Issue 138 - part 2
This continues Issue 138, with a story by P. J. Warren
P. J. Warren
Just past noon, in a law firm steadily whirring because far-flung time zones didn’t déjeuner, Lauren, one of 103 associates in the DC office alone, was riffling desk clutter. If she wasn’t seeking anything in particular, the new associates’ roster, its pale-green cover flipped at the top—alas, alack, as her supervising partner used to say—frankly jolted her. While hanging out recently in her office, her colleague Stan had printed the roster, then scanned its contents, which probably meant she should too. Gingerly she held the pages in midair, glimpsing bright photos captioned with multiple degrees, honors, judicial clerkships; each bejeweled résumé startled more than the last. And they all surpassed hers. With anxieties flitting to and fro, then roundabout in her brain like the pigeons trapped in the downstairs garage, she slipped the roster inside a drawer. Yet one caveat remained: What if, in favor of those exquisite creatures, the partners eased her out of the firm?
Raised to be cheerful, or at least stoic if circumstances warranted, she didn’t go all désolée. Instead she beheld the atrium’s nebulous space smattered with faux trees, her office view she consulted when uneasy. Plus a quick mental inventory conjured favorite aspects of the firm—its history, pro bono cases, her paycheck; maybe especially the Persian rugs?
Charmed by her impromptu list, she collected her laptop and proceeded into the hallway, where the rugs evoked not only her Granny Stockton’s living room but also the teeming world beyond. Or whatever it was? She wasn’t sure, but the threadbare patterns, swirls of color, woven, fringed with tassels, splayed end to end over dark oak floors, delighted her as she wound through the hushed levels, tracing the firm’s majestic history, its venerable reputation, all of which unsettled her too.
As Stan occasionally hinted, she hadn’t clerked, hadn’t attended a tippy-top law school, had to work harder. And she had, indeed, until barely a month ago when the aforementioned supervising partner, Ian, suffered a heart attack and died. Without his banter the place seemed taciturn. Thankfully, however, the library offered solace. Whether because of Marty, the tiny librarian who ran the place like a golden municipality tucked inside a quasi-fascist state, or the sterling light illuminating old volumes fading into disuse wasn’t clear. For whatever reason, she simply relaxed, yanking her hair back with a spare rubber band, until she noticed a partner observing from a conference table, eyes glinting, mouth half concealed by a fist. It was the sort of demeanor that prompted Lauren, a slender figure with observant, flickering eyes and quick movements, to prickle self-consciously, even irritably, before slipping behind a newel post to establish her own little duchy.
Except the duchy was more like a nook. Rather cozily, she settled in as a branch dangled shadows through Plexiglas followed by the sun’s dazzle, which ravished her skirt, silk blouse, even her memo before chasing the shadows onto the floor. Hadn’t a physics professor—in her one college science course—said the light went on forever? Either way, scooting toward the shade and idling her calves over the armrest of an adjacent chair, she began slashing her memo, first languidly, then energetically until the sky grew opaque and another partner appeared from nowhere.
Instantly, Lauren swung her calves toward the floor, trying to be discreet, while Mona, like a bumblebee in yellow and black, nestled behind a conference table. “You pretty much lifted your memo from Akiha’s,“ she said.
That would be the Ramco oil spill memo, not the one Lauren was marking up. To peer into her eyes interview-style, Lauren dragged her gaze upward as Mona, her short haircut accentuating a sardonic expression and tight neck, mostly gave the impression of time-effectiveness. “Pardon?“ Lauren asked, sincerely confused.
“Your work resembles Akiha’s memo.“ Akiha was a fellow associate, and an especially congenial one at that.
“But—you told me to use Akiha’s work. She gave me her notes. You said, ’Don’t reinvent the wheel.’“ Hopefully, her response wasn’t too cheeky. Obviously she wanted Mona and Russell, her new partners, who were more conventional than Ian, to think well of her. Not that she was some generic corporate climber who cared only for evaluations.
“You need to revise,“ Mona snapped while her face registered someone else and rearranged itself from a Picasso into a Renoir. “David!“ she said with sudden exuberance, lunging toward one of the firm’s most high-profile partners.
Which was unnerving because associates usually weren’t privy to such lavish greetings nor to the conversational vigor the two eminences enjoyed as they heralded a third, and Lauren’s nook proved to be no nook at all. Nonetheless, resuming work on her memo, she addressed various intellectual property issues pertaining to XYZCO’s phone shapes and emojis. Only the grain in the table evoked memories of her great-grandfather’s lumber company, a producer of things rather than emojis until the state’s longleaf pines were eviscerated. So that story’s essential meaning was unclear.
Except that nostalgia wasn’t a solution? If her colleague Stan were here, he’d pose a different quandary: Should she nod at the partners on her way out? Pass with insouciance? Basically all she wanted was to head outside and jog down the Mall toward Lincoln, then hopefully Jefferson, the bicycle boats, and the 14th Street Bridge, before rain arrived.
Past two paralegals, enviably young, one saying, “Dude, wanna get a beer?“ she hurried without implementing either strategy. Her heels whispered over the rugs, then clicked marble beyond the security doors. As the elevator plummeted, the earth spun, and the brass mirrors rendered her physique convex, then concave, the firm seemed like a funhouse. And what about the two kids pictured on Ian’s desk, a girl in striped tights and a boy carrying a dump truck?
She hadn’t spotted them at the funeral sitting with his ex-wife. She’d sat near the back with Stan, who whispered that Lauren was in a bind, her decision to replace Ian with Mona and Russell “unfortunate.“ Pretty soon, associate evaluations would be scheduled; Mona and Russell would be asked to assess her work.
“But they’re the available partners,“ she’d hissed back.
“Well, why do you think,“ he said, gazing up at the cross, leaving her to scrutinize the church, which, like so many buildings in Washington, DC, resembled the Justice Department inside.
