Sunday Stories: “Squirrel Kingdom”


Squirrel Kingdom
by Lauren Mechling

Julia Kalish and I worked at Dragonfly Books, a young adult imprint committed to sending good messages to girls. She was an assistant editor and I worked in the art department, which meant I spent most of my days scanning and Photoshopping images for personal projects that were stuck in that purgatory otherwise known as “the exploratory phase.” The only reason I ever finished my Dragonfly work was because my boyfriend Charlie and I needed to eat. It also helped that Dragonfly never expected work that was all that good.

The series that kept Dragonfly in business was Sleepover Secrets. It had been around for a decade and outlived its creator M. P. Deveraux, who’d died in her sleep—alone, no sleepover. Julia had been hired to come up with the plots and oversee the sweatshop team of grad students who now wrote the books, and to make sure they didn’t do anything too blatantly smart. Julia was amazing at her job. When she spoke about the books at meetings, she projected an aura of simultaneous charm and disregard for everyone else in the room. Her presentations were filled with off-the-cuff jokes and references to books by French writers who’d been dead for a hundred years. I didn’t have to be in children’s book publishing to know how radical it all was.

I’d never worked on one of Julia’s titles, and it wasn’t a year or so after she started at the company until we first spoke. We were at a going-away party for our co-worker Rachel, a know-it-all who had a bad habit of doodling during meetings and always compared her books to “Stuart Little” or “Cinderella.” After making a hit out of a book about a girl who overcomes her abusive stepmother, she’d shocked everyone by announcing she was moving to Boston to be near her boyfriend and figure out what she wanted to do next.

The party was held in a loud apartment and mostly attended by Rachel’s friends from the outside world. When Julia and I spotted each other in the crowd, the only two Dragonfly girls in the room, we ended up sitting together by the windowsill, first bonding over the fact that it was stupid we’d never spoken to each other before, then our shared opinion that Rachel was making a huge mistake.

“Not to be a total bitch,” Julia said, “But shouldn’t you have an idea of what you want to do before you go and quit? How hard is it to come up with what you’d rather be doing? I can think of ten awesome things.”

“You should go over and advise her,” I said, gesturing at the kitchen, where Rachel was wearing a sparkly top and blowing bubbles from a plastic bear.

“Yeah, but none of them are right for her. She’s perfect for Dragonfly. She’s just running away from herself.”

“Ouch, “ I said. “It’s not like you’re not good at work. They love you there.”

Julia made a face. “Don’t remind me. I want to be a writer. Only problem is, I’m much better at telling other writers what to do with their sucky books.”

I made a fake pout. “You’re going to make me cry.”

“Sorry.” She smiled. “What’s your deal? Are you going to be designing Camp Kazoo book covers for the rest of your life?”

“It’s a job,” I said. “I majored in finger puppets.”

“For real?”

“I went to art school. My final project was a short film about a family of finger puppets going to the beach. You tell me what kind of job I should have.”

She gave me a look. It took me a minute for it to sink in that she was stunned in a good way. “I thought it was a company policy that you had to be a hundred percent boring to work at Dragonfly.”

“You were wrong,” I said. “Only ninety.”

Julia and I started having lunch on the days when neither of us was too swamped. She’d tell me about whichever new guy was stalking her or how lame the leader of her writing workshop was, how he let all the other students gang up on her and rip her apart.

She refused to let me read her work, and I eventually stopped asking. I’d show her my sketchbook and make fun of myself for wasting my youth watching Charlie and our college friends perform in seedy comedy clubs. “We are such nerds it’s scary,” I’d tell her.

“If you had any idea how cool you are, you’d stop being cool,” she’d say. “You are my favorite paradox.”

A year or so into our friendship, on a gloomy February day, she came by my desk seeming cartwheel-happy.

“Are they letting you do it?” I assumed she’d gotten the go-ahead to buy the Mexican girl gang book she was obsessed with.

She shook her head. “Let’s go downstairs.”

We went to the company café. We were the only ones there apart from a woman from marketing who’d reamed me out earlier that day for being a week late with my Spring Books covers.  I’d been falling behind, staying up late to work on a diorama of a squirrel kingdom that served no purpose that I knew of but with which I was nonetheless obsessed.

“Would you still be my friend if I quit?” Julia’s eyes were big and shiny.

“What happened? They’re not letting you buy it?” I assumed this was some kind of threat or protest.

