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I became an executive editor of a magazine when I was 19.
It sounds impressive on paper. But I don’t even put it on my résumé anymore, because being reminded of that year puts a knot in my stomach. I don’t need others to ask me about it. I don’t need to remember it.
I slip into the crowd when I see my former boss drunkenly slouched at a bar stool, or seducing a young women at a concert. I feel as if I have been avoiding him since before I even got my first paycheck. The prospect of growing my professional future blinded me from the red flags that were warning me about this objectifying, substance-abusing magazine publisher.
At the interview that would map out the next year of my life, my future boss lit up a fat joint. His whole house smelled like marijuana, the same house with an in-home office where Magazine was created monthly. He told me he was looking for someone who was young, could see new trends, and start him a Twitter account. I could certainly do all those.
I hadn’t heard anything about him. I’d seen Magazine sitting on the windowsills of the downtown restaurants and stores in my hometown since I can remember. Of course I was going to take the position. He would later tell me he only hired women, because they’re “easier to work with.” Then he would tell me he liked having me in the office because I was “easy to look at.” Other synonyms to “cute” and “attractive” would soon follow. In the beginning, I thought he was just eccentric.
He told me stories of his adventurous past, work with major newspapers abroad. Amazing tales of romances made for the movies. He said he had lived in countries like Mexico and Italy, and was from a poor family in the Bronx. How he didn’t respect authority, and dreamed of owning a music venue. He was a wild soul, Magazine the only thing grounding him. I never learned if any of these tales were true.
My whole life I had dreamed of being a writer, an editor. I had picked up Magazine every month, and devoured it. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in front of him, even though he was nothing like I had imagined, and his office was dim and smelled of cat urine and, of course, weed.
He told me I was his savior during that first interview, I could take over Magazine one day. I was the employee he had been waiting for. I believed him and shared the dream of leading Magazine. His ill-professionalism in front of me was only a tiny hiccup. I could look over it. And I did.
My parents were skeptical, as their college sophomore daughter proclaimed she had landed the highest position at Magazine, at only her first meeting there. I promised them I was a smart, ethical, and could handle anything that came my way. That’s what I kept telling myself, too.
The first month working at Magazine was a blur. My time not at the office was spent answering my boss’s texts, missing classes for “professional” lunches with him that seemed to have no agenda. I realized quickly that I was more than the editor I wanted to be. I was his assistant, friend, and confidant as well.
I was told to buy and set up a printer for him, and if I couldn’t figure out how to get it hooked up to his wireless system, I was a worthless editor. I was told to lead the staff meetings, but was reprimanded for bringing up new ideas because it’s not what Magazine does.
Office sessions began to include a bottle of whiskey, weed cupcakes, and joints. I was made fun of for staying sober while working. But I was praised for being young and attractive.
A longtime writer quit because she felt uncomfortable being led by someone half her age. My boss only laughed and called her “fat” and said she “smelled bad.” My mouth was souring, my stomach felt weak. My guilt, that I already felt, worsened.
I felt stuck. Everywhere we went, my boss introduced me as a “go-getter,” “the future of Magazine.” People seemed impressed by me. Even if I wasn’t impressed by myself. He was paying me more money than I had ever made before. It was under the table, sometimes with accompanying weed that I didn’t smoke. Even when I had to remind him every month to pay me, the checks weakened some of the shame.
After he tried to pay me in weed, I made sure I only went to the office when I had a coworker with me. But that was hard when I was at the office until 3 a.m. No one had trained me — and my boss had me redo project after project — none of them to do with editing or writing. He would sit there, high as a kite, watching me cry with exhaustion. My college grades suffered. The pressure of working in a job I wasn’t ready for, for a man who made me uncomfortable was affecting me in undeniable ways. But I couldn’t fail. I wouldn’t fail.
Then about seven months into the job, we went to a conference out of state. He wouldn’t pay for the plane tickets for me and a coworker, so we took a bus with a group of others who were going. He met us there in a motel he rented for us.
I took one bed, my coworker took the floor, and my boss took the other bed. Weed, cigarettes butts, cheap booze, and baggies of blow littered the room. I tried to stay focused and remembered why I was there. I stayed with a trusted coworker during the nights and focused on the conference during the days. My boss told me he was proud of me during the trip, that I was impressing him.
I was planning to leave the job that summer, move onto something that was a better fit. But it never got to that. When finals time came around and my time was spent studying, I was fired. I was so relieved. He hired another young woman the next week.
I kept in touch with him after that, subconsciously not wanting him to talk about me the way he talked to me about his past editors. I kept writing intermittently for Magazine. Four months later, the women he hired to replace me was fired, too, and a new young woman was sitting in the office. I met them all, each of their eyes glimmering with the same sense of accomplishment that mine did that first month, too.
The next time I saw my now-former boss, it was at a concert venue. He was stumbling around with a drink in his hands and booze cutting his breath. I tried to convince him not to get on his motorcycle and drive away. He slapped my ass as I walked away, and I just kept on walking.
I've landed writing gigs since then, but I’ve stayed away from editing. Each publication I work for, I am amazed by how professional, nurturing, and legal they are. I recently had a meeting with my former boss, he offered me Magazine. He wanted me to buy it, so he could move to a beach for the rest of his days.
As we spoke, a young man was trimming marijuana buds at his coffee table and his cat was wriggling around on his lap, just like the first time I met him. I told him I’d think about it. And, in a way, I’d like to make Magazine the reliable, safe publication that my hometown deserves. But I also want to run away as fast as I can.