Sasha Salter squeezed between two pregnant women on her way to the bar for her third round of drinks. She was at her best friend’s baby shower, and by the looks of it she was one of the few who weren’t expecting. As she slipped past, one of the women slid her pedicured foot forward.
“You’re Sasha Salter,” the woman declared, as though she were introducing Sasha to Sasha.
“Yes,” she said, forcing a smile. The other pregnant woman lit up. “She’s practically having her baby as an excuse to watch your show.” They both smiled politely.
“That’s sweet,” Sasha said, eager for another vodka cranberry. She assumed this was a compliment, but the previous drink was fogging her thoughts, and instead of focusing on the compliment she could focus only on the women’s bellies, which stuck out like tongues, seemingly mocking her own slender stomach.
“You’ve really brought quality back to television,” one of the women said, as though she were the Quality Television Authority.
“You should be proud of yourself,” the other one said in a maternal tone.
Sasha smiled again and cocked her head with what she hoped indicated a grateful modesty. She looked toward the bar. “Well, I’m just gonna . . .”
“Go,” one of them said, laughing. “Have one for me, too.”
Sasha drummed her fingers on the bar until the bartender noticed. He was staring at a jar of olives but snapped out of it. “If it weren’t for you, I’d have nothing to do today,” he joked.
“Everyone’s pregnant here,” she said, looking around for the restroom. When their eyes met, she noticed a deep sympathy. He handed her the drink.
“Your time will come,” he said. He seemed sincere.
“Oh,” she started. “That’s not what I meant.”
He continued looking at her with earnestness.
“I just meant . . .” She took a sip. Suddenly she didn’t know what she meant or what she was defending or why, exactly, she felt that the bartender felt sorry for her. Her mind had suddenly gone from foggy to cloudy. The third vodka certainly wasn’t going to help clear things up.
She watched the party guests. So many women bursting with new life, her best friend Erika in the middle. She was thrilled for Erika, but what was more pressing was her bladder. She finally found the sign for the ladies’ room and, once settled on the toilet, her glass resting on the toilet-paper holder, she pulled out her cell phone and made a drunken call to Jordan.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“On the toilet,” she said, because that’s where she was.
“I know we’re close, but that’s a little too much information.”
“I’m at Erika’s baby shower,” she said. “I’m drunk.”
“I know,” he said.
“Baby shower, toilet, cell phone. I know you.”
“I didn’t mean to–”
“I’m not judging.”
“What if I said I was too drunk to drive home and if I see another pregnant person I might retch, and that I’d owe you the biggest favor in the world if you came and picked me up?”
“I don’t know how I’d react.”
“Well, I’m saying it.”
“I hear you’re annoyed,” she said. “You don’t have to be so dramatic.”
“Where are you?” he said, his voice taking on an avuncular tone.
“The Four Seasons, Doheny. Stat.”
“See you in twenty,” he said.
Sasha hung up. She thought how funny life was. Here she was, sitting on the toilet, killing time by playing a frantic game of Tetris on her cell phone. She’d certainly be hungover at work the next day. Hopefully, it would be a mellow one.
She ﬂushed, grabbed her drink, and made her way to the mirror. She was applying mascara when Erika startled her. The wand scratched the bridge of her nose, leaving a black smudge that expanded as she tried to rub it away. “You’ve been in here for, like, an hour,” Erika said.
“I have not,” Sasha protested.
“Well, come on.” Erika reached for Sasha’s arm. “We’re about to play the baby-food game.”
She’s really excited about this, Sasha thought.
“You are so
the hit of this party,” Erika said, her eyes welling up with tears. And then, with a face Sasha could only interpret as prideful, she said, “And you’re my
best friend.” Then she touched her stomach. “And his best auntie,” she added before leaving the bathroom and heading back to the flock of women in the other room.
Blindfolded, Sasha was swirling a melon-flavored gelatinous goo in her mouth when she heard a harsh whisper.
“Honeydew,” she said through the puree.
A chorus of giggles exploded from the women.
!” Erika said. “How do you get honeydew from dates?”
Sasha slipped off her blindfold. Jordan was poking his head in the doorway behind her. First one woman looked toward him and then another and another, like meerkats hearing a suspicious noise in the desert. Erika turned, too. “Jordan! Come in!” He looked down at the ﬂoor, a sweet, shy gesture, and then gave Sasha an icy, hateful stare.
