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Vol. 3, No. 3

With an X
by Sylvia Brownrigg

The first thing Alexandra Lewis had to do was change her name.
    Alex no longer suited her: it was too schoolgirlish, too blunt and bookish. It was the name of a girl who'd swooned over Charlotte Brontë in the sleepy shade of Oxford parks. "Reader, I married him," the tangle-headed teenager read, and sighed, and said, to her best friend, El, "That's what I love about Jane: she follows her heart. The man is blind, but she marries him anyway." Alex was the name of someone who believed in that phrase—following your heart—which hadn't gotten her anywhere. That is, it got her into Cambridge, where she indulged deeply her love of reading, but it also took her into stunned misery when she followed her heart into a wrenching passion for Charles Wyndham. That beautiful aristocratic boy, with his pretty lips; his eloquent eyes; that live mind. Why had he left her? What was so superior about bland-faced Alison Kaye, who was Scottish for God's sake, whom he went on to marry, as if this weren't the modern world where people didn't marry at twenty-two (unless, perhaps, they were following their hearts)?
    "I'm changing my name," Alex told El. She looked at herself in the smeary mirror of the dingy bathroom. El, good old El, had found this dark two-bedroom flat in Kilburn for them to share. The neighborhood was careworn, and the place was a good ten minutes' walk from the tube—it certainly wasn't the literate luxury of Alexandra's parents' pied-à-terre in Bloomsbury, where she had stayed for her first few thrilled weeks after moving down here—but at least it was theirs. It was independence. It was London.
    Alex watched herself in the mirror as El unpacked her science books. She was here to study medicine. Alex couldn't actually imagine anything duller than medicine.
    "Did you hear what I said? I'm changing my name." She looked at her own clear, open face: the round curve of her cheeks, the hungry lips, the bright, laugh-ready eyes (only slightly haunted by that residual sadness), framed by dark, thick handfuls of her long curled hair.
    "To what?" asked El, and Alex caught sight of her friend's bashful, adoring gaze in the edge of the glass. El was still a little in love with her, probably. Just a little.
    "Xandra," she said into the mirror, and even as she said it her face changed shape: grew older, more mysterious, possibly posher (surely someone named Xandra would be more likely to have grown up in a stately home, rather than in the quiet suburbs of north Oxford, trading book banter with her professor father?). Xandra, she fell in love with it. Xandra would be great at parties, you'd always want her there, has Xandra come yet? And the smart sharpness of a Xandra would be a desirable quality, rather than something drab and sexless as it might be in an Alex. Because Xandra, you could tell from the sound of the name—from the face in the mirror, from her husky laugh as she tossed back her head to expose her long throat, and from her way of wearing close-fitting sweaters that encouraged others not so much to follow their hearts as to follow her breasts—Xandra would be sexy.
    "Alex?" El said, having turned away from the mirror's moment of creation. She needed a hand with one of the boxes.
    "Not Alex. Never Alex. Xandra," her new flatmate answered her. "With an X."

 

