The following is from Doree Shafrir's debut novel, Startup. Shafrir is a Senior Culture Writer at BuzzFeed; she was previously an editor at Rolling Stone, Gawker and The New York Observer. Startup follows tech entrepreneur Mack McAllister, journalist Katya Pasternack, and working mother Sabrina Choe Blum, who are unwillingly drawn together by a workplace scandal.
Sabrina Blum was tired. Their three-year-old, Amelia, had, God knows why, toddled into their room at five thirty a.m., even though she’d been consistently sleeping until six thirty, which was at least tolerable. But this morning she wouldn’t stop whining about wanting to watch “toys,” which meant the videos on YouTube of people unboxing or unwrapping toys; there was one with a little girl unboxing My Little Ponys and their various accessories that Amelia had watched probably seven hundred times. So even though she and Dan had a rule that Amelia was allowed only an hour of iPad a day, Sabrina got out of bed, retrieved the iPad from the kitchen table, parked Amelia on the couch, and let her watch videos until seven. Then Owen woke up, saw Amelia on the couch with the iPad, and started screaming that it wasn’t fair that Amelia got to watch in the morning when Mommy only let him use the iPad in the afternoon after he’d had his snack. Her response was to stand in the living room of their Park Slope floor-through and let Owen scream until he finally just gave up and plopped down next to Amelia and watched with her until it was time to get ready for school. Dan usually got Owen dressed and made sure he had everything he needed in his backpack, and this morning he even poured Owen and Amelia some Cheerios and milk before giving each of them a kiss on the forehead and leaving on the dot of 7:45. “Have a great day, honey!” she said so forced cheerfully that he jerked around at the front door and glared at her. The kids didn’t notice, probably because they had started throwing Cheerios at each other. “Asshole,” she muttered under her breath as soon as the door clicked shut.
Sabrina, who was thirty-six, had long ago resigned herself to the idea that marriage was, inevitably, death by a thousand little cuts; the problem was that the cuts—strictly metaphorical, of course—weren’t as little as they used to be. They were more like gashes, deep wounds that required triage and left scars, and she and Dan both had become addicted to them.
Once she’d finally dropped Owen and Amelia off—Owen at the elementary school and Amelia at the Montessori preschool she went to in the mornings—she realized that it was actually one of those October days that made everyone forget, for at least twenty-four hours, that living in New York City could be a real slog. The sun was shining, the leaves were starting to turn, the air was crisp. And as much as Park Slope sometimes felt claustrophobic, its familiarity was also comforting. She didn’t feel on display in the same way she did when she went into Manhattan, where suddenly her uniform of clogs and jeans and boatneck tees seemed woefully boring. When she got to the F train, she put her headphones on—she wasn’t actually listening to anything, but this ensured that no one would talk to her—and closed her eyes. Even though she was surrounded by people, her commute was the only time when she felt blissfully alone.
They finally reached her stop, Twenty-Third Street, and Sabrina got off the train and emerged in front of the Best Buy. At 9:05 in the morning, standing at the corner of Twenty-Third and Sixth, she felt like everyone around her looked like a vaguely younger version of herself. Not that she looked old, of course—she credited her Korean genes and her mother’s fanaticism about night cream with keeping her skin smooth—but lately she’d been watching the stay-at-home moms in leggings and Warby Parker sunglasses in her neighborhood, the ones who had nannies so they could go to Pilates and have “me” time, with increasing amounts of envy. But she had been one of those moms and hated it. After four years, she had turned into the worst kind of stay-at-home mom, one who thought she was too smart to be a stay-at-home mom and secretly judged all other stay-at-home moms for not working. (A couple of years in, her therapist had told her, “But you know you’re really only judging yourself, Sabrina.” She stopped going to therapy a few weeks later.) When she stayed home, there were days where she completely missed everything that was going on in the world because she was schlepping from playdate to playdate.
In her MFA program, Sabrina had been something of a golden child, winning scholarships and awards. It had not been hard to picture a fabulous literary future for herself. But everything changed after graduation, when Sabrina failed to sell her thesis, a novel about three generations of a wacky but endearing Korean American family living in Princeton, New Jersey, even though one of her professors, who had won a National Book Award, called it brilliant and masterful and a host of other adjectives that failed to move editors at every major publishing house in New York. (The feedback she got most consistently was that the family didn’t seem “realistic,” which she took to mean that they didn’t think a Korean family could be funny and weird. Of course, exactly zero of the editors who’d read it were even Asian.)
