Monday, September 19, 2011

Carla Sarett

Career Girl
Fiction by Carla Sarett

The other day, a young colleague from down the hall stopped by my office. She did not have work on her mind. 
“Do you think it’s wrong to develop relationships at work, I mean, do you think it’s like self-destructive?  Am I subverting my career?”  She apparently was under the impression that her office romance was a high-security secret. 
I played along. “Hmm,” I said.
“I mean, this relationship could get serious,” she said, darkly.
“I have a hunch it will,” I let her know. “Call me psychic.”
Later, I couldn’t help but recall my first job in New York—right after college, in the grim recession of the ‘70s. I had been hired to write blurbs for children’s books with names like Aunt Zelda’s Flying Umbrella and The Tortoise Who Went to School. Actually, I merely re-wrote other blurbs from Publishers Weekly or Library Journal—and since I was never required to read the books, their insides remained a mystery to me. It was ironic, in a way, since I often praised them as “filled with the mysteries of childhood.”    
To make matters worse, I was a so-so typist. If all went well, Aunt Zelda’s Flying Umbrella might remain “wistful” and “sweet.”  But, before computers, just one wrong keystroke ruined a whole page–and, inevitably, wistful morphed into simple, and sweet to witty. My remedy was deep breathing. Breathe in, breathe out, I told myself, hoping against hope to achieve the sense of inner peace which everyone spoke about—but always eluded me.
Against all odds, my boss, Rita Greene, tolerated my lack of ambition and even made a stab at trying to be a mentor—within realistic limits, of course.
“Maybe next spring, you could come to the trade shows with me and meet the authors,” she said, trying to perk me up. She moved her head from side to side, like a kindly doctor checking for signs of life. 
I interpreted her comment as a scholarly one, intended for an audience with an interest in trade shows. I shifted gears. “Those are really great earrings.” 
She looked at me as if I had said something odd—and flew away to one of her many meetings, all speed and efficiency.  
With Rita out the way, I could turn my mind to daydreaming about dark-eyed Jeremy Levy who, inconveniently, worked two floors above me. It took creativity on my part to invent excuses to get upstairs, but I was up to that task, if no other.
One day, observing the stacks of manuscripts on Jeremy’s desk and on the floor as well, I asked, “Are any of these interesting?”
And he said, “No.”
I tried again. “But it must be fun reading them.” I had no idea that they were mostly diet books and self-help guides.
He did not take the bait. “Not to me.”   
I noticed a tennis racket in the corner, which sank my spirits. Maybe Jeremy needed a doubles partner for a girlfriend—I was hopelessly un-athletic.
 So, my progress with Jeremy had stalled, at least in the short term. But New York was a big city and that month, I met Peter Greene. Peter was attractive in a New York intellectual way—speaking in flowing sentences, like one of those surprisingly intelligent men in French movies. His passions were Marxism, politics and high quality audio equipment, perhaps in the reverse order, though.
We met at a lecture at The New School on the origins of anti-Semitism. Afterwards, we found ourselves on the same uptown bus and had drinks at a neighborhood bar with sawdust on the floor. In one of those New York-style moments, he recognized my name – it turned out he was Rita Greene’s younger brother.
By another coincidence, Peter’s apartment was only three blocks from mine. He lived on East 80th in one of those sunless East Side apartments with brick walls and hardwood floors. There was no way to make such dim places cozy, and Peter hadn’t even tried—everything looked brand new and untouched. We sat and listened to Sinatra. There was some discussion about the difference between cold digital sound, and the other warm sound—was it vacuum?  
Grateful that I did not have to endure an evening of Led Zeppelin, I said, “It does sound warm.” 
The next morning, Peter called to ask me to lunch, if I had time. Of course, I had time. Since Peter was a graduate student, so did he. We walked to a Greek coffee-shop around the corner from my office—in hindsight, an unromantic choice, but in those days, the area around the Empire State Building offered little in the way of cute cafes.     
Peter’s meal-ordering process was complex and time-consuming. He vacillated between sandwiches and salads. He asked the tired waiter detailed questions about his culinary options. Eventually, he settled, nervously, on a grilled Swiss and fries—or number fifteen, in coffee shop-lingo. I was relieved to have that part of our meal over.