“That’s okay,” Sasha said, on Jordan’s behalf. “He’s my ride. I have to get going.”
She hugged Erika, Erika’s mom, aunt, and one of the pregnant women before making her exit. She returned a second later to retrieve her purse, which was spattered with baby food.
“Sometimes I think you put me in these situations to make it look like you have a boyfriend,” Jordan said as he drove down Doheny.
Her normal response would be a curt “Fuck you,” but ever since the show Sasha had been trying to curb her potty mouth.
“Who can you call if not your best friend?” she said instead. “I’d do it for you.”
At a red light Sasha turned to the car next to her. A little girl was glued to the backseat window, staring. Sasha couldn’t tell if the girl recognized her, and she hated to assume she did, but she gave an obligatory wave. The light turned green before she could see the girl’s response. As the car drove away, she noticed a KILL YOUR TELEVISION bumper sticker. “Now you’re all mad at me,” she said, copping a grumpy attitude, though she didn’t feel at all grumpy: she felt divine, being chauffeured around.
“I have things to do,” Jordan said. “And this wasn’t in the plan.”
The plan, the plan. He was always talking about the plan, as if order and reason had anything to do with living in this world. She should know–her entire life right now was as arbitrary as it came. Jordan would argue that it was all part of the bigger plan, but it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. Just two years ago, Sasha had been swimming her way through the murky waters of higher education–soaking up the principles of early-childhood education. Immersed in courses like Creative Dramatics for Primary Grades and The Young Child in the Family and Community. Then suddenly this new life–the accolades, the awards, the power. A select group of people handing her something she knew very little about. They made her executive producer of Please Pass the Salter
, her weekly program on the Public Broadcasting channel. She was referred to as “Miss Rogers with sass,” and the Wall Street Journal
wrote, “Who needs the Wiggles when you’ve got the giggles?”
Her master’s degree had revolved around humor and childhood, and instead of writing the same dull 120-page thesis she created a world for kids that combined learning and laughter–a Saturday Night Liv
e format, only smarter and funnier and for Saturday mornings. She wasn’t the first to explore this arena–Zoom
, The Electric Company
, Sesame Street
had all paved the way for her–but her goal was to make humor the constant, because, once instilled in children, she believed it was the most important coping skill they could receive in life.
And then, as if to say, “You think that’s
funny,” a crazy set of circumstances unraveled. Her professor met a producer at a dinner party for the dean of the university. The producer, an alumnus of the school, had gone on to produce a string of “end-of-the-world” movie hits and, since becoming a father, wanted to change direction in his career–do something to make his kid proud. He was searching for a quality children’s vehicle. That’s what he called it: vehicle
. The professor, a champion of Sasha from the moment he’d read her graduate-school application, and then later, surreptitiously, a lover, announced the name of his prized student: Sasha Salter. The producer said, so the story goes, “Sasha Salter sounds like the name of a person who’s going places.” And then, “I should know–that’s what I told Halle Berry.”
And so X led to Y led to Z, which led to Sasha in the car with her best friend Jordan, going somewhere, as the producer had said, but where she wasn’t quite sure. “What about my car?” she suddenly realized.
“We’re going to get you caffeinated and then get you back to your car.”
The man with a plan. Sasha lifted the armrest between them and snuggled in close.
“I’m not the boyfriend,” he cautioned her, but she didn’t mind. His arm felt cool against her warm head.
“I’m not asking for your hand in marriage,” she said. “I’m just asking for a place to lean.” He didn’t move his arm, and she stayed in that position until they reached their destination. Two
A t work the next day, Sasha was greeted by a mousy girl with glasses. She was covering a story for a popular women’s magazine, “20 Under 30–Ones to Watch.” When Sasha ﬁrst heard that she’d been selected to be featured, along with a young woman working with malaria patients in Vietnam and an advocate for elephants, among others, she called her parents. It was just one more in a series of calls starting with “Mom, they’re turning my thesis into a TV show” and continuing with “Dad, I’m moving to Los Angeles, they want me in the show, we were nominated for a Daytime Emmy, we won the Daytime Emmy, grab this week’s People
, listen to NPR. . . .” The calls just kept coming, like a spray of happy bullets.
