Adventures of a Salsa Goddess (2 page)

I had spent years hoping that Maya Beckett would move on to another magazine,
The New Yorker
or Oprah’s magazine or
Feed Lot Weekly
for all I cared, as long as she moved on. In order to be in a prime position should that wonderful day ever arrive, I’d actively lobbied for “La Vie,” writing a dozen essays and sending them up the pipeline, hoping they’d reach Elaine’s desk. But, for all I knew, they were at the bottom of a landfill, unread and molting.

“I’ve read all of your manuscripts, Samantha,” Elaine said. “You have an excellent way with words. And you’ve been a loyal employee. I reward loyalty, as you know,” she said, dropping one perfectly shadowed eyelid.

Oh no, she’s winking. I’m getting the I’m-your-best-friend- not-your-boss Elaine.

“‘La Vie’ is yours,” Elaine said.

“Really? Wow! I mean, thank you! You won’t be disappointed, Elaine. So when do I start?” I asked.

“September. But there’s a very minor little assignment I’d like you to take care of first,” she said, meaning exactly the opposite. Whatever she had in mind would no doubt change my life forever.

My heartbeat slowed to normal as I steeled myself, gripping my armrests with a death hold.

Elaine stood up and began pacing. I’ve always felt like a giant sloth next to women like her, whose miniscule size-two bodies couldn’t possibly hold all of the organs that normal-sized women like I have. Women like Elaine must somehow get by without intestines and livers.

“Samantha, you’ve been with
Tres Chic
for fifteen years now. In your opinion, what are we selling?”

Was this a trick question?

“Magazines?” I finally ventured after a long pause.

“Dreams!” she said like a cheerleader on speed. “We’re selling dreams to our nine hundred thousand readers, women who want it all—the career; the smart, sexy, caring husband; a great sex life;
motherhood. You’ve captured that with your essay, ‘I’m Not Too Picky, I Just Want a Sexy Hero.’”

“I have?”

“Yes, precisely. Although why a successful professional woman would actually want to get married is beyond me,” she said with a flip of her hand.

I quickly closed my gaping mouth. Elaine was currently on marriage number six, to a real estate investment tycoon who was at least a decade younger than she. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Elaine was on a first-name basis with all the city clerks in the Marriage License Bureau and that they had a preprinted license form all ready for her to simply fill in the name of the husband du jour.

“Nonetheless, the surveys we’ve conducted show most of our readers are single and want to get married,” she said, shaking her head as if she were an anthropologist recounting the bizarre rituals of a remote tribe of Stone Age people.

“Samantha, you’re forty-one and never married, is that right?” she asked, as she turned to face me. “Tell me, how does that make you feel?”

If someone had told me in college that I’d still be single at this age, one thing was certain, I wouldn’t have wasted countless weeks, months, and nearly every hour of the past quarter century of my life agonizing over men.

Will he call? What did it mean that he called but didn’t set up another date? Is this relationship going anywhere? Can I even call it a relationship when we’ve only gone out twice, and I haven’t heard from him in over a week? Has my Mr. Right permanently moved to Uzbekistan, a country I’m not even sure I can spell correctly? Should I talk to my travel agent about booking a trip to Uzbekistan on the off-chance that he’s there? Am I destined to remain single because my Mr. Right was killed in a car accident when I was five years old and no one has had the decency to tell me?

But then I’d met David and everything had changed. I’d finally found the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I’d never have to spend another Valentine’s Day alone watching sappy movies while picturing my solitary future. That is, until David broke off our engagement just three months before our wedding date. And for the past thirty-seven months, two weeks, and five days, I’ve mourned the loss of that perfect life I’d pictured with David—companionship, children, a family that I could relate to.

“Um, being single at forty-
one, I don’t really ...” I stammered.

“Does it make you feel fabul
ous?” she asked. “It should, because I’m about to offer you the opportunity-of-a-lifetime assignment never before tackled by anyone.”

I could practically hear the
whoosh
of my brain releasing the adrenaline that was now coursing through my nervous system screaming, “Run!”

“Samantha,” Elaine continued, “do you remember the statistic from
Newsweek
about a forty-year-old single woman being more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to ever be married?”

“I think so, but I remember that I didn’t pay much attention to it because I was only in my twenties when that came out,” I said. My twenties—that seemed like a million carefree years ago.

“That’s correct, it came out in 1986,” Elaine agreed. “But as you know, our world has become a much more dangerous place since then. That statistic has recently been updated.”

“It has?” I asked, wondering what the hell any of this had to do with me or the fabulous assignment Elaine was about to thrust upon me.

“The new stats will be all over the news by the end of this week, which is why we need to jump on this opportunity before someone else thinks of my idea,” she said. “Do you know what you’re going to be doing this December thirty-first, Samantha?” Hopefully not what I had done last year on New Year’s Eve, one of the most depressing nights of my life, the occasion of my third and final date with Seth, a forty-three-year-old divorced architect.

I had presented myself at his apartment as arranged, wearing a new silver-sequined, mid-thigh-high dress. Smiling sheepishly and wearing ripped sweatpants and a faded Rolling Stones T-shirt from their Voodoo Lounge tour, Seth had told me that his buddy who worked for the Neil Simon Theater hadn’t been able to get us tickets to see
Hairspray
after all. So, he had suggested we stay in and watch his favorite movie, the original 1933 version of
King Kong
. I left before the movie ended, and at the stroke of midnight, when I was supposed to have been in the midst of a champagne toast kissing a handsome man, I was crying in the back of a cab, trying to remember the address of the party that my friend Elizabeth said she’d be at.