Newer DC buildings, in contrast, often featured an atrium like the one her office overlooked, where she was landing now, with a slight bounce. Unfortunately, upon disembarking, she spotted an approaching thundercloud, its gauzy texture dramatizing the atrium’s high windows. Many things, her father, an avid outdoorsman, used to say, weren’t as important as they seemed; lightning was. Yet if she wouldn’t be running outside today, she could call Akiha, who might know why she’d been accused of something she didn’t do (i.e., plagiarize) instead of something she did (i.e., procrastinate). Although more worrisome than a false charge was her waning ability to cobble facts and law together with enough speed to satisfy her new partners.
Lately, in fact, her years of toiling in part-time jobs—selling hiking boots, macaroons, frozen yogurt all to help pay for law school—had begun to seem absurd. As did performing tedious, piecemeal tasks on behalf of humongous, multiheaded clients while, per Stan’s advice, curtseying for the opportunity. Yet she wasn’t Camus; she was from North Carolina! She’d never cared much for absurdity.
If, once upon a time, she’d plotted to escape menial jobs, now she admired a barista in the coffee shop wearing Elton John glasses, humoring customers, her spiky hair glimmering blue haze as she pirouetted between cash register and toaster oven. Her work was tangible, a public service: In a fractious world, who didn’t wish to clutch a hot drink brewed and sold upon the premise of global tranquility? Although during her years at take-out windows, handing soiled dollars to mute, outstretched palms, Lauren had dreamt not of global tranquility but soirées featuring brilliant interlocutors.
As it turned out, most interlocutors she’d met at her firm were job focused. Focused on their salaries or becoming partner if not Secretary of State. Moreover, should she ever encounter any true philosophes, would they wish to discuss Camus with a fledgling lawyer who herself was no existentialist? Besieged by such hypotheticals she ducked behind the elevator into a cubbyhole, a marmoreal maze that led from the atrium to the garage (the fume incubator, according to Ian just weeks ago) but otherwise a fine place to make calls. Resting her shoulder against the marble façade, an expensive chill shimmying up her rib cage, she tapped Akiha’s numbers.
Lauren smiled. Akiha’s voice was keen, clear, and sharp as Granny Stockton’s crystal goblets.
“Do you remember your Ramco memo and, um, whether I plagiarized it?“
“Do you remember—“
She imagined Akiha’s shiny hair swinging as she paced in her office, wire-rim glasses magnifying perspicacious eyes.
“Yes? I plagiarized?“
“No! But yeah, I remember the memo. I even recall Mona telling me to forward the dang thing. But Mona plays tricks.“
“To see how you react. She thinks ’younger women’ have it easier than she did.“
Mollified by Aki’s lack of disingenuousness but suddenly shy, Lauren was relieved when Aki’s supervising partner buzzed her. If chatting was fun, she was still a colleague, not a BFF. Besides, any minute Jasper would be calling about their regular Thursday dinner. No matter how many months had passed since Lauren had broken their engagement, he was still the person with whom she felt most comfortable. When the phone rang, she didn’t check numbers; Jasper was always punctual. “Bonjour,“ she trilled, her customary greeting ever since their trip to Paris three years ago.
But this evening he was uncharacteristically terse. Without much preamble he said, “Nina isn’t comfortable with our wedding gifts scattered around the condo.“ It took a moment to parse his words: Nina was a woman he’d been dating, the gifts several flustered invitees had assured them needn’t be returned. “I guess we should divvy.“
“Okay, but I’m—behind at work.“
“Lauren, people won’t respect you if you’re not doing your work.“
“Well—that’s petulant. Shall I drop by with a pickup? Haul that pesky candelabra away?“
Unfortunately, awkward joviality didn’t soften him. Perhaps her inflections were more intimate than was warranted now? “The partner I worked for died; remember?“
“Mm-hmm. Maybe we can drop it—“
“We? You’re a ’we’ now?“
“Maybe Nina and I can drop your half at storage. Lauren.“ (In the way he uttered her name, did she detect his old chivalry reemerging?)
“I have a meeting. Can’t always be there for you anymore.“
“’Be there’? Like it’s a chore? On a list?“ (Evidently, no chivalry after all.)
Dolefully she considered prying his photo from her bulletin board upstairs. Rather than a meeting-obsessed pedant, he was a grad student then, quoting Yeats about “glad grace“ as he scrawled equations into his dissertation, gazing up dreamily, a few tendrils of boyish, curly hair grazing his collar. Only he no longer looked like that. A pair of horn-rim glasses, a firmer resolve, a new workout routine all had thickened him, and not just physically. Perhaps he was no longer the Jasper she loved but somebody else’s notion of him.
“You’re the one who wanted to settle here,“ she said, reviving an ancient quarrel, or trying to.
Actually they had settled across the Potomac in his hometown, and she’d been overwhelmed by prospective in-laws nearby or Jasper abandoning math to work for the Federal Reserve. Maybe she’d read a novel or two, imagined she felt ennui. Once she moved alone into the District, however, life felt flimsy: Unsolved theorems seemed to lurk everywhere. Suddenly Old Town’s cobblestone streets, the tiny lights crisscrossing above them, and the river’s shiftiness beckoned like a proof that finally made sense.
Over caprese salads just weeks ago, she’d been ready to say so. Then later that night, crossing Memorial Bridge, marveling at its symmetry, wondering why she hadn’t, she’d recalled Nina’s name surfacing and resurfacing that evening, like koi fish in a pond. Quickly she’d glanced at the illuminated specks, probably from the Kennedy Center, zigzagging over the dark river. An oncoming white Toyota swerved, and she barely missed a crash.
Not until this very moment, however, did she comprehend the sum of Jasper’s intimations. His fleeting good-bye. When they rang off, the city felt eerie. Outside, rain pelted the firm’s mighty edifice, a squad car pulsated, and a lone soul, draping a coat over his head, splashed gamely across the street.
