I jumped at the sound the beer bottles made when they hit the table. When I’d let Clark talk me into getting a drink, he promptly led me to the bar where Emile’s band played on Thursdays. We didn’t say anything on the way there, me walking in embarrassed silence, he holding on to my arm and leading me with a sense of purpose.
It was Monday, and the bar was quiet. Clark had guided me to a table before going to the bar for drinks. Now, he was back, four bottles in hand, thunking them down onto the table before sitting down in the chair opposite mine.
“Looked like you could maybe use a couple,” he said, trying to meet my eyes.
I looked up at him and let out a short laugh. “Do I really look that bad?” My voice came out a little hoarsely.
He took a sip from one of the bottles as he appraised me. “I’ve seen worse,” he conceded.
I grabbed one of the bottles and took a drink. “Thanks.” I’m not sure if I’m thanking him for the beer or for the almost compliment. I lowered my eyes.
“So, rough day?” he asked. His tone of voice made me sure he was waiting for me to have another break down.
I looked up at him. “Actually, I had a pretty great day, up until the end there.”
“Uh, huh,” he nodded, waiting for more.
“It’s just work,” I added.
“Work,” he repeated. He took another sip and sat quietly. I guessed he was waiting for me to continue, not wanting to pressure me to say anything more if I didn’t want to. I found a spot on the table in front of me and stared at it, following a pattern in the wood with my eyes. I could feel myself starting to relax, and I wasn’t sure if that was from the beer or from his presence. His silence was comfortable, and I felt like I didn’t have to put on a brave face. I took another sip from my bottle and collected my thoughts.
“Yeah, work,” he said again after a while. “Work can really suck sometimes.” I looked up at him, this time not sure of the tone in his voice, trying to figure out if he was making fun of me. But, the look on his face was one of utter sincerity. As before, his gaze seemed to pierce my brain, as if he were looking inside of me. I felt the color rush up to my face, and I had to look away again. “I’m not an expert, Kate, but I think a job that makes you cry doesn’t sound so great.”
“No,” I said, a little too quickly, meeting his eyes again. “I love what I do.”
“So, what do you do?” he asked.
“I work in advertising.”
“Advertising, huh? Sounds like it could be fun,” he conceded. “What happened tonight that got you so upset?”
I bit my lip, not sure I wanted to relive my evening. But, part of me was eager to talk about it, get it out there, as if I couldn’t keep it bottled up inside a moment longer for fear of having another melt down. I took a deep breath and launched into my story, giving him a brief background of the years I’d worked at the ad agency and the great opportunity that had come my way a few weeks ago. I told him a little about the client and their vision, and I described the process of putting together my team and of getting our ideas together, the long hours, the various steps we took along the way. I could actually feel a small piece of myself getting excited as I thought about the early moments of the project, some of the ideas we’d had and discarded, and how we ultimately came up with some of our final layouts for the client. Then, I got to the part of today’s presentation, how much the client liked it, and my conversation with Mark before I’d left. I could feel the sadness and anger return, and I hoped the bitterness I could hear in my voice didn’t make me break down and start crying again.
“A team player, huh?” he asked, after I finished my story.
“Yep, that’s what he’s expecting,” I sighed. “I’m so disappointed. I had expected something totally different. I mean, I worked so hard on this, and I thought I was finally getting somewhere. Now, I’ve just got to keep going, keep trying to prove myself. I don’t know, maybe I’ve got to see this one out. Maybe if I try a little harder, stick it out until the end, it’ll work out like my boss said.”
“Why don’t you quit?”
“Quit?” I was shocked. The thought had never crossed my mind.
“It’s obvious you love what you do. From what you’ve told me, it’s clear that you’re good at it, too. The client liked your ideas, right?” I nodded. He continued. “But, it sounds to me that they don’t appreciate you.”
“No,” I hesitated. “That’s not it. It’s just that -- well, the client wanted. . . .”
“The client,” he said, interupting me. “What happens when you finish the project, be that team player they want, and then they do it to you all over again? Life’s too short, Kate. You’ve gotta do what makes you happy. Clearly, now, you are not happy.”
“But, quit? That’s a little bit much, don’t you think? I mean, this is something that I’ve been working toward for years. I can’t leave them in the middle of this.”
