“I would love to have been good at something,” Victoria said, working her long brown hair back into a ponytail. “Really good at something, something useful. “Math, for example,” she said. “Now there is a useful and productive thing to know.”
Victoria seized upon a spoon and waved it at me to the four-part beat of her point: “Productive-thing-to-know.” One tap for each word. “To be good at math. It’s at the heart of airplanes and computers. It’s amazing— right? Because of math you could wake up tomorrow morning and be in Calcutta.”
“I don’t think you need math to get yourself to Calcutta,” Christian said.
There was a time, I suppose, when I wouldn’t have disagreed with him at all, awash in the belief of my own possibility and allowing that liquid ambition to displace me in a New York water of raised expectation. But that was years ago now. And for the clean decade-plus of my communications work I had earned well. The firm bounded happily through the 1990s with profits shuffled off like cards in a deck full of bonuses, bumpers, golden handshakes, payouts. That world, today, no more exists than the dinosaurs walk our planet. Yet the fossilized traces remain among a certain set, within certain spaces, in museum-like quality. They are back-lit and amber-cast.
I became the in-house communications manager for Roebling LLC, a decent-sized law firm downtown which, when I told people I worked there, afforded me a suitably long moment of impressed attention. People hear “law firm” and they immediately think “lawyer.” I never corrected them. In fact, Meredith and I would take turns on this, a quiet little deception that was not, to our minds, a deception at all so much as a lack of clarity. “There’s a big difference,” I remember telling Meredith after just such a conversation at a dinner party not unlike this one, but then totally unlike this one. “Huge difference. Being unclear and actually deceiving are worlds apart.”
We allowed things to remain unclear, such that by the time we would slip into bed at night, me with my eyes already shut, Meredith with a smear of “algae pore refiner” across the bridge of her nose and stern-facing a book of Eastern inspiration, one or the other of us would not say out loud, “That guy sure seemed interested in Roebling,” and the other would certainly not reply with anything like, “Yeah, he didn’t get the whole communications thing, of course.” And neither of us would laugh, roll over, kiss each other. None of it. We just let people believe I was a partner, not a newsletter editor, the Roebling Intranet Newsletter editor, the guy who managed the firm’s online (and offline, for that matter) bulletin board and who sometimes said, upon receiving an item to post, “I’m going to have to run a few checks on this, run it against our variance procedure.”
At the same time, there was nothing wrong with this work. For starters, it felt just fine to work in law—“these great rules that make us free,” as I once heard a partner intone. He had been joking, but I liked that line. And Roebling kept us in good money. We were well on top of—and even a little ahead of—our mortgage on the Brooklyn place. Clara would be asleep in her “big girl” crib and for twenty minutes, maybe half an hour at a time, she wouldn’t make a sound. Meredith would turn off the light, already on her side and turned away, falling asleep. We were fine.
I weathered the beginning of the first recession but, as the downturn deepened and even the lawyers started taking days off or scaling up their pro bono work just to “get out there” and “be seen” in order to “stay relevant,” eleven years of communications work suddenly became pretty easy to let go.
“I think we’re just going to go ahead and do our own communications from now on,” a managing partner said to me in the hall outside his office. It was not a conversation we were having in his office. That fact still floods me with a hot wash of shame.
“I think we’ve really got enough of a grip on what we’re trying to say,” he went on. “And the Legal Ledger—does anyone even read that? I mean, what’s the circulation strategy on that one? And can we really afford to stay off the social media circuit at this point? Christ, Sam, we’ve got interns here who are doing more on communications than, well. . . .” He trailed off.
Sure. I had become lazy. I was not looking, not attuned to the volley that comes from outside, the tearing down of gates. It was no war. Later that same week an HR staffer handed me the lines cleanly, as the general provides dignified notice, his eyes downcast, the details of the severance package spread neatly before him. The trees had begun to bloom with new leaves and the rich, roiling smell of fresh growth entered his office through an open window, all of which turned my stomach as he spoke his main point: “I understand this is no longer working out.”
It was in mourning the loss of this job, in analyzing the minute moments across my career to date and wondering if I had not discarded myself once more by way of settling in too much, by petty insecurities and, by the end of our meeting, a quavering voice that said: “I’m sorry, just, sorry,” causing the man to meet me with “That’s fine,” and then, “Okay,” and finally, “I need you to stop apologizing.”
Yes, it was in that suspension of longing and fear that the firm left, when I was particularly tender and susceptible to people and their many overtures or, perhaps, to my own capacity to bounce the ball again twice on the court and launch it in the air, that I learned about the Martin.