In lieu of crisscrossing bridges, she’d be relegated to the firm’s basement health club, a venue teeming with coworkers who, through no fault of their own except ultra-competence, highlighted her recent lassitude. And yet, not long before his death, Ian had nominated her for an unusual-sounding stint editing a Congressional report on rare earth minerals. After the funeral, too shocked to think, she’d forgotten the whole episode, although, with her permission, Ian already had forwarded her résumé— to the legislative assistant. Maybe Stan could advise? Instantly the elevator obliged.
Snapping shut, then open again, the doors practically hurled her toward an array of steel contraptions facing a bank of televisions. Resigned to the miasma, she headed for the gray embrace of the closest contraption. Mass images flickered; simulacra in some cases beguiled. With no buffer, no quaint eighteenth-century town to return to, this was her world now. As the contraption chilled her palms, actors blown dry into insensibility lured her pupils, which begrudgingly ogled multiple screens. Becoming inured to the spectacle, she hoisted herself up and thrashed air with her legs. It was kind of fun!
Up ahead Stan ran frantically but perused the women on TV laconically. Manicured, lacquered, possessing a wardrobe assembled by a biblical number of stylists, they all—a lawyer, doctor, and government agent—looked Hollywood literal, unlike the humans struggling beneath them, except for Barrie, who arrived downstairs in search of her supervising partner. Barrie was Lauren’s age, around thirty, but had joined the firm a year earlier. Often she could be heard at lunch seminars citing aphorisms she’d picked up clerking for a federal judge.
Presently, however, she was chatting with Tom, the partner Lauren had noticed earlier in the library. “Killer brief, Barrie,“ he said, draping a towel around his glistening neck. Which made Barrie glisten too, like the women on TV.
Unlike Lauren, neither Barrie nor the TV women were flailing at their jobs. So once the elevator signaled Barrie upstairs, Lauren studied them for cues, as did Stan, his calves shifting mightily now. From what she could discern, their characters solved unambiguous problems, employing dull-witted but emphatic dialogue, or simply a gun in the case of the agent, while dating men who weren’t quite right until Mr. Darcy appeared at the end of the show, or the season, uttering romantic, if hackneyed, lines.
Ah, Lauren gasped, still thrashing, considering her own Mr. Darcy. Maybe she could find another raison d’être, like this new job! But every few seconds a truck exploded on TV.
“Three miles to go,“ Stan said when he finished jogging and assessed her in a cursory fashion like he assessed the women onscreen.
Just past his elbow, thick raindrops slammed a cluster of yellow impatiens against a windowpane before slithering to the ground. “Yep,“ said Stan, obviously undeterred.
“What’s that show?“ She gestured at the TV.
“Federal Fury. Men think the women on it are hot,“ he added sadly, putting finger quotations around the word “hot“ to convey his sensitivity compared with other men. “Tonight I’ll run home, review briefs, answer emails, then order number twelve with spicy cabbage.“
For a moment, not that liturgical about her own schedule, she demurred, although as usual recovered in time to be polite, if not circumspect. “How’s your Supreme Court case going?“ Compared to that, of course, her job nomination was a trifle, not to mention a mere possibility.
“Reasonably well. Picked up advice from two former Court clerks. Seems I’m becoming a member of the club,“ he added in a faux bored tone, though he didn’t sound bored at all. What club, Lauren almost asked, but bantered instead.
“Do you sleep?“
“Four hours a night.“
They both chuckled like the office gang on Federal Fury when the perpetrator was locked up and everyone else reveled in their camaraderie.
Once upon a time Stan had interviewed her for this job to provide “an associate’s perspective,“ according to the scheduler, after she’d been interviewed by a series of partners. “At Harrington we go home for dinner,“ the most urbane partner had explained, which turned out to be his reality, not Lauren’s, during her eighteen months at the firm thus far. Although she’d been thrilled to fasten Harrington’s surnames like so many pearls onto her r—sum—, most of her waking hours, as it turned out, had been exchanged for this privilege.
“Don’t be afraid of success, Lauren,“ said Tom after Stan left before she’d had a chance to broach the job nomination. “Look at Vince Baxter—no one thought he’d succeed, and now he’s partner.“ Leaning on a button, he increased his speed. “As I told an interviewee today, who incidentally said I’m,“ he made air quotations with his fingers, “’dynamic,’ it takes heft. Intellectual heft. Not everyone brings that ability, inter alia, to the table.“ Wherever extant, his hair shivered, his still-athletic shoulders heaved toward the machine, and his eyes gaped as if he believed his every supercilious word.
“Yes, of course.“ Happily, the gurgling treadmill precluded a more nuanced reply. Just above his head, moreover, a Weather Channel lady tossed her fairy-tale hair and bestowed upon the multitudes permission to run outside, allowing Lauren to wave and exit without fanfare.
But her newfound solitude didn’t last. Not long after the metal door clanged shut, her phone played (You Say It Better) “When You Say Nothing At All,“ which signaled a call from her neighbor Kevin, who set the ringtone, because the song reminded her of Wittgenstein.
“Save me,“ Kevin said as sunlight rocketed from damp surfaces everywhere.
“She’s a blood-sucking vampire.“
“If I were your fianccute;e, you’d say that about me.“
“Oh, come on, there were moments when you and I might’ve—“
“You mean those nights when we ate curly fries at Drake’s, and you pined for that socialite you were dating?“
“Oh, come on.“ City noise crackled on both ends, like a band that never stopped. “What are you doing?“
“Presently I’m headed toward our mutual neighborhood and am riveted by the hubbub on Louisiana Avenue.“
“I love it when you talk affected.“
“You mean in complete sentences?“
“Is that why you don’t answer my texts?“
“Troubled?“ A trace of concern simmered in his voice; he didn’t care for female remonstrance. Such concern she didn’t mind accommodating.
