that way again until that moment with Em.
Em spent the next ten minutes going over her qualifications, which were thin at best. Then, she began to ask questions, first about my writing career, but then expanding them to include personal questions. I was intrigued with her deftness in working at the outside edges of my professional life, then personal, then into my inner most thoughts and feelings.
“How did it feel to go through your divorce?”
When someone asks you how you feel about something, especially something as emotionally charged as a divorce, they are inviting you to step across a line into intimacy. Other than Lisa, I had not discussed the emotional destruction the divorce had caused with anyone.
“She was jealous of my writing – jealous of the time I spent writing, to be more precise. She hated me going on book signing tours, which were frequent, but refused to come with me. Then, when I returned home, she would accuse me of infidelity.”
“Were you unfaithful?”
“No, I loved her. She never believed my denials even though I gave her no reason to have doubted me. I suspected that the infidelity accusation was an excuse to leave me.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“About my feelings?”
“Would you like a glass of Chardonnay?”
“I’d love one.”
I got up, pulled two medium stem glasses from the cabinet in the kitchenette, pulled a chilled bottle of wine from the refrigerator and filled each glass. I handed a glass to Em, and sat across from her again, taking a sip and deposited the glass on the corner of the desk.
Before I could answer her question, she said, “If the question is too personal . . .”
“No. It’s okay. Honestly . . . I was devastated.”
I took another sip of wine. As I began to share my experience, she moved forward in her seat as if to move closer to me.
I continued, “We had been married for ten years. To be rejected like that, from someone you care for, it was tough. It really messed with my writing.”
“Was she faithful to you?”
“If she was unfaithful, I wasn’t aware of it. I had my suspicions. She married soon after the divorce was finalized. But if she cheated, she did a good job of covering it up.”
“My husband left me for someone else. He had been having an affair with another attorney in his office for months.”
And then for the second time, my words spilled forth without any hope constraint. “I am so attracted to you I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be with you.”
Again, the shy smile. Again, she looked directly at me for a long connected moment. “I didn’t feel very valued then. He made me feel inferior and discarded. I’m still not over the hurt. Your words are warm and welcome. I can’t hide how good you make me feel.”
Our conversation waltzed through two hours as though a few moments and I didn’t want the time to end.
As darkness approached, she said, “I need to be going. Where will I be working?”
“I’ll make some space here in the studio,” I said without giving a thought to the consequences.” I reached over to the desk and grabbed a manuscript and handed it to her. “You can begin by reading this for content and tell me what you think.”
She stood and I went to the closet to retrieve her jacket. She pulled on her gloves. She brushed past my extended hand, hugged me with enthusiasm and said, “You have no idea how good you’ve made me feel this afternoon.”
She gathered the manuscript, made her way out the door, wrapped her hair up in her scarf, backed out of the drive and disappeared toward town.
What stands out in my memory about that afternoon is that I never did offer her the job. I never discussed money with her or terms of employment. She and I both knew that in that “moment” we were joined together. She knew it and I knew it and it was understood without words that the details would take care of themselves.
In a number of novels, I had written, I had tried to capture the essence of that moment in fiction but could never do it justice. It was so much more than love at first sight. I knew in that moment that our relationship would be more than work. I knew that a deep oneness would mark our connection. And I knew how dependent I would become on the many ways she made me feel special and important.
Although our relationship did not endure, and fell upon difficult times, that moment was an emotional cornerstone, a foundational block in progression of my life that could never be removed.