The Half Life and Swim

By: Jennifer Weiner



It’s always interesting to me, the way life imitates and intersects with art.

In 2006, I re-wrote a new version of an old story, about a young woman who made a living and fell in love writing other peoples’ classified ads. In my original version, which I wrote back in the 1990’s, my protagonist was writing personal ads for newspapers. In the retooled version, she was helping people with their online dating profiles, after she’d quit her job as a television writer because a fellow writer had broken her heart. In both versions, she was an interesting young woman, an orphan who felt more comfortable in the water than anywhere else, who was learning to navigate the world, to trust people, to be brave.

In 2011, I got the chance to go to Los Angeles and run a show that I’d written for ABC Family called “State of Georgia.” I found myself living a version of the story I’d written (luckily, minus the heartbreak!) And I found myself thinking about Ruth Saunders. Did things work out with the man whose ad she’d rewritten? Did she ever get to write for another TV show? Did she end up happy?

I knew I wanted to write about my time in Los Angeles . . . and Ruth’s voice, and her face, and her grandmother, all stuck in my head. So when I started writing the book that would become The Next Best Thing the worlds collided, and I found a way to continue Ruth’s story, with the real-world highs and heartbreaks of working in television as background that could inform her journey.

Writers aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but “Swim” was always one of my favorite short stories. I loved diving back into Ruth’s world, with all of the space a novel gave me. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting her here, in “Swim,” and seeing where her story takes her in The Next Best Thing.


The girl’s name was Caitlyn. That fall, it seemed like they were all Caitlyn, or some oddly spelled variation of the name. Judging from the way she kept crossing and recrossing her long, denim-clad legs and flipping her silver cell phone open to check the time, she wanted to be anywhere but in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Beverly and Robertson, sharing a table for two with my laptop and me.

“So in terms of a major? I’m thinking international relations? I want to be a diplomat?”

I nodded and typed it in. Every sentence out of her sparkly pink seventeen-year-old lips came out sounding like a question. I could just imagine her sitting across the table from some third-world potentate and toying with the silver ring through the cartilage of her left ear. We’d like you to give up your weapons? Because biological warfare? Is bad?

Patience, Ruth, I told myself. “Extracurriculars?” I asked, fingers hovering over the keyboard as the woman at the table next to mine, with bristly eyebrows and a bitter twist to her mouth, gave me a nasty look. I ignored her. Each Saturday I got to the coffee shop at seven o’clock, early enough to claim a prime corner table next to the big window, across the room from the blenders and the bathrooms, right near the store’s single power outlet. The people who’d show up later—screenwriters or screenwriter-wannabes, most of them—were forced to play musical tables, inching closer and closer to my corner, stomping across the wide-planked hardwood floors or lingering ostentatiously beside the cream and sugar, their glares growing fiercer as their batteries slowly died. For six hours every Saturday, I would meet with my teenage clients, the ones who went to pricey private schools and whose parents had given them one more leg up on life by hiring an application consultant to help them get into college.

Caitlyn let go of her earring and tugged at a lock of glossy brown hair. She smelled intensely of coconuts—her shampoo, I figured—and the cloying, fruity scent emanating from the wad of Pepto-pink gum I glimpsed whenever she opened her mouth. I made a note to tell her not to chew gum at her interviews.

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