“I’m not a quitter,” I told him evenly. “I won’t just walk away.”
“Won’t . . . or can’t?”
“What’s the difference?” I asked, exasperated and confused.
“Well,” he started. “I guess in my mind, won’t means you see a purpose, a reason for being there. In your case, you might argue that getting the promotion you want is your purpose. Even if it means sticking it out, being a “second” to your friend Tina, and being that team player they’re looking for.” He paused, then continued quietly. ”Can’t means that you’re scared to take the chance.” His eyes watched me carefully after he said that last statement, and I could feel the indignation rising in my chest.
“I won’t walk away,” I said, finally. “That would be crazy.”
This is it, I thought. I knew he was too good to be true. He doesn’t even know anything about me and yet he’s acting like he knows it all. I was starting to get angry. I lifted my beer bottle to take a drink, surprised to find it empty. I picked up my second one and took a swig, wondering how soon I could make an excuse to leave.
He shook his head. “Sometimes you’ve got to be a little crazy to get what you want out of life.”
“And you have experience with that, do you?” My voice came out a little sharper than I intended, and I saw a momentary flash of something -- surprise? sadness? -- in his eyes, but he recovered quickly before answering.
“I have some,” he said, taking a sip of beer.
Not wanting to appear completely rude -- after all, he had paid for the beers -- I decided to change the subject and get the focus off of me. Maybe if we stopped talking about my work issues, we might be able to have a decent conversation that didn’t involve me wanting to punch him in the face, however gorgeous it was.
“So,” I asked. “What do you do?”
“I, uh, I’m in the family business.” He looked slightly embarrassed.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“Clothes? You mean like selling clothes? A clothing store?”
“Something like that,” he agreed.
“But, what do you do?” I asked again.
“I guess you could say that my dad is grooming me to take over the business. I’ve only been back working with him for a few months, actually. I went my own way there for a while -- you know, the rebellious son.”
“The craziness you were talking about before?” I guessed.
“Sure,” he grinned. “Now, I’m back and working for the family again.”
“But, does it make you happy?” I asked, teasingly. Two could play at this game.
He smiled, and his brown eyes lit up. “Yes, actually it does. Growing up, I guess I always thought my dad was a bit controlling and overbearing. That’s one of the reasons I bolted at the first opportunity I got. I didn’t think he really got who I was. But, I guess I’ve grown up. I realized my dad just wanted the best for me. And, honestly, after searching every other place, I finally realized this is where I belong. My parents were always supportive of me, even when I was being stupid. My dad tries hard to let me be me, and that’s cool. Sure, we butt heads at times. He didn’t always agree with my choices. But, he never made me feel like I was making a mistake with my life, even when I wasn’t doing what he wanted me to do. For that, I’ll always be grateful.”
“He sounds great.”
“Yes, he is,” he smiled. “And, I found it could work both ways. I found something I loved, that allowed me to do what I want, but still allowed me to be a part of his world, too. I admit that I was hesitant at first, approaching my dad with some of my “crazy” ideas, but it turned out he was totally open to everything. So, I feel lucky. I’m getting to do what I love to do, with no compromises.” He gave me a pointed look when he said that last statement.
I opened my mouth to ask another question before the subject could turn around to me again, but before I could say anything, he was already speaking.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Tomorrow?” I asked, momentarily surprised. Was he asking me out?
“Yeah, tomorrow. A friend of mine is a photographer, and she has an exhibit opening tomorrow night at a gallery in SoHo. Do you want to go?”
I took a guess. “Um, doesn’t your girlfriend want to go?”
He hesitated only for a second. “Oh, she’s out of town for work -- Los Angeles. She travels a lot. She’s a model,” he added.
Figures, I thought.
“Anyway,” he continued. “She wouldn’t be into it, even if she was in town. She’s not really an art gallery kind of girl. More of a night club one.”
I thought about it. On the one hand, here was this incredibly good-looking guy asking me to go out with him -- okay, he had a girlfriend and he was probably just doing it to be friendly -- but on the other hand, a few minutes ago I’d just thought of him as a self-rightgeous jerk. So, why was I honestly thinking of accepting his invitation?