So she’d abandoned fiction to take a string of increasingly grim magazine jobs for which she was both over- (she had a graduate degree!) and underqualified (she had no magazine experience!) and eventually quit altogether, after she had Owen, when the eco-crafting magazine where she’d been working suddenly folded with no notice and she didn’t even get her last paycheck. Because Dan still had a job, it had just made sense for them to ride out the still-not-great economy, especially since child care was so expensive, and then she’d had Amelia. She wrote the occasional freelance essay about parenthood, but finally it was all just too much. When she started looking at job listings, Dan had laughed (not nicely) when she asked what a social media manager did, but she began applying for jobs nonetheless.
When she went in for the TakeOff interview, even though she had a pathetic seventy-six followers on Instagram and she didn’t even have an active Twitter account, she was able to show them the viral article she’d just written for Scary Mommy—it was one of the bigger parenting sites, but they’d never heard of it—about what she wished she’d known before having a second kid. Maybe it was the article, maybe it was some kind of sincere yet misguided attempt at affirmative action for older people, but she was hired.
Sabrina was an Engagement Ninja—when she first applied, she’d thought this was a euphemism, not an actual job title—at TakeOff, whose offices were in a lofty Flatiron District building that a million years ago had been a garment factory and now housed, at any one time, approximately seventeen startups.
They were mostly tech-related, but there was a smattering of other companies, like the bespoke-baby-clothing designer on the second floor. (She’d wandered in one day, thinking about maybe having something made for Amelia’s third birthday party, and had to pretend to be unfazed when the woman at the desk told her that their dresses started at two hundred and fifty dollars.) The entire building was run by ShareWork, a company that leased empty buildings around the city and then subdivided them into cool work spaces. Every office came with a customizable “employee-perks” package; standard was an iced-coffee kegerator, a Ping-Pong table, weekly chair massages, and building-wide lunchtime yoga classes in one of the shared conference rooms. When Sabrina had worked for the eco-crafting magazine, the break room was essentially a closet with a microwave, a dorm-size fridge, and a coffeemaker that you had to bring in your own coffee to use. At TakeOff, the employees had successfully rallied to get Stumptown back after the office manager had, out of nowhere, tried switching them over to Starbucks. After Stumptown returned, there had been an hour-long celebratory coffee break in the canteen, where a hired barista made espresso drinks for everyone.
The office itself was a big room where everyone sat at long tables. There were huge windows on the south side that made everything very bright much of the time. The other three sides were lined by several meeting rooms, a canteen, and a lounge with couches; on the walls were prints with cheeky inspirational sayings like i’m not here to be average, i’m here to be awesome and do epic shit. The only actual office was a glass-walled room in the corner with a comfy velvet sofa; it belonged to TakeOff’s founder and CEO, Mack McAllister.
Sabrina made her way to her workstation. She sat next to an intern on one side and her boss, Isabel, on the other. At the eco-crafting magazine, they’d been in cubicles, and Sabrina had initially found the level of closeness in the TakeOff office oppressive—and she still hated the very word workstation, which always made her think of an assembly line. Forget about private phone calls; you could barely send private emails! But now she was used to it, and besides, hardly anyone ever made phone calls here. All of the people at the level above Sabrina were called Heroes—there was an Engineering Hero, a Product Hero, a Sales Hero, and a Biz Dev Hero. Isabel was twenty-six, exactly ten years younger than Sabrina, but she had been at TakeOff for two and a half years, almost as long as the company had been around; she had started as Mack’s assistant and been promoted rapidly.
Neither Isabel nor the intern, who came in three days a week, was there yet. Sabrina got to work before almost anyone else so that she could leave at five, which was practically midafternoon for most people in the office, but that had been a condition of her hiring that she had insisted on: she needed to be home before six so that she could let the nanny leave and eat dinner with her kids. Dan, who worked three floors down from her, had asked for no such concessions and usually didn’t walk in the door before seven or eight.
Sabrina put down her still-unfinished coffee and her bag, took off her jacket, and woke up her computer. She sat and closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She’d been skeptical when Mack brought in the meditation guru, a woman named Carly with impossibly long and shiny dark brown hair parted in the middle who was bicoastal and alluded to her celebrity clientele, but Sabrina had actually found some of Carly’s techniques useful, like just closing your eyes and breathing. “A little moment for your soul to heal,” Carly liked to say in her soothing voice. Sometimes that was all it took.
