Sophie Whelan is the kind of woman who prides herself on doing it all. In a single day, she can host a vegan-friendly and lactose-free dinner for ten, thwart a PTA president intent on forcing her to volunteer, and outwit her hostile ‘assistant’ in order to get her work done on time.
With her fortieth birthday looming, and her carefully coordinated existence beginning to come apart at the seams, Sophie begins feeling like she needs more from her life—and especially from her husband, Jesse.
The last thing Sophie needs is a new complication in her life. But when an opportunity from her past suddenly reappears, Sophie is forced to confront the choices she’s made and decide if her chaotic life is really a dream come true—or the biggest mistake she’s ever made…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
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About the Author
Another Christmas season is here, and for all of us in the Walker-Whelan clan, it has been a year rich in love, friendship, health, joy, and professional fulfillment. Here’s our news in a nutshell, from smallest to tallest:
Scotty, our baby, turned three in July. He is showing a real talent for music, and the whole family loves to hear him play his pint-sized piano. Since moving into the toddler room at the Progressive Center for Child Development and Care, Scotty has become so comfortable expressing his authentic feelings! We are lucky to have found a daycare center that is aligned with our “whole foods” philosophy, and that is such a partner to us as parents. The dedicated staff members really feel like family.
Jamie is seven this year, and he’s thriving in Grade 2 at Watkins Elementary School. Watkins is a very special place with a strong emphasis on volunteerism and parental engagement—that’s the “Watkins Way”! We feel fortunate to belong to this warm and accepting community. In this nurturing environment, it’s not surprising that Jamie is embracing his creative side. We are so inspired by his emerging passion for the cello!
Jesse is doing what we all dream of: making the world a better place. With his amazing business partner, Anya, by his side, Jesse’s company is growing by leaps and bounds. He’s saving the planet one project at a time, using cutting-edge technologies to reduce environmental impact in commercial and residential buildings. All this, and a perfect husband and father, too! I don’t know how he does it.
As for me, I’m thrilled to report that I’m still running the Communications department at the Baxter Children’s Hospital. Even after six years, I still love going to the office every morning. I get to work on challenging and important projects with great colleagues. What more could I ask for? As for hobbies, I stay grounded with yoga and literate with book club. And Jesse and I celebrated our eighth anniversary this spring with a romantic getaway to Las Vegas.
All in all, it was an action-packed twelve months, and we are looking forward to a peaceful holiday season. We wish the same to you!
With lots of love from the Whelan-Walker clan,
Sophie, Jesse, Jamie, and Scotty
monday, december 2, 2013
It’s Day One of my BlackBerry diet, and I’m huddled in my minivan in a windswept parking garage across the street from my office. The heat’s going full blast as I commit various environmental sins against the forlorn stand of leafless maple trees that passes for a view here. It may be short on ambience, my parking spot, but it has cell phone reception, which makes it an important plank in the BlackBerry diet strategy.
The BlackBerry diet is my latest effort to bring my stress level down to nontoxic levels. I’m allowing myself voice mail–only access to the office before I arrive in the morning. Phase Two will involve reduced e-mail access on weekends, but it’s only Monday, so we’ll have to see if we get to that stage. Success is unlikely, which is why the BlackBerry diet is a strategy and not a plan. A strategy requires less commitment, and therefore less guilt in the event of failure.
I dial into the voice mail system, punch in my code and wait.
The disembodied voice speaks: You have eleven new messages.
Eleven. That’s not so bad.
First message. Click. Barry, definitely. He never leaves messages.
Next message. Click. Ditto. But two hang-ups before nine o’clock is unusual. I feel my shoulders start to creep up with anticipatory tension.
Next message. Message marked urgent. Uh-oh. “Hi, Sophie. It’s Barry. I see that you’re not in yet. I need to speak to you about the Gala as soon as you do get in. There’s a problem and you need to get on top of it.”
Next message. “Hi, Sophie. It’s Anna from the toddler room at daycare. Scotty is pulling on his ear and seems a little fussy. He can stay for now, but if he gets any worse we’ll have to ask you to pick him up. Sorry about that. We’ll call you later with an update.”
What? No. I dropped him off half hour ago and he was fine. A little phlegm-riddled, maybe, but nothing more. If I believed in God, I would pray. Maybe I should anyway, just to hedge my bets.
Next message. “Soph, it’s Zoe. This is your warning call. Book club is on Thursday at Sara’s house. Line up a babysitter, tell Jesse to be home, do what you have to do, but you are not bailing again this month. Seriously. I always fight with Megan when you’re not there. I’m your best friend and you don’t want to piss me off. Love you, bye.”
Next message. “Hi, Sophie. This is Kelly Robinson. I’m the chair of the Parent Council for Watkins Elementary. I wanted to talk to you about your volunteer hours—” I skip the rest of the message and delete it. I’ve been avoiding calls from Jamie’s class parent all year, but now it seems that she has handed my file to someone more senior in the Parent Council hierarchy.
Next message. “Hi, Sophie. It’s Janelle Moss.” Janelle is the lead volunteer on the Gala, an event controlled by a group of very wealthy women who have intense and competing agendas that I don’t even begin to understand. Every conversation with these people is a minefield. Happily, managing Gala volunteers is one of the few things in the office that I’m not responsible for, and whatever the problem, I’m going to punt it right back to Justine. “I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to Justine yet, but we’re looking at a little change in direction on the creative for the marketing materials. Happy to chat once Justine has filled you in. Bye now.”