I jumped when Elaine brought me out of my sad reverie with a loud slap of her hand on the edge of her desk.

“This New Year’s Eve, Samantha Jacobs, you will be at the Plaza Hotel getting married!” she announced. “It’s all arranged.”

I couldn’t have been more astounded if she’d told me I’d been assigned to go back in time to interview Joan of Arc.

“Getting married? To whom?” I asked.

“Exactly!” Elaine said, hands on her nonexistent hips. “I want our readers to not just dream the impossible dream, but to believe they can have it too. And you, my dear Samantha, are going to give it to them!”

Impossible
dream? Elaine didn’t believe in impossibilities, but I did. Portent of doom. I could almost see the floor opening up into a cavernous abyss as I toppled down into the fiery pits of hell.

“Late-Bloomer Cinderella Finds Her Prince Charming! Older Pretty Woman Weds Rich Successful Businessman, or doctor or lawyer,” she said with so much fervor I thought she might spontaneously combust. “Can’t you see it?”

I could imagine what it might be like to be with Mr. Right, but as much time as I’d spent trying, I just couldn’t picture him.

“You’ll hand our readers the dream on a si
lver platter by Labor Day. I’m planning the announcement of your engagement to coincide with National Singles Week, which is September sixteenth.”

We have our own week? What the hell for?

“Isn’t that rushing things a bit?” I asked her, beginning to count the months off on my fingers, May, June ...

“Do you know where I’m going to send you to find this wonderful man?” she interrupted, clearly on a one-way conversational roll that didn’t require me to be here at all.

Pluto? An undiscovered solar system?

“The city with the absolute worst, most abysmal marital statistics for single, professional women in this entire country, Milwaukee!” she said flashing me a huge grin.

Milwaukee? Milwaukee? Was that in one of those I states— Indiana, Iowa, Illinois—all clumped together in the middle somewhere?

“And do you know why I want to send you there to find your husband?” she continued.

“Because you want me to fail?” I suggested, although my chances had to be better than staying in New York. Between my single friend Elizabeth and I, we’d pretty much tapped out the entire Eastern Seaboard.

“No, no, no, silly girl. Because I want each of our readers to know that if you can find a husband in
Milwaukee
, then she can do it anywhere.”

“I see,” I said, seeing nothing, now certain that Elaine had gone insane and that my best bet was to agree with everything she said until it was time for her to take her meds and, hopefully, she stabilized enough to tell me that this was all just a joke.

“I want to make one thing absolutely clear, Samantha,” Elaine continued, as she turned away from her floor-to-ceiling windows to face me. “There are some professional women who seem to be beating the odds by marrying men with blue-collar jobs. But under no circumstances will you end up with an uneducated man. I want you to marry the dream man, the perfect man, the man our readers want to marry: professional, college-educated, and preferably drop-dead gorgeous.”

Sure, no problem, Elaine. Would you like me to throw in a cure for cancer and a peace treaty for the Middle East while I’m at it?

“By the way, Elaine,” I said, deciding to humor her, “what is the new updated statistic for single women over forty?”

Ever prepared, she handed me a copy of a press release announcing the imminent publication of a book written by Harvard-educated sociologist Dr. Victoria Huber, titled,
The Single Professional Woman Over Forty: The Hopeless Search for Happily Ever After
.

A single sentence on the press release had been highlighted in pink:
A never-married, single professional woman over forty now has a better chance of winning a seven-figure lottery jackpot than ever marrying
.

I felt my jaw drop.

“Don’t worry about those silly numbers,” Elaine said with a wave of her hand as if she were holding a magic wand that had just made this dire pronouncement disappear.

I scanned the rest of the press release, my eyes landing on another sentence:
Of the fifty most populous cities in the United States, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has consistently ranked last, in all age groups, for the percentage of single professional women marrying
.

“You just need to focus, Samantha,” said Elaine briskly. “Now, remember, this is a top-secret project. During the sum
mer you’ll send your articles about your dates directly to me for editing. You leave in two weeks.”

Two weeks? Wait a minute. I
don’t
have to worry about these statistics or Elaine’s outlandish scheme.

“I’m not sure I’m the right person for this assignment, Elaine,” I hedged.

Failing would be disastrous not just for my career at
Tres Chic
but also for my self-esteem. After a broken engagement, more than a few failed romances, and scores of bad dates over the past twenty years of my life, I could be declared a hazardous romance site. And despite my grim track record, I keep trying. I’m not one of those women who believe she can’t be happy without a man. Lord knows most of the men I’ve been involved with have either bored me to a stupor within minutes or driven me temporarily insane. But growing up seeing how happy my parents had been, I’ve never been able to picture any other future for myself.

My mother and father had been one of the giggly, gooey-eyed couples who embarrass the hell out of everyone around them. I remember them constantly h
olding hands and looking dreamy-eyed at one another at the dinner table and the movies and melting the frozen food sections of grocery stores. And then my dad had died of pancreatic cancer when I was sixteen. He was diagnosed one day and gone within five months. And after that, my mother had never been the same.

Elaine perched on the edge of her desk directly in front of me. I could feel her breath on me as she put her hands on my shoulders.

“I know you can do this, Samantha,” she said, ignoring the real issue.

How could I possibly find someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with in just one summer? Not just any man would do. I wanted exactly what my parents had had—absolute blissful happiness; in other words, the type of marriage that eluded 99 percent of the population. But knowing Elaine, true love wasn’t part of her agenda.

“But what if I fail?”

“You won’t,” she said, with a flash of concern in her pale blue eyes. “You won’t fail, promise me.”

“Okay, I promise.” What the hell? I’ll throw in my first-born son too.

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