The worst moment in a writer’s life is the day he receives his first rejection slip. The second worst is the day his first book is published.
The former because it only takes one person—one person—to prevent what would have been a remarkable and brilliant early debut. One person, whom the writer is sure was a summer intern from Barnard with a fondness for capri pants and a smug conviction in her ability to assess genius, to deep-six his career. One skinny, privileged-enough-to-survive-being underpaid assistant, who now most likely was a spinning instructor with an eating disorder, to reject him.
And the latter because he was rejected by the entire world.
I didn’t learn about this joyous part deux until recently. My first book, The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors From Europe’s Western Coast, was published on Aug. 18. That morning, I woke up feeling sure that it was truly the first day of the rest of my life. All I had to do was wait it out. Within hours, the phone would ring, my website’s server would crash from the assault of emails, and the offers for my own TV show would roll in.
To prepare, I showered and shaved, singing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma!, fantasizing a yardful of dancers leaping and singing my praises, just waiting for me to fling open the shutters and begin what would go down in history as Amazon.com’s busiest day. The One (Who Brings Me Love, Joy, and Happiness) met me at the bathroom door when I stepped out.
Ah-thuh!” he applauded, mimicking my long-lost Massachusetts accent. “You are officially, undeniably, certifiably an author as of today.”
Yes, I thought, this will be my day.
In the car on the way to Manhattan from Connecticut—a mere 90 minutes!—I got three calls of congratulations: my parents, my friend Danny, and my publicist. There were six emails waiting, too. “Tip of the iceberg,” I said to The One. “Tip of the iceberg.”
In the apartment, I sat on the couch for several hours doing nothing but watching my Amazon.com rank rising, rising, rising. But there was no fist-pumping victory dance. I was too humbled by the fact people actually wanted to spend money to buy my book and eat the food of my heritage. I mean, ever since I was a kid, it seemed as if the world knew nothing about Portugal. Now here were people curious and tempted—because of what I wrote.
Rachael Ray, the girls from The View, and Martha Stewart nattered away on TV. “Portugal is the new Spain,” I practiced telling Martha. “The book is a collection of recipes that are a snapshot of what people are eating in Portugal right now,” I said to Rachael. Fascinated, she asked me to demo one of my favorites. I rolled out a batch of sweet lemon and black olive wafers. The audience applauded and screamed when she announced that everyone would receive a free copy of the book.
Encouraged by my Amazon rank (5,382) and my sure-to-be Emmy-nominated guest spot on the Rachael Ray Show, I called my local Barnes & Noble.
“Excuse me,” I asked the clerk. “Do you have the book The New Portuguese Table by…I think the author is Lightey or Leetie?”
I figured since everyone mangles my name, I might as well do the same. It added authenticity.
“Let me check,” she said. While she looked, I suddenly realized they could have caller ID. Damn it! My name was probably blinking away shamelessly on the phone console. I considered hanging up, but ego out-sized embarrassment. “Yes, we do,” she said. “Wow, we have a lot of them.”
I demurred when she asked if she should hold one for me. I told her I’d just stop by.
Inflated with the promise of my own line of cookware, I called other Barnes & Noble outlets in the city. Without exception, though, each and every store had not one copy. I called Borders. The same. I phoned Borders back home in Massachusetts, in the Swansea Mall. “We don’t have any, and it’s not on order as of right now,” the clerk said. Criminy! Even in my own hometown there’s not a copy? Hadn’t the store managers seen the profile of me not six days earlier in the food section of The Herald News? Haven’t they ever heard of my website, Leite’s Culinaria? DON’T THEY KNOW THAT THE BOOK GOT A STARRED REVIEW IN PUBLISHERS WEEKLY?
I felt a pounding need for power. I considered walking into an awful neighborhood restaurant and announcing to the owner, “Do you know who I am? I’m one of the most important food writers in the city, and I could close down this place like that.” I’d snap my fingers and he’d tremble like a Chihuahua in a snowstorm.
Of course, with my luck he’d say, “I’m so terribly, terribly sorry, Mr. Bruni.”