Next message. “Sophie, it’s Justine. Major screw-up at the Gala meeting last night. We need to talk urgently. Call me.” Justine is my colleague and sometime friend, when it suits her. She runs the Event Planning department, which means that the Gala is her problem.
Next message. “Sophie, my dear. It’s Lillian. I was hoping to catch you in person. How I hate these dreadful machines! Do give me a call today if you can. The issue is rather time-sensitive, as you young people are fond of saying.”
Lillian Parker has been one of my favorite people on earth since my last year of university, when I lived in her rambling house, paying criminally low rent in exchange for house-sitting services during her frequent sojourns abroad. Her annual holiday party is this weekend, and I can see the invitation in my mind’s eye now, poking out of the pile on the corner of my desk that I lovingly call my Guilt Stack. It’s not like Lil to get worked up about RSVPs, which is why the card is still buried in the Guilt Stack, but I’ll move it up to the top of the pile and deal with it once I get into the office—or by Thursday at the latest.
Next message. “Hi, Sophie. It’s your mother. Look, honey, I know you’re busy, but we have to talk about Christmas. It’s urgent.”
Instinctively, I check the date on my BlackBerry. Have I lost a week somewhere? But no, it’s only December 2.
“First of all—dinner. I’m going to do a turducken again this year, but did Jesse like it last year? I know he said he did, but he didn’t have seconds, so I’m not convinced. Your brother and Dana liked it—come to think of it, did you like it? Anyway, if you and Jesse agree, we’ll go with the turducken again, but I want you to be honest with me if you don’t like that plan. Anyway, assuming that you do, we’ll go with the usual sides—mashed potatoes, turnips, that rice dish that you like and probably some creamed spinach or something. I was going to do mini shrimp cocktails for the appetizer, but did you tell me that Jesse isn’t eating seafood these days? If not, I could always just do a soup, maybe roasted red pepper—that would be nice with the turducken. I’ve been talking to your brother about dessert—he says that he doesn’t care, but I know he prefers the pumpkin pie and you always say that you prefer the lemon meringue. So I guess I could make both, if it’s really important to you to have lem—”
Next message. “It’s your mother again. The machine cut me off. Anyway, call me about dinner. And then I need you to think about what the kids want for Christmas. Are you doing stockings at your house or mine? If you are doing them at mine, I’ll need to get the old stockings out and do a few repairs—they were pretty threadbare last year. And also I’ll need to know if you are bringing everything for the stockings or if I need to buy some things as well. Are you going to stay overnight here on Christmas Eve? Because if you are, we’ll need to make a plan for dinner on the twenty-fourth. Beef might be nice. Does Jamie still like those transforming robots? Because I saw a robot kit that he would just love! It said it was for thirteen years and up, but Jamie is such a smart little boy, and he could use a challenge with all that energy he has, don’t you think? Maybe it’s something that he and Jesse could do together; Jesse’s been working so hard. And for Scotty I was thinking that it’s probably time to get him playing hockey. Wouldn’t Jesse love that? Maybe some little skates and a helmet and a stick? How cute would that be? I’m around this morning, then out for lunch with Jennie Birkin—you must remember Jennie; you went to school with Andy Birkin. Then I’ll be back for a couple—”
End of messages.
I feel a little warm and light-headed now, and I pull down my visor mirror for an assessment. Every day of my thirty-nine years looks back. Gray coat, gray suit, and gray roots: I really need to get my highlights done. More alarmingly, I can feel an aching weariness in my chest. I’ve noticed it with some regularity lately, and it makes me nervous. Some days it’s just a knot of anxiety, but today it feels like the hole in the middle of a donut: empty but for the wind whistling through it. I know I shouldn’t feel this hollowed out and used up at thirty-nine, but I don’t have time for that kind of reflection today.
I rummage through my purse and locate my triage kit to deal with the problems I can solve. I pull out the bottle of cough suppressant and take a long swig that burns going down, and then squeeze a couple of drops of Visine into each eye. Then I attack the area under my eyes with concealer and everything else with bronzer. And with that, I’m ready to brave the germ-screening desk.
The germ desk is a fairly new addition to the Baxter, since a terrible outbreak of the flu at another children’s hospital made headlines last year. Now everyone entering the hospital is screened at every entry point and doused with hand sanitizer. I’ve invested considerable time and energy in my relationship with Max, the guy who has been guarding the germ desk for the past six months; I know the names of his grandchildren and their ages, and how Max developed a herniated disk last year, and that Max’s wife wants him to get a storage locker for his model trains. And because our conversations have covered extensive areas of Max’s life and times, there has been little opportunity to explore the subject of my health, which is exactly the way I want it.
But today, Max is missing. Nigel, according to his security tag, is sitting in Max’s chair. And judging from the length of the line, Nigel takes his job very seriously. When I get to the front, I consider batting my eyelashes, but I suspect that insouciance of this kind has a shelf life, and mine is getting awfully close to the expiration date. I give him what I hope is a winning smile instead.
Nigel is clearly unmoved. He picks up his clipboard and clears his throat. He’s going to make me do the survey. I can’t believe it. Max never made me do the survey. I wonder if that’s why Max isn’t working here anymore.