“Ariel, this has nothing to do with anything here.” She went on to explain New York Magazine had offered her a job write short “zeitgeisty” pieces. She made air quotes.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’ll be covering parties. They said there’s potential to do other stuff too.”

“I thought you wanted to be a writer-writer?” The words shot out of my mouth before I could hear how mean they sounded.

“I do. Look, I was too embarrassed to tell you but I’ve been writing this secret blog that somebody who works there saw.”

“What kind of blog?”

“Just nothing and everything.”

“Does it have a name?”

She drew a breath. “Julia’s Seizure. It’s retarded, I know.”

I couldn’t help feeling she’d been disloyal to me and I had to plaster on a smile. “It must be good if an editor wrote to you out of the blue and offered you a job.”

“He didn’t. He asked me to do a test run.” She pulled the latest issue of the magazine out of her bag, turned it to the page with the “Wild Night Out” coverage of an Explorers Club party. There were quotes from actors on a new Broadway show, but the only words I could focus on were her first and last name, at bottom right.

“They ended up printing it. So then they offered me a job. I think today’s my last day. It might be weird if I stuck around.”

A sense of unease was spiraling in my stomach as I told her I was so happy for her. We made plans to go out for a celebratory dinner that weekend, then I lied about having a phone appointment I needed to be at my desk for.

The voice on Julia’s Seizure was unmistakably hers, smart and self-confident, though her sweetness and professionalism had been drained away. Her online personality was borderline cruel, interspersing epic descriptions of the pitiful characters in her writing workshop with those of the pitiful characters she worked with. There were quips about “good eggs who are unaware of the fact that there’s a sell-by date on their achievement carton,” lines about the “echo chamber of compromise where even the best people in its employ still don’t understand that there is more to life than airbrushing a picture of a locker room while waiting for your college boyfriend to propose.”

I spent the remainder of my afternoon sitting at my desk, completely frozen.

An email came to my personal account later that evening. It looked heavily worked on and long: “Ariel,” it started, “I can tell you’re upset. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you bef—”

I just pressed delete.

That night when I uploaded the blog and pointed out the offending passages to Charlie, he didn’t see what I was so worked up about.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “You are better than your job. You are going out with your college boyfriend.” He smiled awkwardly. “He hasn’t proposed so I guess you are waiting for that to happen too.”

“It’s not so simple.” I put down my bowl of rice. I couldn’t eat. “She’s been watching me and judging me this whole time.”

“You talk about how gross her sex is life all the time.” Charlie took my bowl and scooped up a big bite. “You judge her.”

“It’s not the same,” I told him. “I admire her deep down. And deep down she thinks I’m a joke.”

“I disagree,” he said.

“So do I.”

I didn’t take her calls or respond to her emails. After a while, she stopped trying. When we spotted each other at the farmers market that summer, my head got so hot I couldn’t think. I just squeezed Charlie’s hand and pulled him across the street. He must have come around to share my opinion of Julia, because he followed me without saying a word.

Charlie and I got engaged a year later. It all happened quickly, on the 7 train. Charlie had just done a gig at a club on West 39th Street and he’d killed with a new routine that was totally brilliant. It was about nothing and everything, oatmeal and Newt Gingrich and people who cancel lunch plans. I hadn’t heard any of it before, and I was so proud of him I forgot about my anti-PDA stance and was kissing him on the subway, in front of a family that appeared to belong to some sort of religious sect. Charlie smelled of sharp sweat, the way he does after shows, and the subway lighting was as ugly as 1970s paisley, but he burst out and asked me to marry him right there, as the train was hurtling toward Queens. We went home and made excited squeaky love, like a pair of hamsters. Afterward, while I waited for him to get out of the shower, I sat on the edge of the bed and tried not to remember what Julia had written about us. So what if he was my college boyfriend. So what if I’d been waiting. He was the best.

I’d been busy over the past few months, helping Charlie apply for a job at the Daily Show and working on my own weird stuff. One of Charlie’s friends had a connection at “Sesame Street,” and I was obsessed with selling them on “Just Squirrels,” an idea for a bit about an all-squirrel pajama party that had come to me one night when I was incredibly stoned. I’d made the finger puppets for Cheryl and Sandra, the slumber partying rodents, and had been using our bathroom as a video production studio, our bathmat doing double duty as a shag rug in Cheryl’s bedroom. At work, when I wasn’t designing the special Sleepover Secrets box set and DVD covers, I was writing and editing and uploading my squirrels onto Youtube.