“By the demise of—candelabras.“ She didn’t mind, because wherever she stepped, shards of her lost connections—with Jasper, Granny Stockton, Ian—crackled beneath her feet like broken glass. Vapid chirpiness was a respite.
As were candelabras, which for her represented civilization, a veneer over life’s slings and arrows, an escape from broken glass. It was a sensibility Kevin shared, only he served his principles not by mock pompousness but by social climbing. As he prattled on about grandees he hoped to meet, clubs he hoped to join, various objects bobbed in front of her while others dwindled into vanishing points. Minivans, maples, pedestrians, and the Securities and Exchange Commission all swirled with refracted light. Notwithstanding candelabras, the world glittered like an infinite reflection, as if it lacked a premise.
Presently, however, Kevin was quoting from a website, something about “taking control of one’s life.“ Which made her sigh.
“What’s so funny?“ he asked.
“No, sweetheart! That’s profound.“
“Don’t you have somewhere to go?“
“Dinner with Gina and her dad, Congressman—“
“Well, bon appétit!“
After meandering around several puddles, she walked uneventfully. At one corner, she was about to press “walk“ when a boy gamboled over to push the button for his mom, and as if across a chasm, their equanimity, their matching green Smithsonian bags, calmed and bewildered too. Everywhere, droplets evaporated, daylight fled, and café- patrons, a congregation of necks bowed over tiny screens, trickled outside, reveling in a DC-style, half-sedate urban street scene.
At first she took the diners for the source of an odor, an elixir of beer and Coke. But, turning around, she spotted a neighbor, Blake, helping another neighbor—who always said she was moving to the Virgin Islands—recycle her cans. In contrast with the others, Blake lived in the neighborhood’s last cheap rental. His enterprise was tiny. As he turned a bag upside down, a car flashing diagonally rotating lights illuminated his wrinkly T-shirt, and with atonal music, a heap of aluminum clattered into the cab of his pickup. Almost unbidden, a Greek statue—a museum memory—enlivened her as she clambered up her front steps.
Not that her “unit“ offered any aesthetic; as she cracked her door, the quotidian wafted toward her like a hideous disclosure. Shoved against the front wall, a bookcase stood beside the landlord’s gray sofa, while centered haphazardly above them was a picture of a 1920s flapper whose stylized face she never examined. Most indelible was her first morning shelving books there, right after she’d left Jasper, when a curtain embroidered with golden beads appeared to flutter through the windows like unanswerable questions or time passing through translucent golden shadows the beads cast onto the floor.
Dropping her satchel before those windows now, she spotted her lanky neighbor, Kyle, who’d worked on Capitol Hill forever, long ago for Senator Glass, still famous for refusing campaign contributions, then his present senator, a “laminated fake,“ to use Kyle’s words. Which gave her an idea: Didn’t Kyle’s salty take on the world convey savoir faire? With him it might be truly worthwhile to share her news: that before he died, Ian had nominated her to edit Senator McKay’s report on rare earth metals—whatever those were—and the green economy. Maybe he could divulge the Hill’s modus operandi. Or put in a word? (Although didn’t she deplore such opportunism?)
Pulling leftover curry from the fridge, listening to Kyle’s microphone voice bounce off the cobblestone path and mingle with someone else’s, she pulled the container top back and barricaded water droplets slithering toward the rice. With the microwave humming, the voices of the two men, comfortable in their shared references, grew fainter. While removing the dish and inhaling its aroma, moreover, she leaned over to peek outside, splattering droplets everywhere. By the time she’d wiped off her computer, devoured the curry, and edited her XYZCO memo into a quagmire, the windows were dark rectangles and the voices long gone.
Behind her the next morning, however, just as she was plunking her trash can on the curb, Kyle opened his door and trundled down the steps. “They chew you up and spit you out,“ he said, motioning toward the Capitol, his suit rippling like a flag on a pole.
“Morning,“ she answered, pulling her trench coat around her jammies.
Emitting an allergic snort in the early autumn chill, he twirled around. “When are we having drinks again? Remember those loggers? And the prayer advocates.“
Vaguely she recalled the eyes and mouths of the loggers and advocates, visiting from Idaho and Indiana respectively, and the vivid problems they shared, too vivid for her or Kyle to solve. They’d been at a pub, where Kyle was debating whether to leave his girlfriend with the disabled daughter for another with a home in San Francisco. When Woman #1 said he compartmentalized her, he’d recounted quipping, eyebrows dancing, “But that compartment is all yours.“
Aside from discussing campaign finance reform, which he favored, as did she, they in other words discussed mostly non-work matters. Perhaps he’d resent entreaties from a neophyte, she surmised, climbing back up the steps. Not to mention her résumé—, unlike his, exposed a pattern of dithering before law school, and unlike his, the law school wasn’t Harvard.
Yet her place in the caste system was discernable, she mused, grabbing a skirt and shoes while emailing revisions to Russell. According to her alma mater, which disseminated its ranking annually, they’d stagnated at number eight, and yet notwithstanding the craven emails, Lauren adored the place: There she’d fallen in love with Shakespeare—especially Hamlet, metaphysical poets, the seventeenth century, and natural philosophy. Granted, the era featured its share of senseless killing, but as she rushed outside on a beautiful day past a handsome brownstone transformed into an embassy, why belabor that? Given the roof of her soul rupturing lately as modernity poured in, she might as well ignore another century’s less savory aspects, so as to be comfortable somewhere.