“Have you experienced any coughing in the past twenty-four hours?”
“No.” This is absolutely true.
“No.” Not more than everyone sneezes when they wake up in the morning, that is. Take Jesse, for example. He sneezes practically every morning, sometimes eight times in a row. It doesn’t mean that he’s sick. I myself am not a chronic sneezer like Jesse, but there is no reason to draw any dire conclusions just because I was sneezing this morning.
“No.” I can’t say for sure. I don’t have a thermometer in my portable pharmacy. And again, there are lots of other possible explanations for the flush in my cheeks today.
“Flu-like symptoms of any kind?”
Nigel peers at me over the top of the clipboard. If Nigel wants to, he can insist on taking my temperature, and then I’ll be in deep trouble. But as much as he wants to, he can’t find justification today. I almost pump my fist in the air as he moves on to the next person in line. But with Max gone, I know this is only a temporary win. Nigel is cut from a different cloth entirely. Society requires people like Nigel; without them there would be no parking officials or mall cops or hall monitors, and we would live in a state of anarchy. And it’s important to remember this, because I dislike Nigel so intensely at this moment that I’m beginning to imagine terrible events that might befall him and prevent him from coming to work ever again. Not death, of course. I’d never wish for that. A debilitating injury would be quite enough.
For the record, I approve of the hospital’s infection-protection measures, at least in a theoretical sense. And I would definitely comply with them if I were providing frontline health care and believed that I posed any risk whatsoever to the hundreds of sick children upstairs. But I’m the director of communications for the hospital, so I spend my days reviewing press releases and dealing with media requests, ducking my boss and trying to persuade my assistant to do some work. I’m not saving lives. There are lots of people in this building who do, but I’m not one of them. And if I followed the letter of the law and kept my flu symptoms at home, I would have worked exactly thirteen out of the last forty-five days.
In the meantime, though, it’s already 9:10 and I’m late for work.
My assistant, Joy, is at her desk: a mixed blessing. She raises her tweezed eyebrows at me and murmurs, “Slow start this morning?” before turning back to her computer, where she is communing with her Facebook friends, or possibly buying designer knockoffs on eBay. But I’m not ready to declare this day a complete write-off, at least not yet, so for now I’ll act as though she works for me and we’re both happy about it.
“Good morning, Joy,” I say. “I need to speak to Justine right away. Can you find her and see if she can pop by?”
She eyes me with a combination of contempt and petulance, and my request hangs, unacknowledged, between us. “Your phones’s been lighting up all morning,” she says. “And Barry’s been by twice looking for you. It’s about the Gala.”
The Gala is the hospital’s major fund-raiser of the year. It is a lavish dinner-dance for two thousand of the city’s established and upwardly mobile, and it raises over a million dollars for our medical research each year. It is organized by a committee of well-heeled volunteers who have lots of extra time and opinions about everything from the shade of the napkins to the font on the table cards. It is also—mercifully—not in my portfolio, except in a tangential sense, since I oversee the marketing for the event. I’ve attended a few committee meetings, mostly as moral support for my colleague Justine, but I begged off last night to nurse my cold.
“I’ll go and see him once I’ve had an update from Justine. So if you could get her for me, that would be great. Thanks,” I say, retreating into my office and closing the door behind me.
I see my computer sitting innocently enough on my desk, but I’m not fooled. Recently, I have fallen into the habit of ascribing human characteristics to my computer, and unfortunately, our relationship has taken a turn for the pathological. This week, I’m having trouble shaking the irrational conviction that my computer is poised for an attack; each morning, I quake inwardly as I push the power button and hear, in the hum of waking machinery, a marauding army of data collecting itself and preparing to barrel over the horizon at me.
I log in, and the screen fills with e-mail—definitely more than twenty. Could it be as many as fifty? I avert my eyes in horror. The computer seems to vibrate with a malevolent energy; I’m convinced that it senses my fear, like a rabid dog. I back away and peek out into the hallway. “And, Joy? Could you please call everyone and postpone the staff meeting? I’ve got to sort out this thing with Justine.”
Joy has been at the hospital for twenty-seven years. Her seniority guarantees her a position with someone on the executive team, but she gets passed around like a hot potato because she has the worst attitude in the secretarial pool. She is also not particularly competent, and it’s hard to tell if she’s bad at her job because she hates it, or if she hates it because she’s bad at it. You could spend a lot of time on this age-old philosophical debate about chickens and eggs, but the real takeaway is this: getting good secretarial help is not unlike winning at musical chairs; the people who think it has anything to do with luck are usually the ones left standing when the music stops. Your chances are always going to improve if you’re willing to keep your elbows out, but I, against a mountain of evidence disproving it, have always clung to the belief that civility is rewarded in the end. And even if I were prepared to sink into the fray, my bargaining power is constrained by the fact that my department, communications, is a cost center, not a profit center, which is to say that we spend money instead of bringing it in. This is a designation that presages all kinds of large and small disappointments. It’s the profit centers that hold the real power in any organization, and that are routinely showered with staff and budgets. Not for the first time, I consider the merits of my career choices.
Joy actually rolls her eyes. “They’re not going to like it, you know. It’s the second time this week. Erica is totally pestering me about getting some time with you.”