When wedding planning kicked in and the invitations went out, I found myself pulled back into Julia’s world. I suddenly felt the need to know what was going on with her. I got my answer: she was nursing a stress fracture she’d gotten from running too much and she was madly in love with some legally-compromised musician who’d written her a fan note from his Australian tour. She was also planning a trip to an unspecified place, which could only mean she was planning on visiting him. Julia grew up in New York and all her friends were in the city. Who else could she be visiting?

It wasn’t hard to decipher her blog. She put herself down when she was feeling good about herself. The harder she was falling in love, the more she obsessed on paltry everyday details. “This Up-and-Coming literary sensation suggests decorating with the slumlord-linoleum color range. We especially love this ‘cataclysmic-mental’ off-green!” was her way of apologizing for the fact that she got to have an affair with somebody who was a celebrity. “Your correspondent came home from her annual flu shot at the Shop Rite Health Clinic to discover that a smattering of dog poop is a terrific way to add an air of rugged authenticity to any environment” is what she used to was to say she had mixed feelings about having fallen for somebody who, I could only deduce after an extended Google search of concerts that had recently taken place in Melbourne and Brisbane, was Terrence Burnham, who was married.

My wedding was a small and happy occasion. We had it at Charlie’s parents’ house in Connecticut. A hundred or so guests, including a handful of Charlie’s new friends from the Daily Show, filled the Wellingtons’ garden. The dancing portion was more of a success than anyone had accounted for, with pounds of wisteria trampled on and dozens of bug-repelling candles knocked over left and right. Before we exchanged vows, our friends put on a short finger puppet show about our courtship. I laugh-cried through it all.

Charlie and I went to Panama for our honeymoon. We sailed and drank bad champagne. I didn’t look at Julia’s blog when we were away, and when I came back to work I was relaxed to such a degree that I wasn’t moved one way or another when I saw that a big bowl with a rose pattern from Julia Rubel was waiting for me on my desk.

I was a little stunned, a few hours later, to learn from an email from down the hall that Julia had written the cover story on GQ. It was called “Breaking Bad” and it was supposed to be a profile of Terrence Burnes but it was really just an autobiographical piece about how her emails with a rock star had led to an affair that ended in an outsized act of insanity—she’d allowed herself to block out the fact that he was married and flown across the country to wait for him in his family’s garden, only to get arrested for breaking and entering. It ended with him breaking up with everyone: both Julia and his wife. It was, as she called it, a “leave triangle.”

It wasn’t so much the story as the familiar voice, the way Julia described the roses in his garden as “offputting and grapefruit-sized,” and said the officers looked “like tiny haunted spiders” as they climbed out of the police car, that grabbed me. I was viscerally reminded of our afternoons together, and how much I’d liked them. I was tempted to write a comment, just to let her know I was listening, but I didn’t get around to it.

That winter, when the Belgians bought Forrester Publishing and rightfully decided that Dragonfly Books had run its course, I hugged my former coworkers goodbye. Most of them were so sad I couldn’t stand it, and I left without my box of belongings. It was full of stuff I didn’t really want anyway.

Once I got over the initial shock and unfamiliarity with being home past ten in the morning, I came to realize unemployment suited me. We’d just moved to an apartment in Gramercy, and I let myself go crazy decorating, obsessing over paint colors and buying an insanely expensive antique couch that became twice as insanely expensive when I decided it needed to be reupholstered in a flashy fabric with stars and tigers I’d seen in an English design magazine. I took my time and kept the spare bedroom completely empty until my meeting with the Jim Henson folks. When they told me they liked the hot cocoa “Just Squirrels” segment and were interested in commissioning a couple to test as webisodes, I went ahead and let myself call the room my office. I filled it with all of my junk and reference books, including several volumes in the Sleepover Secrets series. The triumph of it all was so overwhelming my knees would buckle every time I walked into the room.

I still check Julia’s blog, though it feels flatter than it used to. Or maybe now that I’m married and officially boring, I don’t have the energy to find her words as provocative as I once did. I’m obsessed with coming up with ideas for scripts and scouting new bathrooms to film my squirrels in. Reading her blog has become something I do more out of habit than appetite, with less and less frequency. I keep promising myself that I’m going to write her a thank you note, and not just for the bowl.

You get a year, right?

Lauren Mechling is a features editor at The Wall Street Journal and has written or co-written six young-adult books, the most recent of which, My Darklyng, ran as a serialized novel on She recently published a short story in Rookie magazine and she is hard at work on a new young-adult novel.

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