If only she was offered the new job before the present one imploded! Then no unsightly gap would blemish her résumé. She’d be just another soul navigating the crowd, and modernity would seem palatable. Benevolently surveying faces as if she already had the job, she trekked the quarter mile to her building, and in the coffee line Googled “rare earths.“ But the crush of warm bodies—in handsome suits, then a fabulous pink bag that nudged her knees whenever its owner took a step—distracted her, as did a homeless man on the other side of the window, his possessions mashed in a cart, boxing air and smiling. Had his hands not been inveigling so gracefully, she wouldn’t have needed to read twice: about “seventeen elements used in hard drives, iPhones, batteries, wind turbines, robotics, televisions, hybrid and electric cars, and much much more!“ All very clear, but the man’s eyes full of dazed wonder belied the futuristic prose. Perhaps upstairs, drinking a latte, she’d focus better?
Within the hour, however, her phone-shape memo—last night’s quagmire—landed upon her desk with a slap. “This is dramatically inaccurate,“ said Russell, squirting hand sanitizer into his left palm.
“Okaaay,“ she said.
“That’s your explanation?“
“You didn’t ask.“
“Well?“ He sat down.
“Wanted to write a lyrical legal memo?“
She’d been reading “On the Road Home,“ but Russell wouldn’t fancy a Wallace Stevens poem, whereas Ian would’ve. Though a fine lawyer, Ian often fell into trance-like monologues about unrelated matters, culled from random YouTube lectures, for example, or his senior thesis on W.H. Auden.
“There is one good professor at Duke,“ Russell said. Because of his receding hairline, his face often looked scrubbed, his expression intent, but today he appeared positively waxen. Plus, the hand sanitizer reeked. “Jim Wexler, Yale ’77, Rhodes Scholar. Ever take him?“
“Federal Courts.“ And FYI, the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson was written by a Yale and Harvard grad, she might’ve added. But those were Russell’s almae matres. So maybe not. Indeed, coming east after growing up in Michigan, Russell had followed an impeccable path, earning a clerkship with the DC Circuit, and now working with biotech start-ups. He wasn’t likely to satirize his own achievements.
Consequently, as he leaned forward, fingernails bitten into slivers, his pupils steel balls, all she could do was put on her listening face. “Okay, here’s the thing: Legal terminology isn’t lyrical. You have to convey authority. Not this—downward spiral you’re in,“ he was saying.
“Then how would you characterize it?“
Tentatively, she glanced at his face, which had relaxed just a bit. Maybe explaining would be unwise. Nonetheless, slightly encouraged, she emitted a few, tentative phrases. “I—don’t understand what we do here. Litigating phone emojis. For conglomerates that zap money everywhere, move operations around to wherever there’s cheap labor. Even back here now, right? And everyone piling up waste, even electronic waste.“ That last tidbit, which she’d picked up from her rare earths article, made her feel savvy: perhaps awfully intelligent?
“You think you’re a fraud. Our services are valuable because—‘voilà,’ as you might say, the market says they are.“
“Young women in Thailand, China, are happy to escape the farm, their families—“
“To toil in a factory?“
“Sure! And if it wasn’t for globalism, you wouldn’t have the leisure to dwell on it. You might not exist. If that deflates your ego, well—“
He snorted. “Look, there’s no daddy in a law firm who’s gonna take care of you, know what I mean?“
“Isn’t it funny how people in this epoch replace subtlety and nuance with psychobabble and ad hominem attacks?“ she sputtered, pouring her latte into a Wedgwood cup Akiha had given her once to “ward off the Visigoths.“ Not wishing to trade in her father’s memory for a rejoinder, Lauren didn’t mention that her father died four years ago. So technically Russell was right: no daddy.
“You think life was nicer in some other ’epoch’? Just—be aggressive, or—taller!“ he said before scooting out.
A low humming noise from the atrium rolled its way across the faux treetops and into Lauren’s eardrums. Apparently, her measly opinion meant nothing. Russell had twisted her language, characterized her as a little girl, and discredited her unease. Perhaps he yearned to be like his famous brother, a political appointee at the State Department? Either way, a welter of painful thoughts throbbed in her ears. Imagining an audience drolly amused by her vertigo, she recoiled and, looking up, spotted Stan in the doorway.
“Well, THAT was rough,“ he said.
“I don’t want to pretend I know everything!“ But the term “rough“ sounded baleful, even prurient, and a spiral of half logic coiled through Lauren’s mind. What was Stan like, anyway? Standing there eavesdropping.
“I heard about your nomination—for the rare earths report.“
“Yep. Haven’t heard anything.“ She wondered if he had. He knew people who knew people, even boasted about their appreciating his “good judgment.“ In various anecdotes he’d attributed that judgment—his compassion, his superiority to guys who joined teams back in high school—to being fat and sensitive as a child. “Got an email saying Ian sent the materials. But that’s it.“
“That’s usually how things go.“
“Said not to call.“
“Just to wait.“
“Hope you get it,“ he said, his mouth an implacable line, and for a moment she wondered if he did. “Better than that oil spill memo: If I wrote that I’d worry about returning as a dolphin in my next life.“ Flamboyant compassion spread over his visage; he crossed his long legs. Rather easily, she shrugged off her qualms. They were amigos! Right? Besides, the way he touched the bridge on his glasses was endearing, his concern for dolphins inspiring.
“Umm, I need cashmere socks for my Supreme Court argument. Think you could pick some out? Kind of impossible for Amazon to get past security. Plus my shrink thinks your choosing them would improve my self-esteem.“
“Okay,“ she said rather dully, not really listening. Instead she considered Stan’s background, the stories he’d relayed about his parents never taking him to the dentist. Maybe that’s why he smiled with his mouth closed. “Maybe tomorrow.“
“And about the job,“ he said, his soft-spoken sincerity trickling through her brain like a narcotic.
“You haven’t garnered support from anyone—living.“
His secretary appeared in the doorway; he didn’t explain. Was he offering a quid pro quo for the socks? There was no time to sift this. An administrative partner’s firm-wide email requested her time sheets, a task akin to slicing water, something any normal person would recognize, only partners didn’t always behave like persons. (Though given her treatment of Jasper and now dolphins, how was she doing as a person?)