“I get it,” I tell her. “I’ll meet with them today. I just can’t do it right now. Can you please let them know?”
Joy sighs heavily and departs.
“Thank you, Joy,” I call after her. “I really appreciate it!”
Deep down, I suspect that the real reason Joy works for me is that I am the only person in the office who is willing to put up with her. As I do each morning, I remind myself that Joy is paid to show up every day and make my life easier. The fact that she refuses to fulfill this basic requirement calls for a serious conversation with the HR department, but I would rather suffer than invest my emotional energy in a doomed attempt at performance management. I’m just going to wait until someone with less power than I have is hired, so that I can pass Joy off and continue the cycle of dysfunction.
I feel a little light-headed, and am taking deep, calming breaths as Justine appears in my doorway. As the director of special events, Justine is the only person with less power than me on the senior management team. I feel for her. Event planning is a career for masochists. Events can fail for almost infinite and wholly unpredictable reasons. Providing name tags? You’d better hope that the temp who is preparing them remembers to include the appropriate honorific after the name of the megalomaniac on the board. Using audio-visuals? Pray that the AV department sends the smart guy who actually knows how to use the equipment and not the stoner who is mailing in his last few years until he can trigger his pension and still hasn’t really figured out how to work those newfangled computers. Serving food? Look out for the myriad of allergies—news to you—that are likely to endanger the life of a major donor. While you’re at it, hope that the bartender has recovered from the fight with her boyfriend and decides to show up after all. And here’s the kicker: even if you throw the best event in the world, the volunteers will take all the credit and you’ll be left managing feedback like “Didn’t you think the vinaigrette was a little too citrusy? Can you make sure that doesn’t happen again next year?”
Justine is made from tough stuff, though. She’s been managing events for close to fifteen years and has nerves of steel. But today, she looks panic-stricken.
“What happened last night?” I ask. “Barry is freaking out. He’s practically stalking me. What’s going on?”
Justine groans. “It was horrible, Sophie. You can’t imagine.”
“I don’t understand. I thought we were just rubber-stamping approval for the art for the posters and website last night. It was supposed to be a short meeting.”
“I know,” says Justine. “Claudio did a great job on the photos. Very sexy—gorgeous models, loincloths, Cleopatra—everyone loved it.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Justine wrinkles her nose as though she has just tasted something bitter. “They don’t like the theme anymore,” she says.
I’m stunned. We have spent months trying to get the volunteers to agree on a theme for the evening. Every single detail flows from the theme—music, entertainment, décor, and most importantly from the perspective of the volunteers, wardrobe. It was a big day when they finally settled on “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which the volunteers felt provided an esthetic bridge between the retro cool of eighties girl-band music and the sophisticated elegance of the wildly fashionable Halston-style goddess dresses. More importantly from my perspective, the decision allowed us to move forward with hiring an outside designer and getting the promotional materials done. In truth, the website should have been up a month ago. We are supposed to start selling tickets next week.
Justine shakes her head. “Apparently, the fundamental appeal of the Egyptian theme had to do with being able to get the Bangles to perform.”
“The Bangles,” I repeat. This is news to me. How did this never come up? “Didn’t they break up, like, twenty years ago?”
“Well, it turns out that they’re back together. They’re doing a reunion tour, and Janelle saw them in L.A. last month. But they’re committed to a long-term gig in Vegas through the spring and can’t do the Gala.”
“Can’t we just get another girl band?”
“I tried that.” Justine grits her teeth. “Just be glad you weren’t there, Sophie. It was a freight train. It couldn’t be stopped. Janelle converted every single person on the committee in the space of ten minutes. By the end, everyone agreed that the theme was too stiff without the Bangles tying it together.”
“Stiff? What about the male models in loincloths, the belly dancers, the palm trees, and the dance party in the pharaoh’s tomb?” I can’t believe this is happening.
Justine’s smile turns nasty. “Do you know what the real problem is?” she asks. “They suddenly realized that they’d all be wearing the same dress. Not that anyone was crass enough to come out and say it.”
“Oh my God,” I say. “There’s no way they’ll change their minds, then?”
“I need to think,” I say. “Don’t cancel anything.” I suddenly remember Barry. “What are we going to tell Barry?”
“I think he knows,” says Justine. “Janelle said that she was going to tell him.”
As if on cue, Joy pops her head in the door. “Barry wants to see you now,” she says.
“Are you coming with me?” I ask Justine.
“Not a chance, friend,” she replies. “My ears are still ringing from the slap-down I got from him this morning. I’m planning on staying out of his way for as long as possible. Anyway, you can handle him. He likes you. More than he likes me, at least.”
“Low bar,” I say.
monday, december 2, 2013
I turn down the hall with all of the enthusiasm of a delinquent teenager heading to the principal’s office. I wonder, idly, if Barry will make the effort to call me by my name today. Based on experience, the odds are around 60-40 against, but it’s hard to predict. He usually just calls everyone “pal” or “buddy”—even people whose names he must know. He reminds me of my elementary school principal, who called all the girls “princess” and all the boys “cowboy.” Barry’s cut from the same cloth; he’s just updated the nomenclature to reflect the ostensibly gender-neutral values of our age.