I checked Amazon.com again. My rank had fallen to 9,532. In four hours. Overwhelmed by my initial blush of success and then my plummeting failure, I slipped into bed to nap. All I wanted was to sleep away the rest of the day; tomorrow I’d wake up to my routines of ordinary writerly anonymity. But blackout sleep wouldn’t come. Instead I dreamed I was free-falling like that cut-out executive in the opening credits of Mad Men. But instead of a montage of cocktails, nylons, and be-pearled, bullet-bra-ed women behind me, it was books with flaming pages, laughing crowds, and Arrow shirts splattered with grease.
Eventually I got up and checked the phone machine. No new messages. The computer. No new emails. Well, I thought, it’s my party, and I’ll drink if I want to. A friend had given me a congratulatory gift of some Henriot Brut Millésimé 1998, and I slipped it into the fridge, blared ABBA, and took another shower to tame my bed-head.
At 6:30 p.m. there were still no more messages or emails, but our friend Ellen rang the bell. She was accompanying The One and me to Aldea, George Mendes’s sleek new Portuguese restaurant in the Flatiron district, to celebrate. I poured the Millésimé, and we toasted. Well, they toasted. I, trying to look for all the world like the star I felt I should have been that day, smiled and waved. The first swig of the champagne bitch-slapped my brain. It was lovely. Green apples and grapefruit, I thought. The aroma had whiffs of mango and marmalade. Stop it! I’d had it with dissecting food, quantifying flavors, categorizing dishes. If the world refused to see me as a gastronome savant, then I would eat, drink, and think like a layperson. The champagne was…nummy!
“This is incredible,” said Ellen. “Citrusy and creamy. What do you think?” She and The One looked at me.
I shrugged my shoulders and scrunched my nose. “De-lish, isn’t it?”
After dinner, which was so extraordinary it was hard to dumb down my brain while eating, we stopped in at the Barnes & Noble near my apartment. I made no mention to Ellen or The One during the evening of the clerk’s comment about the store having lots of books. I wanted to surprise them. At least this would be a positive way to cap off an otherwise dreary day. As we got off the escalator and headed toward the “New Books” table, I didn’t see it. There was Martha, Ina, and Rachael, but no me. I searched the other side. Nothing.
While Ellen and The One were flipping through vegan books trying not to look pained, I asked the manager if he knew where the books were. He pecked at the computer. “Gee, we got a lot of them!” he said. “Right this way.”
I marched by Ellen and The One ready to knock them out with the pyramid display I was sure to see just ahead. “Out of curiosity,” I asked, “how many is ‘a lot?’”
“Five,” said the manager, whose name I could see from his tag was John.
“Five, John?” I reiterated. “Five? Tell me: What’s not ‘a lot?’”
“Oh, there are times we don’t even bother to order a book. It’s all about real estate.”
In pursuit of those five precious books, we searched the Portuguese section, the international nook, and the shelves under the letters “L” for Leite, “N” for New, and “P” for Portuguese. Having exhausted every avenue, John was stumped and peeved. I finally announced I was the author and that this was unacceptable. My authorship did nothing to make the books appear, but John did promise me that if I came in the next day, all would be prominently displayed, and he even asked if I would sign them.
“Certainly,” I said, “but only if they go in the window.”
As I laid in bed that night, having drunk far more Millésimé and 2004 Jose Maria da Fonseca Periquita Reserva than any adult should, I thought of how hopeful the day had started. I was finally a published author and had nothing to show for it. Literally.
The next morning, I headed back to Barnes & Noble. As I approached the revolving door, two copies of my book were in the window. I took the escalator two steps at a time.
“They were here last night, but in a box,” John laughed when he saw me.
“Five, still.” He saw my disappointment. “But I’m sure we’ll sell out in no time.”
I signed the books with my new author’s pen, and John put an official “autographed copy” sticker on each. He tucked the two copies back in the window, and I took a picture with my iPhone. I lurked near the Learning Annex kiosk for almost an hour. A few people stopped and looked at the display. No one suddenly leaped into the store after seeing my book cover. No one pulled out an old deposit slip and wrote down the title. No one shrieked: “Oh my God! David Lee-tee’s book is finally out—wait, is that him?!”
But it didn’t matter because not too far away from my book was a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. And no one—not even me—can complain about that.