I smiled at Peter. “It was nice of you to call. I’m glad you did.”  
I was happy in a way. It was a treat to have lunch with a real companion and not sit alone at the counter. And I felt Peter Greene and I had much in common, in the books and ideas department. I envisioned us together—maybe, debating Marxist theory over a glass of chilled white wine or attending a museum lecture.        
He leaned toward me and said, “Bella, you’re not my type, but I’m really into you.”
“Your type,” I repeated, taking it in. “I’m not?”
“Not really, no,” he said, wiping his wire-rimmed glasses. 
Instinct told me when men, especially men like Peter, had a type the girls in question were tall and blonde and wore cashmere and pearls. I quickly reviewed all of the types I was not: not tall, not short, not blonde, not red-headed, not almond-eyed, not to mention perky or cute. To be sure, it was long list.     
I contemplated my newly discovered identity as a medium height, medium weight brunette with no defining features. Surveying the coffee shop, I saw more than a few twenty-something New York brunettes who could have doubled for me in a pinch; although, now that I bothered to look, they were better-dressed and thinner than I was. 
These unwelcome insights made me glum. “I guess you’re not my type either,” I confessed.
Peter said, “What do you mean, I’m not your type. What’s your type?”
I considered his question as the waiter placed plates on the table. My college boyfriends had nothing in common, apart from the rather obvious fact that they ended up as ex-boyfriends. But being an ex-boyfriend hardly made them a type—or at least, I hoped not, since one of them seemed downright psychotic. 
I said, “Hmm, maybe the kind of man who doesn’t have a type. I think that’s my type.”
“That’s the problem with feminism. Here I am, trying to give you a compliment–and you’re twisting my words and distorting them,” Peter said, in true debate-team style.
“Well, you see, that’s the problem. I mean, a compliment is like, you’re wonderful,” I pointed out. “A compliment is you look nice in that sweater. That’s a compliment. Anyway, I’m not a feminist, whatever a feminist is.” 
I delicately plucked a single French fry from his plate, as if to prove the point.
He pounced on my logic. “What do you mean you’re not a feminist? You’re just being facile, that’s what women do to evade the issue.”   
“I think feminists like to work and I kind of hate work,” I said, getting off track. “I mean, some women want to work, but I kind of wish I could just hang out or go see lots of movies. Maybe I would like to work one day a week, you know, for fun, like in a museum or something, or maybe not, maybe just read a lot. You know what I mean?”
My rambling grated on Peter. “Well, that’s not the point. The point is, you you’re taking it personally like I was insulting you. So, you’re not Marilyn Monroe. I mean, I came downtown to tell you what a great night I had.” 
I returned to my Greek salad. “It was a nice night,” I agreed, more cheerfully than before. No girl could be Marilyn Monroe, after all—and it tickled me that Peter had resurrected her in the era of free love.         
“Not that I want to marry you or anything,” he continued, drowning his remaining French fries in a pool of ketchup. “Don’t get the wrong idea.”
The coffee shop became noisy with so many waiters shouting, number fifteen, fourteen, whiskey dry, it was hard to make myself heard. 
“You know, my guess is this coffee shop’s filled with men who don’t want to marry me. Come to think of it, all of Manhattan’s filled with men who don’t want to marry me,” I boomed so loudly that an older woman eyed me with alarm. She probably thought I was a hardened floozy.
“So now what? You’re annoyed because we spend one night together and I’m not proposing? I mean, I’m not crazy or something where I’m going to ask a girl to marry me. I mean you don’t expect that, do you?”
“Calm down, I don’t want to marry you,” I said. I meant to emphasize the “marry” part like a feminist—which I was not, but who cared?  But, I ended up broadcasting the “you” part like an outraged lover.    
I was sorry for my sharp tone. I had no license to tell Peter Greene that sex without love is just sex, even if you play music in the background; even if you think it’s great sex, it’s still just sex and men and women either move closer or further apart; there’s no standing still. Who was I to tell anyone anything?     