Barry Wise is the chair of the board of the hospital. He is my boss as well, although only temporarily. Under normal circumstances, the chair of the board would make only rare appearances on the administrative floors of the hospital, which is what everyone would prefer. However, my former boss is on an extended leave after some allegations were raised about the extent of his interest in children. Ever since the police paid a visit to his house and left with his computer, he’s been a dead man in the corridors of the Baxter Hospital. I’ve already drafted the press release announcing my boss’s early retirement and praising his visionary leadership during a period of growth and change. We’ll hit Send as soon as the search committee announces its choice.
In the meantime, Barry has taken up residence in the office of the vice president of advancement, just down the hall from me. I find him with his back to the door, staring out the window. It’s a studied pose, designed to give the impression that he is wrestling with a management issue of great complexity. But since he begins virtually every meeting this way, I’ve concluded that he is simply watching the pigeons and waiting for the opportunity to practice his pained, faraway expression, befitting one who must climb down from a lofty perch of contemplation to deal with the mundane matters below. It is an expression that has been imitated in the staff room on countless occasions, usually after Barry has made a particularly boneheaded pronouncement. In truth, Barry has absolutely no idea what any of us do, and why should he? He runs a hedge fund, and is only the chair of the board because he has what is known in our business as “capacity”: he is rich, and so are all of his friends.
“Hi, pal,” he says. “So I hear we have a problem.”
I dip my toe in, very cautiously. “Justine briefed me,” I say. “I understand that the volunteers want to change the theme. Of course that will be difficult, not to mention expensive, at this stage. Not impossible, but definitely far from ideal.”
“Hmmm.” Barry nods sagely. “I’ve spoken at length with Janelle about this issue.” Of this I have no doubt. Barry is putty in Janelle’s hands and she knows it. I can see that we are doomed. But I make one more attempt.
“I think that we need to be quite concerned about the impact that this could have on ticket sales, Barry,” I say. “Our experience suggests that we need at least ten weeks of advertising to get the word out. The designers have been working on the marketing for at least a month. We are going to run out of time.”
“I hear you, buddy,” says Barry. “But Janelle assures me that she can make up any losses by selling tables to her friends.”
“It’s not that simple, Barry,” I say. “If we change the theme now, we’ll throw away thousands of dollars, not to mention all of the time that our staff has put in on this project. We can’t recoup those losses with ticket sales. Our budget for the event already assumes that we’ll sell all the tickets.”
Barry’s expression hardens. He hates being told what to do, especially by women. And even more especially by young women. I brace myself for the explosion, but it doesn’t come. The restraint is uncharacteristic, and I wonder why he is making the effort.
“Look, pal,” he says. “I know it’s going to be a lot of work for you.” For me? “But you’ll just have to put your head together with—”
“Justine?” I suggest.
“Justine, precisely. Tell her that I want you two working together on this. You have my full confidence. I look forward to hearing what you come up with.”
“Um, Barry? You know that I’m always available to help, but my responsibility for the Gala is pretty limited to the marketing side.” I can see Barry’s face starting to redden. “I’d be reluctant to horn in on Justine’s territory. She’s doing a terrific job and I wouldn’t want to give her the impression . . .”
I trail off as I see Barry’s expression darken and his cheeks begin to puff out in a malevolent expression known around our office as the Blowfish. “We’re not selling aluminum siding around here!” he huffs. “We don’t have territories. This is a game for team players, and we need to get in the same boat and row together. When someone tells me something isn’t in her job description, I hear an excuse—and what’s my motto?”
“There are no excuses in business,” I say.
“You got it in one shot,” says Barry.
Barry’s contempt for the HR department and all of its policies and procedures is well-documented, so it seems pointless to tell him that very little of what I do every day is actually in my job description. And in any event, I know my strategic advantage. I’m a stroker, a smoother; I’m the career-girl version of the angel in the house. I’m nurturing and supportive; I can be relied upon to laugh at jokes, even when they are bad or inappropriate or at my expense; I’m still slightly better-than-average-looking, holding steady with the help of well-fitting bras and control-top hose and incredibly expensive moisturizer; and I work hard at being nonthreatening in every way. And that is why I’m going to fall on my sword, fix the problem, and make Barry feel like he’s in charge. Not for the first time, I contemplate the years I spent in graduate school on women’s studies. I should have done something useful, like Latin.
Barry is looking at me expectantly. It’s my cue. “Of course, Barry,” I say. “Justine and I will get right on it. Don’t you worry. It will all turn out just fine.”
“Excellent!” Barry beams. “I knew I could count on you, buddy. Now, there is just one other thing that I wanted to discuss with you.”
I make my way back to my office in a state of disbelief and with my arms full of binders, living proof of the axiom that no good deed goes unpunished. Now in addition to assisting with the Gala, I have been selected to serve as the staff rep on the search committee for the new vice president of advancement. The only good news is that it should be done by next week. The bad news is there are at least three meetings this week, and accommodating them is going to require scheduling contortions that would be awe-inspiring even if I had a willing assistant, and probably impossible in my current circumstances.