Her dad, a college engineering professor, and her mom, a high-school history teacher, were thrilled for her, but she wouldn’t say that they relished her success. In fact, she wasn’t even sure they considered it success. Her mom once asked if she still planned to go on for her Ph.D. “when this is through.” Sasha didn’t think in terms of the future anymore. She was firmly rooted in the present, and it felt right.
Everyone was on-set, rehearsing a scene for taping later that day. This was Sasha’s favorite segment of the show, “Mixed-Up Tairy Fales.” It was one of the ideas that had made it from the thesis to the show. Today’s sketch was “Big Red Riding Hood,” and Sasha herself was playing Big Red, fat suit and all. Fritz, a regular cast member, was playing the Wolf, not the Big Bad Wolf but the Little Nice Wolf. The camera was able to shrink him in size, and a computer-generated halo was placed over his head. Instead of skipping off to Grandma’s house, Big Red walked at a snail’s pace. The visiting journalist took copious notes. What could she possibly be writing? The director asked Sasha to waddle more–to really feel the weight of Big Red. Sasha loved the director’s seriousness, as if he were Milos Forman or Roman Polanski.
Melanie, the journalist, was fresh out of college. She wore tan cat-shaped glasses that added pep to her strangely boring face. She had a tangle of wiry brown hair that desperately needed something
–a cut, a shape, some conditioner. Despite her appearance, Sasha liked her company. Together, after the taping of the Big Red segment, they sat in her dressing room eating strawberries.
“These are amaaaazing
,” Melanie said, examining one. “They’re so huge!”
“You’re not from California, are you?” Sasha said, kicking back on the musty green couch.
“Ohio,” she replied. “These are, like, quintessential strawberries.” She ﬁnally put the thing into her mouth. Her eyes rolled back in ecstasy. Sasha wondered if she’d ever had an orgasm. Could strawberries really cause so much pleasure?
“I’m from Boston,” Sasha said, and suddenly Melanie snapped out of her strawberry reverie and scribbled some notes in her book.
“So, did you get assigned to me? Or did you pick this story? Or what?” Sasha asked, sincerely curious.
“Oh, I pitched you,” Melanie answered.
“Really,” Sasha said.
“The magazine’s trying to go hip.” She snorted. “Next month you’ll see an article on the Venice boardwalk. That’s what they consider hip. Maybe that was hip thirty years ago, but quite frankly I call that place tourist hell, ya know?”
Sasha nodded in agreement, though she’d been there only once, biking on a bad blind date. She noticed her appointment book on the end table and picked it up as Melanie continued.
“So I said, ‘You want hip? I’ll give you hip.’ I told them to watch your show that Saturday and we’d discuss my pitch on Monday. So Monday comes around and we gather in the conference room and they go, ‘Save your breath, just get her interview.’ ”
Sasha loved the story, but at the same time she realized that she had a gynecologist appointment later that afternoon. She must have made a disappointed face, because Melanie said, “I know, I didn’t really pitch you
, but I did pitch your show.”
“That’s awesome,” Sasha said. “I love that.” She closed her date book and took another strawberry. “So how does this work?” she asked. “Do you ask me a bunch of questions and I have to give you thoughtful, witty answers?”
“I was hoping I could just shadow you for about a week, and I could get to know your life through your days, y’know?”
Sasha remembered her own journalistic endeavors in college. In Journalism 101 she’d had to conduct an interview with a working professional. While other students chose professors or administrators or parents, Sasha picked up the phone book and called a local psychic. The older, suspicious-looking man showed up for their appointment in her dorm’s common area, and after he answered her barrage of sophomoric questions (How long have you been a psychic? Do you like your job? What was the worst experience, the best?) he offered to read her and she agreed. She picked a few cards from his tarot deck, and he proceeded to tell her that one of her past lives included working as a maid at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and another included constructing the Golden Gate Bridge. He said it with such certainty that she had to believe him. She got only a B on her paper, but suddenly everyone in the dorm knew her as the girl with the past lives–which added a certain panache to her reputation.
Excerpted from Swimming Upstream, Slowly by Melissa Clark. Copyright © 2006 by Melissa Clark. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.