Peter jumped in before I could apologize. “So you don’t want to.” He acted as if he had proposed on bended knees, and I had cruelly rejected him.  
“No, I don’t,” I answered. “We’re just having lunch. That’s all that’s happening here. We’re not talking about marriage. Actually, we don’t even have a relationship, not a real relationship. Nothing’s happening, nothing.”
And it was then that I noticed Jeremy. He was ordering himself a sandwich to go, and he heard me turning Peter down, or so he thought. And this time, Jeremy looked at me and smiled, the barest hint of a smile, but it was enough for me.   
Peter said, “So you’re into someone else?”
I shrugged. Then I said, “Maybe.” 
“Unbelievable,” Peter said, ‘you are un-be-lievable. Rita told me you were crazy. She said you were kind of not really sane, like maybe on drugs or something, always tripping into things and coming in late and making excuses. She said you had problems and you’re always sad and you have these headaches, and maybe you had a fall, and that’s why you have these headaches, and you’re always talking about the Holocaust. She said you might be crazy.”
That was news, although it shouldn’t have been. I had hardly proved a model employee. Rita had hidden her disdain well, though. She had been polite. That much, I had to grant her. 
I said, “I didn’t know, about Rita, I mean.” I knew the part about myself all too well. I knew that part better than anyone.
Peter said, “Yeah, she wants to fire you, but she can’t think a good reason to. She’s had a hard year and she really needs someone she can count on.”
“A hard year,” I repeated, mostly to myself. “She’s had a hard year.”
Peter did not walk me back, which was just as well. I felt trapped between an apology and a complaint, without much feeling behind either. Besides, who knew what he might repeat to Rita who had already cast me as a lunatic—and a lazy lunatic, too.
After lunch, I marched into Rita’s office and said, “So you don’t like me, and you think I’m crazy.” I didn’t repeat the lazy part, since that was true.
She finished licking an envelope. Her voice was even. “Actually, I do like you. I just told Peter that you’re doing a lousy job, and you are. You’re smart, and there’s no reason you couldn’t do a better job. But I get it, the work’s boring, the pay’s not good. But you know these writers depend on us.”
I made a helpless gesture of apology. “I know. I’ll try, really, I will.”
Rita looked faintly amused. “Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. Anyway, it seems you spend all your time chasing after Jeremy Levy. But I guess he doesn’t mind.”
“He doesn’t?” I said, forgetting all about the job and Peter and even Rita.
“Not from what I can tell,” she said, shaking her head and opening another file. 
Minutes later, I stood in Jeremy’s doorway. I asked, “Do you have a type?”
He weighed my question like a puzzle. He pretended to scribble a few notes and I moved behind him—so he could smell my perfume. Then he stopped scribbling and we faced one another. 
“Women. Women are my type,” he said.
“So, I could be your type,” I said, “I mean, with such broad parameters.”
“What do you think,” he said in a way that made me blush.   
“You might have told me.” I almost said his name, but it felt too soon.
Jeremy smiled just as he had earlier in the coffee shop. “I was getting around to it.”
I turned away so I could try to breathe in and out. But he stood up and spun me around. He said, “What are you doing?”
I said, “Breathing, I’m trying to breathe. It’s been a hard year, a really hard year. Sometimes it helps, I don’t know, to slow down. I don’t know. I actually don’t know.”
Jeremy said, “I don’t mind, Bella.”
For some reason, I’d run out of words.  I made my upside down smile.
He said, “It’s OK. Go back to your office, and I’ll call you. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine.”
I returned to my wooden desk and a few minutes later, the phone rang.  I picked it up before the first ring ended.  
I heard Jeremy’s voice. “Just start breathing and I’ll listen.”  He sounded matter of fact, as if his request were perfectly routine, nothing out of the ordinary.
So I took a breath, and then another. My mind emptied as I breathed—I guess that was the inner peace that everyone talked about. Maybe deep breathing only works when someone else is listening, or when you know someone is listening. And I had the curious sense that he had been there all along, concealed from me, as if we’d been playing a children’s game of hide and seek.
After a while, I whispered, “I guess I should hang up now.” 
Jeremy said, “No, don’t stop yet—just keep on going. We’re just getting started.”

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