Barry is a little disappointed in me; I think he expected me to exhibit more obvious pride at being plucked from the herd and elevated so far above my station. But it’s widely known that the committee has been meeting for at least a month without a staff rep, a state of affairs that has been both observed and roundly denounced for weeks in the staff kitchen, a closet just spacious enough for a coffeemaker, a microwave, and two employees muttering to each other about a conspiracy at the highest levels to circumvent the collective agreement. Now it appears that someone has checked the hospital bylaws and realized that staff consultation is a disagreeable necessity. There’s no way to disguise the fact that I’m joining up by way of a shotgun wedding, since they’ve picked a short list and start interviewing this week. But I can smile for the photo if that’s what’s required. I’m supposed to go through all of the applications today and let them know if there is anyone else that I think should be included on the short list; I think I can make time to flip the pages, show up for the meeting, and venture no opinion, which is exactly what the committee wants from me.
Geoff Durnford sticks his head into my office, and I feel my spirits lift. Everyone should have an employee like Geoff. He is the head writer on my team and does incredible work with almost no direction. He never gives me a hard time about anything, never whines, and never demands attention. I can take him to any meeting; I can even send him in my place. The rest of the staff admires him, and when I’m not available—which is all too often lately—he steps in and keeps the team on course. His fashion sense runs to the whimsical, especially in ties and socks, and today his ankles are adorned with a riotous paisley in pink and tangerine. He is tragically single, but I just know there is a perfect man out there for him, someone who loves theater and fine restaurants and will overlook the fact that his hair is thinning as quickly as his middle is thickening.
“Not your best day?” he asks. “Have you even checked your e-mail yet?”
“Is there anything urgent?” I ask.
“Probably not super-urgent,” he says. “Although Erica’s head is going to explode if you don’t sign off on the Family Care Center press release today.”
“Noted,” I say. “Have you seen it?”
“It’s fine,” he says. “It’s all boilerplate except paragraph six. That’s the only part you have to read.”
“Can you e-mail it to me?”
With a flourish like a conjurer, he whips a few pieces of paper out from behind his back. “I just happen to have it here,” he says. “Since I had a feeling that you may be a bit behind on your e-mail.” He grins, flips over the first page of the document, and places it in front of me, pointing to the relevant paragraph. “Just read this,” he says. I do what I’m told.
“It’ll do,” I say. “Tell her to issue it, with my apologies for the delay.”
“Done,” says Geoff. “I’m heading down to grab a coffee. Can I bring something back for you?”
“You’re an angel,” I say. I don’t have time to run downstairs, and in any event, I need to stay as far away from Nigel as possible. “Hot tea, please. With lemon.”
Geoff looks concerned. “Are you sick again?” he asks. I shrug and Geoff shakes his head. “Has it occurred to you that your body might be trying to tell you something?” he asks.
“It can get in line,” I say.
At ten past one, I’m walking as quickly as I can with the binders in my arms. I’m late, of course; I’m always late these days. I can remember a time before I had children when I was always early; I have a mental picture of myself standing outside the movie theater, waiting for friends, checking my watch every thirty seconds starting at the appointed hour. Back then I thought chronic lateness was a character flaw, evidence of a profound self-absorption. Now I regard it as a mark of efficiency. Imagine how much time you would lose if you were early for everything. I read once that economists say if you travel for business you should miss one out of every three flights; the repeated close shaves save you more time than the occasional missed flight loses you. I like this justification; the alternative theory is that I can’t get my shit together to be on time for anything anymore, but I don’t like that one as much.
Overall, though, I’m feeling a little more in control of my day now. I’ve spent the last two hours plowing through sixty-three e-mails: thirty-two of the for-your-information variety requiring no comment from me; twelve requiring a quick review and approval; one from the convener of my book club; four reply-all messages from other members of the book club; one from Jamie’s class parent about volunteering for the winter fair; four from my mother; and nine that, to be honest, I haven’t dealt with yet and have re-filed in my inbox. But I’m fifty-four e-mails lighter, and that can only be a good thing. I’ve even found twenty minutes to look at the binders and have managed to affix brightly colored sticky flags on a few random CVs to demonstrate my enthusiasm for the process.
I push open the door and get my bearings. I recognize a few familiar faces from the hospital’s medical staff and administration: Carolyn Waldron, the head of oncology; Marvin Shapiro, the director of medical research; Anusha Dhaliwal, the head of the nursing staff; and Patti Sinclair, the patient liaison officer, responsible for running interference between unhappy patient families and the hospital. Carolyn gives me a friendly wave and Marvin nods courteously. I’ve worked with both of them recently on the publicity for major gifts to their units. Jenny Dixon, the director of HR, is here too; I avoid eye contact in the knowledge that I have been avoiding her weekly e-mail about staff reviews for the past five weeks. In truth, I’m a little scared of Jenny. She is a large, imposing woman who was born in a shantytown in the Dominican Republic, came to North America as a young teenager, and managed to put herself through two university degrees and raise three children without missing a beat in her career. Although she is unfailingly polite and supportive in the classic manner of HR professionals, I always feel like a pathetic whiner around her. The rest of the faces are completely unfamiliar, a man and two women, all of whom must be from the board. Then Barry comes in and we all take our seats.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” booms Barry. “I don’t expect that this will be a long meeting today. As you know, we are moving quickly to the interview stage here, so what we want to do today is finalize the short list so that we can check references. We have a meeting on Wednesday to decide on the interview questions and then interviews on Friday. Everyone on the long list has been asked to keep Friday clear, so there shouldn’t be any problem with availability.”