When she opened her eyes, there was TweetDeck on her screen, already scrolling automatically and furiously. Sabrina’s job was to tweet from the TakeOff account and also to monitor anything being said about the TakeOff app on Twitter. She needed to start off the day with an innocuous tweet to the TakeOff account’s 101,712 followers. She drummed her fingers on her desk and finally came up with
tfw u don’t wanna get out of bed & then u see it’s a perfect fall day
Beneath the tweet she put an animated GIF of a sloth poking its head out from behind a tree. Before she’d started this job, she’d barely known what LOL meant. Now she was entirely conversant in the lingua franca of people a decade younger than she was, which as far as she could tell consisted mostly of emoji, GIFs, and acronyms. When she was sure no one was walking by, she would sneak onto Urban Dictionary to look up new ones; it had taken her a week to figure out that tfw meant “that feel when” and not “too fucking weird,” which, to be honest (or tbh, as her coworkers would say), made a lot more sense. (She didn’t totally understand why tfw wasn’t an abbreviation for the grammatically correct “that feeling when,” but she kept that to herself.) Now and then, one of the acronyms would slip into her texts with her age-appropriate friends, and in response she would usually get back: ????? Dan was particularly scornful whenever she used what he called alphabet soup. “Just speak grown-up English,” he’d said on more than one occasion. “It doesn’t make you cool. It makes you seem like one of those people who just read an article about how to communicate with your teenagers using the new hip slang.”
The TakeOff tweets didn’t have to be specifically related to the app; in fact, Isabel was emphatic that the way to grow the account was through not always tweeting about the app. “Make it have a personality,” she would say, which at first seemed a little ridiculous—It’s an app—but over time, Sabrina came to understand what she meant. No one wanted to engage with a brand unless it felt fun; like a cool, sympathetic, wise friend. And a friend who always had a positive message. It definitely wasn’t rocket science, but Sabrina had to admit that it had been oddly satisfying that on a day she’d been sick and the intern had taken over the account, they had lost 243 followers. On the days she tweeted, they always gained at least a hundred.
By the time Isabel showed up, at ten thirty, Sabrina had retweeted seventeen responses to her weather tweet and was screenshotting them to put on the TakeOff Tumblr. “Hey,” she said as Isabel took off a plaid wool cape and put it casually on the back of her chair.
“Heyyyyy,” Isabel said, smiling. “You will not believe what I got into last night.”
“What did you get into,” Sabrina said, still staring at TweetDeck.
Isabel was still smiling. “You know that guy Andrew Shepard?” Sabrina tried to remember whether Isabel had ever mentioned an Andrew. After concentrating on work all day and then having to deal with her kids, she had very little brain space left for anyone whose name was preceded by that guy.
“Um . . . maybe? Is he the . . . ” She was stalling.
“He’s one of the co-founders of Magic Bean,” she said. Isabel looked at Sabrina expectantly. Sabrina had zero clue what Magic Bean was but gave Isabel a noncommittal murmur of approval. “So last night—I mean, you know, I was like completely wiped after work yesterday; I had even decided I was going to skip yoga.” Sabrina nodded. Last night she had rushed home to find Owen, who was five, screaming at the nanny that he wanted to watch another episode of Peppa Pig on the iPad and Amelia hiding under her bed, and then neither of them had wanted to eat the whole-wheat spaghetti with turkey meatballs that she’d made, so she ended up just serving them chicken nuggets. Organic, $8.99-a-package nuggets from vegetarian, grain-fed, free-range chickens, but still. “I just wanted to go home and crash. And then like literally the minute I get downstairs I get a text from Meredith, who works in Community at Magic Bean, and she’s like, Isabel, you have to come out to Flatiron Social, everyone is here, and I’m like, Meredith, I am beat, I need to just go home, and she Snapchats me a pic of Andrew at the bar, and she had written on it ‘Hey, girl,’ and I’m like, well, this is interesting, because she knows I think Andrew is so cute.”