Conceivably, now that Jasper was otherwise engaged, she could return to North Carolina. Ever since an old friend left a message recently, she’d entertained that notion. Best part about her hometown was the beach, an hour away yet palpable, given the wafting salty air, the January surfers in wetsuits populating the town and her heart. But there were problems too: no National Gallery, cliquishness, the man who screamed when her little cousin accidentally nicked his BMW in a parking lot. Yet there was her grandfather, with dementia now, once a convivial doctor who treated everyone without regard to ability to pay. And others. After dinner that evening, she thus returned Margo’s FaceTime call only to be greeted by her newish husband, who said she was picking up Burmese food.
“There’s a Burmese restaurant?“
“Two of ’em. Hey, aren’t you a corporate shill? At a think tank?“
“Law firm.“ Bewildered by his clichés, wondering if his T shirt might provide a conversational segue, she studied its ban sign marring Ronald Reagan’s face, searching her mind for a snappy remark. But he beat her to it.
“Still single, right?“
“Mm-hmm,“ she said, abandoning the segue, dismissing his jab about her unmarried status because it wasn’t on her mind, even when others saw it stamped on her forehead.
“No man is an island.“
“You like John Donne?“
“Maybe if you weren’t living in Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d meet someone. Hey, Margo’s sister is here,“ he said, striking his drums when Margo’s older sister passed by.
“Hi, sweetie,“ Kelly said, palm looming before she navigated her preschoolers into the den.
“Now that she’s a mom, my friend’s sister calls me ’sweetie,’“ Lauren confided to Akiha the following day. “I don’t fit in there either. To them, depending on their politics, I’m either a tragic spinster, corporate sycophant, or both.“
“So what? I mean, just erase whatever they say.“ Akiha ran an imaginary eraser over her face. “It ain’t true.“ Like a gymnast completing a dismount, she flipped her hands at a colleague wandering by. “Well?“
Raising her hand, the colleague wiggled her iridescent third finger. “I told him we aren’t living together till I have a ring.“
Akiha turned back wistfully. “Lately I’ve been compiling a list of men I’ve dated to determine whether I’ve overlooked any possibilities.“
“Maybe you’re the possibility.“
“Maybe about getting stuck. Like my parents before their divorce. Wanna grab lunch?“
“Already ate hummus.“
“Oh. It’s two thirty.“
“My regular habits are tedious.“
“No, you’re just gracious.“
How to tell Akiha that her lanky, starry self was unique? Akiha played cello in a community orchestra. She was nice. Also sane and intelligent. Probably more so than most pedestrians approaching Café Purdeur, where Lauren slid onto a stool and savored the rise and fall of ambient chatter, the haven that strangers offered.
“Our database can refresh your information every day, every hour, every minute,“ a man said to his lunch companion.
Hope instantly swarmed into Lauren’s brain, as did affection for her fellow humans, even their databases. Would she get the interview? If the world managed to conjure a utopia with rare earths, what then? Would a jigsaw puzzle be complete? Would George Eliot be one of the pieces? Chopin? Might she earn a living without extracting natural resources? How about seven billion people? The 9,231 souls in her hometown? Or would everyone be a commodity in the future, perpetually moving from place to place? Perhaps she was born at the wrong time, and future beings would thrive in a sun-powered, intellectually consistent idyll. In lieu of blaming her parents for their ill timing, she perused the crowd, seeking a philosopher geologist who could explain. But how to study geology if everyone had a portable résumé with no ties anywhere? Possibly ready to answer, her waiter appeared with a stubby pencil.
“Guess what I got at Goodwill?“ he asked after flapping her order to the cook, his loose-fitting shirt trembling as he moved to the grill and back.
“Weren’t you looking for a sofa?“
“Painting of Hendrix—classic velvet.“
He straightened his shoulders as his boss nudged him with a bag, which he handed to a woman whose tag said HOMELAND SECURITY. Lauren’s bag was next, smelling like fenugreek and leaking a tantalizing, un-American sauce she licked from her fingers while dodging passersby, until she and a screen-gaper bumped into each other. Presently they were so close, she saw his workaday expression duplicated on an ID tag strung round his neck like an amulet against unemployment.
Yikes! Lest she end up sans ID tag, she nibbled daal back at her desk and perused her oil spill memo. As the spicy haze subsided, a method suddenly presented itself: Demolish the other side without appearing unreasonable and insinuate that, regrettably, another entity was responsible, not her client. By the time Stan appeared at dusk, she’d executed a flawless memo indeed. To do so, had she lopped off parts of her brain that could savor a Matisse, a Chopin prelude? Hastened the demise of dolphins?
“Can you get long ones?“ Stan asked. “My favorites, after a fashion.“
“You mean the socks?“
“Yes. Should I accompany?“
“No. But okay, long ones, fine.“
On her way to Nordstrom, then circling rows of automobiles in the lot, she couldn’t help but ponder why a colleague, even one scheduled to appear before the Supremes, would ask her to fetch socks. Even as she approached the store blazing with chandeliers, no light was shed. By the time she reached the sock department, where a gallant saleslady from Cambodia ruminated about her hometown’s impoverishment, the question no longer seemed to matter.
With more nobility than she’d witnessed in anyone for a while, including herself, the woman folded, piled, and shrouded three pairs of cashmere socks in silvery tissue. After impugning a recently published article decrying working conditions in overseas factories, an article Lauren and everyone she knew had admired, she hurled her hundred-pound physique at a stack of colorful bags. “People want factory jobs, want opportunity,“ she declared. “Me? I love my job.“ She pressed her business card like a jewel in the tissue, then tucked the package inside a silvery blue, glossy bag.