He pauses, and seems to grit his teeth before continuing. I catch a quick look that passes between Patti and Jenny, and I resolve once again to stay as far away from the field of battle as possible. It’s clear that allegiances are already forming in this room, and I have zero interest in finding myself on Barry’s bad side. In any event, I’m distracted by the fact that my skirt is stretching uncomfortably over my hips and riding up inappropriately. I surreptitiously yank the skirt down by a fraction and vow to stop drinking wine every night with my takeout.
Barry studies the notes on the table in front of him. Ordinarily, Barry doesn’t believe in speaking from notes; you can’t command the room, he says, unless you can convey the impression that you are speaking from the heart. In practice, this means that Barry ignores all of the carefully prepared briefing notes that we write for him and is notorious for going off-message. But today, he is sticking to his script, a bad sign.
“I also want to address the issue that Mrs. Baxter raised at the last meeting about the board’s policy on equity in hiring. Although I said at the time that I didn’t think the policy applied for the purposes of this search, I have since been advised by HR”—he glares at Jenny—“that we should be scrupulous in our efforts to uphold board policy in all of our searches. So I want to take this opportunity to thank Mrs. Baxter for her very helpful intervention.” Barry grimaces as though he has bitten down on something sour. One of the women from the board—presumably Mrs. Baxter—inclines her head in a queenly gesture.
I look at her for the first time and feel my eyes widen. A blond beehive hairdo towers over a vacant face decorated with inappropriately bright pink lipstick applied well over the lip line and a harsh stripe of rouge on each cheek. She wears a pilled blue Chanel suit that has clearly languished in the back of a closet for forty years, and I think I catch a faint whiff of mothballs across the table. The outfit is finished with an honest-to-God fox stole wrapped around her neck, the sharp little teeth clutching the end of the tail and the beady glass eyes gleaming sightlessly in the fluorescent light.
Astonishingly, no one else at the meeting seems distracted by Mrs. Baxter’s extraordinary costume. I sneak another glance and find to my surprise that her expression has shifted. She is focused now, her eyes alert. When she sees that she has my attention, she cocks her head and gives me an almost imperceptible but unmistakable wink. And then she puts a long finger up to her lips. It is simultaneously a signal between conspirators that a prank of epic proportions is in the works and a warning not to spoil the fun.
It is a gesture that I would recognize anywhere, having seen it many times over the years. It’s one of Lillian Parker’s signature moves, but this is a novel context, and it dawns on me that Lil’s message this morning had nothing whatsoever to do with her holiday party. I tune Barry out while I construct and reject several elaborate theories to explain why this search could possibly have piqued Lil’s interest, why everyone in the room seems to think her name is Mrs. Baxter, and why Lil has deemed it necessary to come in disguise.
“. . . committed to a short list of three. Since the policy that we are bound to follow requires that we meet with the most qualified female candidate and the most qualified visible minority candidate, we may need to alter our preliminary selections,” Barry continues. “Obviously, we are all interested in seeing Stephen Paul.”
I flip through my binder. This isn’t a name that I remember seeing. I find the CV and can see immediately why I didn’t flag it; the candidate has years of experience as the CEO of a major corporation, but there’s nothing on the CV about fund-raising. I’m obviously missing something here. I raise my index finger in the air.
Barry registers my presence, and raises his hand. “Just a minute,” he says. “I should have mentioned one other thing. When we reviewed the policy earlier this week, we discovered”—again he glares at Jenny—“that we were short a staff rep. So I’ve asked”—he consults his notes—“Sophie Whelan from the communications office to serve for the last leg of our deliberations.” The group swivels to look at me, and I give a little wave. “Did you have a question, Sophie?” asks Barry, discouragingly.
“Just a quick one,” I say. “I have Mr. Paul’s CV here, but I don’t have any information about his fund-raising experience. I assume you had this discussion before I joined the committee, but I was hoping you could fill me in if we are going to interview him.”
Now Barry glowers, Jenny beams, and I want to stab myself with my pen for having wandered into enemy camp in my first five minutes. “Our view is that Stephen’s experience managing a massive public corporation for fifteen years is extremely transferable,” Barry asserts. “And obviously, as CEO, he has had oversight of the corporation’s philanthropic foundation.”
Barry is putting me on notice that further interventions will be unwelcome, and may even convert his general indifference to antipathy. I square my shoulders and raise my hand again. Barry frowns. “Yes?”
“Again, please accept my apologies if I go over things that you’ve already discussed. I just want to make sure that I’m on the same page.” I point to the CV on the table in front of me. “Obviously, Mr. Paul has extensive experience working with his corporate foundation, but I’m not sure how transferable that experience would be to our operation.” Several people straighten in their chairs and lean forward; I’m not sure whether they are interested in my analysis or just want to get a good view of the new kid’s act of self-immolation. “Corporate foundations give money away,” I continue. “In the most basic terms, their job is to manage an annual budget and decide how to allocate it among worthy charities and community projects. An organization like ours works in the opposite way. We raise money from the community in order to support our own projects.” I pause. “The vice president of advancement is our lead fundraiser.”
“Thank you, Sophie,” says Barry, crisply. “I think we are all aware of that. And as we discussed prior to your appointment to this committee, Stephen’s vast experience in deal-making will give him an edge in any donor negotiations.”