“Okay, never mind. It was just a thought. If you’d rather not . . .” he started.
I jumped in, still only half decided. "No! I mean, tomorrow, sure, that sounds great,” I said. “It’ll beat moping around feeling sorry for myself.”
He smiled, and I could feel my heart skip a beat. “Great! It’ll be fun! Even if hanging with me is only a consolation prize."
“Was that rude?” I asked, now feeling a bit buzzed on the beer. “I feel it was rude.” He laughed. “Sorry. My mom raised me better than that.”
“S’okay,” he mumbled, sipping his beer. “Completely understandable.”
“No, really,” I insisted. “I’m usually a pretty nice person. Or so I’m told.”
“Too nice, if I had to guess,” Clark said.
“Can a person be too nice?” I wondered out loud, starting to feel a bit philosophical.
“Trust me,” he said. “There’s nice. And then there’s too nice. Learn the difference, and then maybe you’ll be able to solve half of the world’s problems. Or, at least your own.”
We grabbed another round of beer, and for the rest of the evening, we made small talk: places in the neighborhood he wanted to know about, where we went to college (Stonybrook for me, since my dad worked there. Clark was a Harvard grad). I discovered that he was a year older than me -- 28 -- and we both had April birthdays. I found out that he had a younger brother and sister and that his parents lived in a town in Long Island not too far from mine. I told him a little about my family, about my sister and parents and how I had always considered myself the quiet one of the family. It was nice, but in the back of my head, I kept telling myself not to get carried away.
Wow, okay. I thought to myself. I can do this. I can go out with this incredibly handsome, heart stopping guy. It’s just an art show, right? No big deal, not a date. Just friends. But, wow. What if? I shook my head and tried not to go there. But, I couldn’t help myself, and my mind wandered as he started to tell me a story about his childhood. All I could do was stare at his lips, wondering what they would feel like in a kiss, his arms circling around me, bringing me in close.
“ . . . if we go now?”
I suddenly realized he’d asked me a question. “Huh?”
“I said, do you mind if we go, now?” Clark asked again, pointing to his watch. “It’s starting to get late, and I promised to call Camille tonight.”
“Camille?” I asked stupidly, still halfway in my daydream.
“Yeah, my girlfriend?”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh! Sure, we can go.” I stood a little too quickly, and my beer bottle toppled over, splashing his shirt with beer. I grabbed the bottle quickly before it could roll off the table. “Oh my god,” I exclaimed. “I am so sorry!”
He stood up, laughing, as he surveyed the damage. “That’s okay,” he said, amused. “I’ve got to do laundry soon, anyway.”
I could feel my face flush red in embarrassment, and I didn’t know what to say without sounding stupid.
“You’re pretty when you blush, you know,” he said, catching the look on my face.
Clark laughed again. “I guess I should rephrase that. You’re even more pretty when you blush.” I didn’t think it was possible for my face to get even more red. “Shall we go?” He indicated the door with one arm, reaching out to steady me with his other one. I moved around the table and allowed him to guide me to the door.
On the walk home, he told me a little bit about Camille.
“I told you she’s a model, right?”
“Yeah,” I nodded my head. Which was probably a mistake, since it was feeling a bit like an hour glass with sand flowing though it. I decided instead to focus on the sidewalk in front of me, putting one foot in front of the other to walk in as straight a fashion as I could manage. I noticed Clark hadn’t let go of my arm, which was probably a good thing.
“I met her a few months ago on a photo shoot she was doing for this line of clothes we carry in our store," he continued.
“She’s pretty,” I said, but I think it ended up coming out more like “Sheeeesh preddy.”
“Yep, she is beautiful,” he agreed. “What about you?” he added. “I didn’t think to ask you if you had a boyfriend.”
I paused, trying to think. “Well, we just broke up about a month ago.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “We’re you dating long?”
“A little over a year,” I said. I leaned in close to tell him the truth. “He met someone else," I whispered conspiritorially.
“Ouch!” he said, steadying me as a wobbled a bit.
“Yeah, well, I guess it really was for the best,” I told him. “I just never had the nerve to break it off.”
“So, you couldn’t quit?” he asked, stressing the word.