Sabrina half listened as Isabel described telling Meredith that she’d be right over and that she and Andrew had ended up talking for hours just about, like, life. Isabel mostly amused her, though it was getting increasingly hard for Sabrina to even remember what it was like to be twenty-six and meet up with a guy you had a crush on. Obviously Snapchat hadn’t existed when Sabrina was twenty-six. Facebook had barely existed! People were just starting to really use text messages! It was only ten years ago, but it felt like a completely different world. She and Dan had met when she was twenty-five and in grad school—she was getting her MFA and he was a friend of her friend Natalie, and the fact that he had a job in journalism seemed hopelessly exciting. Romantic, almost. She wished she could go back and tell her twenty-five-year-old self that there was nothing special about journalists and to say yes to the cute guy from the business school who had asked her out at least three times. She’d looked him up on Facebook recently and learned that he was a managing director at Goldman Sachs and had three children and a wife who looked like she spent a lot of time at Pilates. She briefly considered messaging him, just to say hi, but chickened out.
Sabrina was also fixated on a seemingly minor detail of Isabel’s story, but one that—for someone whose formative years had been spent watching Sex and the City and absorbing the lessons of He’s Just Not That Into You and The Rules—was particularly mind-blowing to her. When she’d been single—and even now, when she talked to friends her age who were still single—everyone seemed to have a firm grasp on the Right Way to Deal with Men in New York City, a world in which women never initiated anything, and straight men held every single ounce of the power, mostly because of the simple math that there were fewer of them. The idea of just up and going to the bar to go after a crush seemed completely foreign. Even though Dan could be a real dick sometimes, Sabrina nonetheless felt grateful that she had him. The thought of being single at thirty-six was too much. Even Natalie—gorgeous, brilliant Natalie, who was the author of a series of wildly successful Hunger Games meets Gossip Girl YA books about a clique of girls at a postapocalyptic prep school who have to simultaneously fight for popularity and for the survival of the planet—hadn’t been in a relationship in three years. Maybe it was a generational thing? Isabel just seemed possessed of a self-confidence that Sabrina had never had. True, Isabel was very pretty, with long blond hair and impossibly clear skin and a seemingly year-round tan. But still.
“So now what?” Sabrina asked.
“He’s hosting the New York Startup Series tomorrow night and I think we’ll grab drinks after.” Isabel grinned. “So . . . what do you think?” She shoved her phone in Sabrina’s face. An unremarkably handsome guy on a ski slope stared back at her.
“Cute,” Sabrina said. Isabel had, on more than one occasion, told Sabrina how great it was to have someone older and wiser in the office, a “compliment” that Sabrina accepted with a forced smile.
Just then, her phone vibrated with a text, and the notification on the screen said it was from Willa, the Pratt student from Australia she’d hired to pick Amelia up from Slope Montessori and Owen from kindergarten every afternoon. “Sorry, one sec, it’s my nanny texting me.” She unlocked the screen and read: hey S! Sorry for short notice but i’m feeling really crap today and think it’s probs better for me to stay home.
:( Don’t want to get the kiddos sick! xo
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Sabrina said under her breath. When had Willa started calling her S and signing her texts xo? Was there any recognition that Sabrina was, in fact, her employer?
“My nanny is sick.”
“Oh, that sucks,” Isabel said in the mildly sympathetic tone of someone for whom this was a recognizably bad yet wholly foreign problem.
“And we have that metrics meeting this afternoon, don’t we. Fuck! Sorry.” Isabel was looking at her with vague concern. “Maybe Dan can pick them up.” She texted Dan: Hey, Willa is
sick and I have imp mtg this afternoon—any chance you can pick A & O up and wfh the rest of the day? To Isabel, she said, “Kids make life complicated.”
Isabel nodded. “I totally, totally get it,” she said.
Dan texted back: Super busy today—can you handle?
Sabrina put her head in her hands. “Fuck!” she said, louder than she’d meant to. Isabel looked alarmed. “Sorry. I hate to do this but I’m going to have to leave in an hour or so—is there any way we could push that meeting to tomorrow? Or could I call in?”
Isabel scrunched up her face. “Hmm. I don’t know?” Isabel glanced at her computer screen and made another annoyed face. She typed something on her keyboard. “Mack wants me to come by. Listen, do what you have to do, okay?” Isabel got up.
Sabrina sighed and texted Dan back: Not really, but I guess I have no choice. She waited a few minutes. He didn’t respond.
From STARTUP. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2017 by Doree Shafrir.