Enchanted, Lauren considered the lady’s remarks as she wound through a maze of escalators, haughty mannequins, and shoe displays. In a sense the package swaying at her side posited a global riddle beyond anyone’s fathoming, including hers or the lady’s. Would consumerism make the globe pop or no? For some, yes; for others, maybe not. Charmed by her own profundity, her sense of paradox, she swayed with the rhythms of the store’s piped-in music until a boy in Costume Jewelry shattered her conceit.
“Dad, how come girls wear T-shirts with sequin hearts on the front?“ he asked the suited man loping in front of him. Almost overturning a column of pearl necklaces, Lauren fled outside, breathing cool air and, driving back, barely tolerated the stoplights. Only once did she dither, skimming an email from Stan about rare earths mines contaminating the soil in Guangxi and Giuyu, China, where kids recycled the toxic metals. (It sounded worse than her hometown, facing its own decline, the sort newscasters mentioned in breezy post-election wrap-ups, highlighting so-called obscure towns on a shiny USA map.) Careening around the office’s dimly lit corners after hours, wondering if her interest in philosophical glitter could be reduced to girly filigree, wondering if she was a mere consumer, not a big legal thinker like Stan, she blasted into his office. At least she was assisting someone else with important work. Except Barrie was there, not Stan.
“Oh,“ Lauren said, holding the shiny bag in the air.
Admiring Barrie’s suit, still immaculate at day’s end, she touched her own curls cascading around her head. How organized Barrie looked! Sort of like the file cabinet behind her.
“HA—the way you’re clutching that bag. Reminds me of an article I read yesterday: about women who secretly fear becoming bag ladies,“ Barrie said.
So she and Stan were convivial? Bewildered, Lauren recalled that Barrie had worked briefly on the Hill with the committee preparing the rare earths report. Reconsidering Stan’s comment that Harrington’s reference might be tepid, she froze, taking in the possibilities.
“Thanks bunches,“ said Stan, who was half hidden behind the door, sitting in another chair, smiling his compassionate smile. Barrie tapped a red pen on the desk and smiled too.
* * *
More agreeably, later at home, Kevin was sliding something white and immaculate beneath her scuffled doormat. “You never call; you never write,“ he said. “I put this invitation in your box two weeks ago, and,“ his phone glimmered as he gestured, “no reply.“
“Another benefit?“ Still queasy from the sock debacle, straining to be polite, Lauren pried open the envelope and scanned the hosts’ names—Winston, McKay, Townsend—until Kevin’s appeared in full: “Kevin Arthur McCarthy.“
“Congratulations!“ she said, caressing the raised script, knowing he loved that sort of thing. It was as far as he could get from his bumptious relatives, whom she’d met last Fourth of July. Obviously gratified, his hair combed neatly, impenetrable eyes calm, he paused. Then, skipping down the steps in his suit and flip-flops, turning around, he perused her running shirt and said, “Wear your best party dress.“
Laughing at his dubiousness, she planned on simple black and pearls and, the next Saturday, turning the brass handle on a Georgetown mansion’s cumbersome old doors encountered fairyland: young women in ivory sparkles, chartreuse straplesses, black satin shifts, even gold lamé weaving through dark jackets until the sine qua non appeared. Dazzling in a turquoise taffeta that hugged her sinews and flared at the hips, the woman crashed into partygoers like a wave, hailing them with gin-laced greetings that vibrated through the crowd like echolocations.
Not until the woman approached the refreshments did she halt and pivot, away from an evening-jacketed White House staffer blithely stabbing prosciutto and chatting with a smallish, dinner-suited woman many years his junior. Lemon mayonnaise matched the woman’s hair and trembled on the silver platter, sending dappled light everywhere, and wasn’t she Kevin’s old girlfriend? The socialite?
Kevin appeared, glancing with stale pain at the woman and her dashing interlocutor, then his fiancée. “Having fun?“
“You need to attend more soirées. Be an ornament.“ He traced her furrowed brow as if thirty was unseemly. “How’s work?“
Lauren batted his arm away. “I might be fired soon. How’re you?“
“Splendid. Building a hydroelectric plant in Laos.“
“Last memo I wrote defended Ramco’s oil spill. I said bacteria would take care of it.“
“Maybe it will. Bacteria’s everywhere, even in your gut. Lauren, honeybunch,“ he leaned close, “you gotta stay in the game. Don’t be so sensitive.“ He glanced at the two women again as if they were chess pieces.
“But there’s only so much bacteria can do,“ she said as his present fiancée summoned him. Watching him retreat, Lauren assessed his sensibility. Maybe she should dally more with existence, attend black-tie functions? Swirling overhead, encircling her frame, a borrowed insouciance settled around her like a new dress in a store.
Accordingly she met a younger man, tall and photogenic as a newscaster, who drove her home in his red convertible. Over the nighttime din they sang Sinatra and shared life details: He, for example, having grown up in Oregon with hippies for parents, was now a lobbyist. What he didn’t share was nonetheless obvious: his infatuation with Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, who, living in Kalorama, was no hippie. But happily several other beaux, to use Granny Stockton’s term, texted subsequently.
In the ensuing days she thus had coffee with a band member from the party who adored his sax; dated a man whose SUV was covered with UVA decals, who built his own Monticello and kissed her passionately and miserably when she arrived for dinner; then an older venture capitalist so rich he displayed medieval triptychs in his Georgetown parlor. But the helicopter beds for his twins’ biannual visits propelled her into melancholy. When she quoted Hamlet, he offered Mother Teresa’s bio, recommending precepts he didn’t follow himself. Consequently, when an astronomer who had flown to Chile for stargazing right after the party called from a mountaintop, she was thrilled.
Pursuant to their earlier discussion, he explained how dung beetles used the Milky Way for navigation.
“They do?“ As she’d just finished revising her phone-shape memo, she was happy to chat. Pressing the cold phone against her jaw, she wandered outside just as the moon’s haze was brightening the city sky with a diffuse glow spreading toward the heavens.