~

London. It was where she had always been headed. From more or less the moment she arrived, Xandra knew that London was the reality, and that her life until now had been dreamed.
    How to get in, though? Where was the door? Xandra wanted London like a lover—she wanted all of it, now. She was ravenous. She was in a kind of fever about it. El, working diligently on her medical studies, laughed at Xandra—whom she still thought of as Alex—for pulling out her long hair, in what seemed to El an absurd frustration.
    "You already work in publishing," El said to her one evening, when Xandra was actually lying flat on the floor in an attempt to quiet her rapid, impatient breaths. "Isn't that what you want?"
    "It's a university press," seethed Xandra (a job her father helped her get: they'd published his seminal work on Jane Austen). "It's nothing, it's connected to no one."
    "What do you mean, 'no one'? Who do you want to be connected to, exactly?"
    "Oh, El." How obtuse could her friend be? Xandra remembered something suddenly. "Guess who I saw in the British Library today? Writing in a very thick notebook? Gavin Long!"
    "Really?" Gavin Long, prizewinning, best-selling author of smart and sinister fictions about loves gone awry, difficult families, the dark pleasures of pain: the two friends had always shared a passion for him. "Did you say anything to him?"
    "What could I say to him?" Xandra was exasperated. "'Excuse me, I'm nobody, but I love your novels'? That's my whole point!"
    "I would have."
    "Yes," Xandra agreed; El probably would have. "'Gavin Long,' I could have told him, 'You're a canny master of the uneasy and the alien, and the slyly violent.' Do you remember that?" But Xandra realized as she recalled it that it was probably a mistake to invoke the time El had issued that clever assessment of Long's work. It had been a late and wakeful night for the two of them, talking and smoking and drinking in El's room. They were talking about Gavin Long, and so clever had Alex found that line of El's that she repeated it, as if awestruck. She wished she'd thought of it herself, as she told El, who generously replied, "You can have that line, Alex. I hereby give it to you. Consider it yours." She had leaned forward as if to present the line to Alex as a gift, and as she'd leaned in she'd found Alex ready to kiss her, with open, vodka-flavored lips. The kiss had stretched into more than a kiss, into a long night of lovemaking. In the morning Alex shook out her curls and made clear what she thought of the encounter. "Vodka! Strong stuff. Better stay away from that from now on," she teased, before making a quick coffee and then going off to study for her exams. They were friends after that, still. Just friends. Friends with a hint of a history that Xandra had all but forgotten. Until a moment like this, when she heard El's held breath, and sensed the passion her old friend was attempting to calm.
    "Anyway . . ." said Xandra, sitting up. "People like Gavin Long. Fiona Finch. Do you know who met Fiona Finch lately? Alison fucking Kaye! I can't bear it. At the TLS party. Charles is working two days a week there, and writing reviews for them; Alison is temping at the Francis Miller agency. They're both in middle of everything. It's not fair!"
    "You silly girl," El said lightly. "Why don't we have Charles and Alison over for supper? I'll cook. I'd like to see them. You can ask them—or they'll tell you—how to get . . . to . . ." She paused. "To—wherever it is you're going."
    It was a start. El cooked well, and the stories and wine flowed generously, as did a return invitation. At dinner with Charles and Alison (oh, their tiny flat was warm with over-spilling bookshelves and chipped matching plates, and Xandra could, she felt, just spit with envy), Xandra met Philip Howard, who was working on a biography of Calvino. Philip Howard liked Xandra: perhaps, especially, Xandra's front. Would she like to come along with him to a special screening of a film loosely based on one of Calvino's stories? It was all about who you knew. Certainly she would. She could go to it with him without having to sleep with him, right? The man was pig ugly. She tried asking El this point of social etiquette, but El was no help at all. "I have no idea," she said. "It's not my world."
    So Xandra went with Philip to the film. She did sleep with him anyway—just to be sure—and it seemed to be the right decision, as Philip was the one who got her own reel going. One name linked to another in progression, arm in arm, like those human bridges people formed to help passengers off a sinking ferry. Philip Howard knew shaven-headed Richard Thomas, whose cyber-novel had just been published; he took her along to the launch party for Richard's book, where she re-encountered bitchy Christina Evans, with whom she'd shared a tutorial at Cambridge; bitchy Christina—though perhaps she wasn't so bad, and she did have a nicely cutting sense of humor and knew a lot of people—introduced her to gay Nick Bly, who assistant- edited the Times's books pages. "Sandra?" he asked, leaning in, and when she delivered her line, "No, Xandra—with an X," he brayed with laughter, and asked Xandra if she'd like to write a review for him. "With an X, preferably," he added. She would, of course—though she wasn't sure he was serious. But then here it was, a first novel by a young woman who sported a ridiculous name—Evie Beaver—and praise from none other than Fiona Finch. The slightly hysterical novel detailed a sensitive young woman's spell in a mental institution. Xandra hated it. She called Christina to read bad sentences to her over the phone, gratified by Christina's screams of glee. "It's as though," she told Christina, "Sylvia Plath rewrote The Bell Jar after listening to too much Madonna and watching bad Dutch porn movies." Christina stopped laughing for a moment. "Would you say that in print?" she asked Xandra. Yes, Xandra would.
    Nick loved the piece. "Thank you for puncturing the mad-female-fiction bubble," he said to her. "The sooner women realize that going bonkers does not in itself guarantee their literary genius, the better for us all. Still, if I'd written something like that, the feminists would have eaten me alive." Xandra was pleased. She knew Nick was a snake, ultimately, and that he said vile things about everyone behind their backs, but he was entertaining, and more than that, he knew everybody. On the strength of her Beaver piece, she started to review for him regularly, and soon Xandra Lewis had a reputation in print for an acid tongue, and readers turned with guilty pleasure to see who would be her next victim.
    Then Nick sent her a new novella by none other than Gavin Long. Her old hero! "I don't want you to spend more than half an hour on this," Nick drawled. "It's dreadful—empty—an undeliberate parody of his earlier work. Or so I've been told. I can't bring myself to read it." Xandra could, and did. She loved it, actually. After the light lunches and bar snacks she'd been reading and reviewing for Nick, here, at last, was a genuine literary meal. She'd forgotten what it was like to feel satisfied by a book. For a few hours, Xandra was back in an Oxford park, soaking up an innocent sun while the good words briefly sated her restless appetite.
    Nick was disappointed in what she wrote, but he didn't say so (to her face). Frankly, his favorite critic had gone a bit soft on the old master: as if he needed it, with his bulging paunch of Bookers and Whitbreads. But Xandra Lewis's surprisingly kind words stood out bright in a dark gloom of reviewers' bored carping, and earned her an invite to the party for the book. For Gavin Long! His book party!
    "This must mean you've arrived," said El to Xandra as she dressed to kill for it, but Xandra was not attuned to the note of irony, or sadness, in her flatmate's voice.
    But if El had meant the phrase ironically, it was truer than she knew. The first part of Xandra Lewis's trek was nearly over: the human bridge was taking her at last to her destination. It might not be safety or dry shore, but it was tall, mid-forties, and handsome, in a blunt-faced way. It was Robin Sinclair, who saw the thick-haired beauty in a sleeveless dress amidst the all-too familiar celebrities and sycophants, and made a point of greeting her with a glass of wine.
    "Hello, I don't think I know you."
    "I'm Xandra Lewis," she told him.
    "I'm sorry . . ." He leaned in close. "Sandra?"
    "Xandra—with an X."
    She was twenty-four. And now—now, finally—her real, intended life could begin.
    