I murmur my thanks for Barry’s helpful clarification, and then sit back while I consider how to proceed. I could quit the committee, which a large part of me desperately wants to do, but in the end I know I won’t. This is because most of my actions are governed by a complex calculation that I call the Requirement of Action Rating, or ROAR. The ROAR is a number that is produced by adding the Desire to Perform Activity (DPA) to the Guilt Factor (GF) associated with the failure to perform the activity and the Need to Behave Like a Grown-up (NBLG), and then subtracting Allowable Selfishness (AS). So: DPA + GF + NBLG − AS = ROAR. Although the temptation is often to allocate a negative number to the Desire to Perform Activity (DPA), the available range is zero to ten. Allowable Selfishness (AS) is generally in the range of one to five, except when it is your birthday (8), or you are in labor (9), in the hospital in critical condition (9.5), or in a coma (10).
My desire to remain on the committee in order to fill a quota, ignored on a good day and reviled on a bad one, is obviously zero (DPA = 0). My guilt factor, on the other hand, is not insignificant, since I suspect that Barry won’t replace me if I leave. And then someone will be hired to supervise my unit with no staff input at all, a person who will in all likelihood be totally ignorant about the work we do and have a mild-to-serious personality disorder (GF = 8). My need to behave like a grown-up is heightened by the public nature of this committee and my personal vow to maintain a stiff upper lip around people like Jenny Dixon (NBLG = 9). And while I’m entitled to some selfishness due to Barry’s rudeness (AS = 4), it doesn’t change the fact that 0 + 8 + 9 − 4 = 13, which is a very high score indeed. According to the ROAR, I’m staying. But my first order of business is to grab Lil at the end of this meeting and find out what she’s up to.
“. . . Margaret Anderson,” I hear Carolyn say. “She is the strongest female candidate by far, and in my view, the strongest candidate on paper. She has had a distinguished nursing career, so she knows how things get done inside a hospital, and she has ten years of experience in fund-raising in the health care sector.”
“Do others agree with Carolyn’s assessment?” asks Barry. “Should Margaret Anderson be included on the short list?” There is general assent around the table, and the discussion moves on to the policy requirement for a visible minority candidate. But the conversation has barely started when the door to the conference room flies open and hits the wall. The committee jumps collectively in their seats; a couple of the women are so startled that they screech. And into this tableau steps Joy, with a gleam of malicious delight in her eyes.
“So sorry to interrupt,” she says in a creamy voice. “Sophie, you need to call your daycare immediately. Your son has a fever. They want you to pick him up.”
“That’s fine, Sophie,” says Barry. “Go ahead. There’s nothing here that we need you for.”
I rise from my seat, my face still burning with embarrassment, and step into the hall. Joy’s back is already receding into the distance.
“Joy,” I call, and then louder: “Joy!”
She turns but makes no move to close the distance, so I half-run to meet her, silently cursing myself for yet another failure to take charge of this toxic relationship.
“I would have preferred for you to show more discretion in there,” I say. “Next time, please just say that you have an urgent message for me and ask me to step out of the meeting.”
She shrugs. “Whatever,” she says.
Back at my desk, I call Jesse’s cell phone to see if there is any way that he can pick Scotty up and take him to the pediatrician. I don’t know how I can leave the office now; I still haven’t met with my staff or reviewed the six proposals sitting on my desk or figured out what to do about the Gala. Jesse doesn’t answer. I call his office line. No answer. I call his assistant. No answer.
I suspect that Jesse screens my calls whenever he’s too busy to be dragged into a domestic quagmire, and it makes me hot with anger. It must be nice to be able to be completely unavailable. Restful, to be able to ignore the call from the daycare, to be certain that someone else will deal with it, and to know that the someone has a “flexible” job, where it doesn’t matter if she disappears for half the day to go to the goddamn pediatrician.
I call his cell phone again.
“Jesse Walker,” he says.
“I’ve been calling and calling,” I say in a controlled voice. “Where were you?”
“Sophie, I’m in the middle of something,” he says. “Do we need to do this right now?”
I grit my teeth. I am going to be a mature adult. I am not going to say something passive-aggressive like, So sorry to disturb you. It’s only about our son.
“So sorry to disturb you,” I say. “It’s only about our son.” I hear Jesse sigh at the other end of the line. “Scotty needs to be picked up from daycare. His fever spiked and he needs to go to Dr. Goldstein’s. I’m sure he’s going to need a prescription.” I soften my tone; you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and vinegar is clearly not working. “Please, Jesse. I am really underwater here.”
There is a pause. “Sophie,” he says, “I’m sorry, but I can’t. We have a meeting with the investors at the end of the day, and we are all scrambling to put the presentation together. I can’t even really talk on the phone right now. Did you try your mother?”
“Not yet,” I say.
“Well, you’re going to have to sort it out without me. I’ve got to go. I’ll call you later and check in.” And I’m listening to dead air.
I think of the four e-mails and two phone messages about Christmas and I know that I am not going to try my mother. I’m going to close my door and burst into tears. I’m going to sweep all of the paper off my desk and into my bag so that I can do it after the kids are in bed. And then I’m going to get into my car and take my son to the doctor.
And that’s exactly what I do.
monday, december 2, 2013
Excerpted from "The Hole in the Middle"
Copyright © 2016 Kate Hilton.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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