“But really I’m interested in—“
“Well, my favorite class in college was Dr. Blakeslee’s— on Freud.“
Though disappointed (how could Freud outdo stars?), she responded with ease. “Because of Freud or Blakeslee?“
“Mostly Freud,“ he said gravely.
“Ah, fin de siècle Vienna; what about Musil? Or Klimt? And Robert Johnson.“
“Mississippi guitarist. Died a year before Freud. Nothing to do with Vienna. I just ran out of Viennese names.“
Maybe these were non sequiturs, but wasn’t this otherwise the dialogue she’d been seeking? Until he began grumbling about his fellow astronomers, the one who snored and another bragging about his son getting into Stanford.
“Do astronomers read Galileo’s Starry Messenger?“ she asked, trying to distract him.
“Holy cow, astronomy is mostly equations now.“
“Or maybe ’liking’ equations.“
But he didn’t laugh; it was a vacuous joke. Instead he complained about his ex-wife and his parents à la Freud. Also his lab’s funding issues. Meanwhile an email from the rare earths committee appeared on her screen, offering neither an interview nor a job. It was succinct: She hadn’t made the cut; competition was stiff, innumerable applicants, blah blah. Instantly she ceased imagining stars. She ceased dating too and slipped inside yellow sheets early on a Thursday night.
When daylight rolled in, her disheveled sheets, tufts of bedclothes, and book titles all looked ludicrous. A desolate glare settled over everything and, like an unwanted guest, refused to leave. Had only twelve days passed since Kevin’s party? It seemed like eons.
Now that she lived alone, her living room windows sometimes resembled two eyes on a face, like a mercurial lover shifting his mood arbitrarily. But today a mover had leaned a mattress wrapped in blue plastic against the outside railing, bouncing the color inside, scattering blue light everywhere, as if a stained-glass garment of Mary’s had shattered into abstraction. Reminded of ineffable mysteries, if only for a skeptical moment, she padded into the kitchen for a croissant and sat on the sofa eating, as two bulky arms removed the mattress. Suddenly her place felt bereft, and she resolved to fly away for the long weekend.
While her destination, a Georgia beach resort, was familiar—she’d visited as a child, with her father—she’d never visited the barn. Brown rather than classic red, it was nestled inside a cluster of live oaks, whose shagginess, and goats underfoot, contrasted with the formal gardens, the Mediterranean elegance, of the main part of the resort. And, eureka! Hardly had she swung her right leg around a buckskin bay horse and gazed into his almond eyes than he lurched into the ring, so she learned to guide gently with the reins rather than grasp. Learned to balance, to look ahead, to shorten the reins when she wished to trot, and steady her legs if he startled. No longer just “the horse“ to her, he was Toby. A sport she’d thought was about domination and submission, like law firms or families, wasn’t necessarily.
Besides, with flies hovering around Toby’s ears, there was no time to consider the firm. After swatting gently, she bent over to embrace Toby’s taut, soft neck. Then dismounted only with reluctance and searched her pockets. From a cracked bowl in the musty saddle room, she’d gathered three peppermints, which she placed one at a time between his flashing tongue and formidable teeth, practically swooning when he wiggled his jaw.
Next day she awakened at dawn but stepping on the chilly floor felt the insides of her thighs tense up. Alerted to the fact of obscure muscles, she ordered room service, then nibbling eggs and toast, almost dropped back into the pillows. Dragging herself to the paddock instead, she hoisted herself upward, caught an aroma of dung wafting from the barn, and slid nervous toes into stirrups.
“Let’s take ’em out to the ocean and let ’em RIP!“ said a man perched on the horse next to hers. Frowning nearby, a mother in sunglasses implored her daughter to be careful while the daughter nodded and stared ahead. After adjusting everyone’s stirrups, the taciturn guide, Janet, mounted her own horse and said she liked to go fast.
Once the horses began walking, the daughter sat up elegantly after her mother drove off in a Volvo. At just the right angle, the balls of the daughter’s feet rested in the stirrups. Feeling decrepit in the presence of her teenage grace (shouldn’t she have life figured out by now?), Lauren forgot to duck under a branch, which scratched her helmet noisily. Apparently, this wasn’t the time to bemoan her loose ends.
Conversation was tentative, like the beginning of a symphony. Someone remarked about the egrets, another the marsh. Everyone inspected the fiddler crabs that ingested sand and spat it out as shapely balls. Eventually they cloppety-clopped onto the beach, where a breeze replaced talk until a dolphin leapt over a wave. It was just like she’d imagined, composing her oil spill memo.
“Are they playing or searching for food?“ someone asked.
“They’re making vibrations in their nasal cavities—talking,“ the daughter said.
“Ready to trot?“ Janet asked, pivoting effortlessly in her saddle.
All at once, they gathered their reins; Toby’s hooves tapped quickly, rhythmically, as sand spun beneath them. Nature, Lauren almost announced, is the answer! Together she and Toby were a duet. As he trotted, her thoughts became joy. Until, that is, the other horses began cantering, and Toby heaved with an almighty force. For a half hour, wind and fear often supplanted the preceding moment’s reverie.
In fact, not until the walk back that evening after a picnic and swim, when the sky vaulted and flapped open, reigning like a purple-and-ink monarch butterfly high above them all, did sangfroid return. Anticipating oats and molasses, the horses plodded quietly, an expanse of beach spiraling around them. Pleasantly dazed, Lauren halted when Janet pulled her reins and dismounted. Faint scratching was audible as she crouched over the sand, until bluish-purpley sparkles popped in the semi-darkness, eliciting oohs and aahs from everyone.
“That’s bioluminescence,“ Janet said in her frank way, which by now was quite endearing, what with dots illuminating her forehead and brows. But no sooner had she explained than the dots vanished into nighttime, and the riders, often befuddled by low visibility, meandered back toward the barn, serenaded by tidal susurrus.
* * *