 

~

Robin Sinclair handled everybody. The greats, the once-greats, the dead greats, the young might-be greats, whom Robin would ensure were covered and favored and hovered over as if they certainly and already were great. The man's reputation as an agent was for ferocity, acuteness of judgment, and a ghost of a feeling of the outsider (he'd been a working-class boy), which, some said—those who knew him, rather than those who feared or fawned over him—was the drive behind his hard bargains. He inspired terrific loyalty in his writers—except for those he dropped, abruptly, to keep his list sharp and lean. But those like Gavin Long whom he'd held on to for years, in Long's case since his thinly reviewed second novel and long before he was famous, thought the world of Robin Sinclair, and would say so to anyone who asked.
    As hard as Xandra had been working to know everything and everyone that mattered, there were gaps in what she knew, including the above. She'd been running ever since she'd arrived in London, the city of words and names and connections. So when she encountered her future face-to-face, she didn't even know it. When she met Robin Sinclair at Gavin Long's party, the name—Robin Sinclair, Robin Sinclair—reverberated around her brain, but she couldn't place it. Random House publisher? Esquire editor? Xandra looked into his face to read the answer, but was distracted by what she saw there. Under a low forehead and heavy brow was a busy, working intelligence that immediately seemed familiar to her. Oh, sure: the man was looking at her breasts. But when he asked her what she thought of Gavin Long's book and she answered him in the sentences she had so recently committed to print, a wry humor lit his eyes, and he stopped looking at her breasts and started looking at her self. He nodded in tacit agreement, urging her on, while a subtle smile softened his aggressive features. That look—the conspiracy in it, almost as if he and she were in together on a secret that he hadn't yet got around to revealing to her—made Xandra want the man with a strange urgency. She excused herself with uncharacteristic nervousness to find another glass of wine.
    It wasn't until she was having a sloppy Italian supper with Christina in Soho later that night that Xandra understood just what had happened to her.
    "Robin Sinclair is Gavin Long's agent?" she groaned. Drunk, but not so drunk that she couldn't see the humiliation in it.
    "His, and everyone's. You know, Xandra: Robin Sinclair: He represents everyone."
    "Oh, fuck. Fuck! What an idiot I am. My God! He'll think I'm an imbecile."
    "No, he won't."
    "I knew that. I knew it! I just forgot. I knew I knew his name, but you know, you can't just ask someone: I'm sorry, I know you're famous, but who are you again?"
    "Look. I saw the way he was looking at you. I don't think you need to worry. I'd say he liked you."
    "Fuck. Fuck," said Xandra again, losing her vocabulary as she finished her glass of wine. It was her sixth or seventh, the one that would coat the side of her head, the next morning, in the peculiar dread and pound of a hangover. Wondering: how could she manage to see him again, to change that liking into something more tangible?

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