I sighed. “Yes,” I conceded. “I guess I couldn’t.” We’d reached my building.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow night, then. Pick you up here at six o’clock?” he added.
“Yep, I’ll see you then.”
“You got this?” he asked, eyeing the front steps leading up to my door.
“Yes.” I stressed the word, laying a hand on his arm for emphasis. He started to turn away, but I called after him. “Clark?” He looked back at me. “Thanks. I mean, for tonight. Thanks for talking with me and trying to cheer me up.” I added, ”It was really super.” Then I laughed. “See what I did there? Super? Clark? Superman?”
He laughed, shaking his head. ”Glad to help, Kate.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but only added, “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye." I turned and walked up the stairs into my building and made my way up to my apartment, grabbing on to the handrail for extra support. When I turned the key in the lock, I marveled at how much better I felt emotionally now than I had just a few hours before. I smiled to myself. Sure, he could be sort of a smug jerk at times, but in the end, Clark was fun, and I decided that I was really looking forward to seeing him again the next night, even if it was only as friends.
The next day came too early. When my alarm went off, I stared bleary-eyed at the clock. My mouth tasted like dryer lint, and my head was pounding. I tried to figure out why I felt so bad after having only three beers the night before, but then I recalled I’d never had dinner. When I’d met Clark on the street, he had dragged me straight to the bar and the subject of food had never crossed my mind.
I threw back the covers and placed a tentative foot on the floor. Then another one. Head in my hands, I slowly got up and shuffled to the bathroom, where I downed a few aspirins and about a gallon of water. An hour later, I’d managed to make myself somewhat presentable for work. I briefly thought of food, but all I could manage was a piece of dry toast washed down with more water.
On my way into the office, I felt resigned to my situation. Without a doubt, the evening with Clark had put me in better spirits. But, I had decided to suck it up and be the team player Mark wanted me to be. After all, I’d worked at the company for years, and I’d learned a lot. I owed them, right? I decided I wouldn’t let the fact that Mark wanted Tina as the point person throw me off. I could be just as important behind the scenes. I had my purpose. I would just have to work hard and show the partners I was worth a promotion.
With those thoughts swirling through my head along with what was left of a hangover, I was momentarily taken back when I saw Tina and Mark in the conference room when I arrived at work. I paused to watch them only for a second before continuing to my office, flinging my bag down next to my chair. I turned on my computer and sat there, waiting for it to boot up so I could check my emails. A few minutes later, Tina walked in to the office, two cups of coffee in hand.
“Hi,” she said, setting one of them down on my desk.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, looking up at her briefly before turning back to my computer. I took a sip of the coffee, hoping it would help ease my headache.
Tina sat down at her desk and swiveled around in her chair to face me.
“Mark talked to me this morning,” she said.
“Uh, huh,” I replied, as I logged into my computer.
“You know, I had no idea about this.”
“I mean, I never would have dreamed this could happen.”
“Yep, I know.”
“Kate, I’m serious.” The sound of her voice made me look up. Her brow was creased, and she was looking at me with a worried expression. I remembered the promise I’d made to myself. Team player.
“Tina,” I said. “Don’t worry about it, okay? It’ll be fine. So, the client wants you as their point person. No problem. I’ll still be here, behind the scenes. We’ll get it done, okay?” I assured her. She still seemed a little worried, so I put a smile on my face, despite my lingering headache. “It’ll be the best campaign this company has seen, yet. We’ll pull it off.”
The relief on her face made me feel guilty for just a moment. I mean, I wasn’t lying when I said this would be a great campaign. I just had put a little more enthusiasm into the words than I’d felt. My feelings were still hurt, and my head definitely still hurt, but I swallowed my pride for the moment to keep my eye on the bigger prize.
The staff meeting was at eleven o’clock, so I spent the morning answering emails and following up on issues for other clients, downing coffee, and generally talking myself into a better mood. Tina interupted me periodically, asking questions as she worked on putting together a tentative timeline to present at the meeting. I jumped in as I thought of ideas, using my years of experience to put together something that would fit in with what we needed to accomplish. In the end, I thought I wrote about half of it, but I congratulated Tina on doing so well her first time around “on her own.”
Most of the team was assembled in the conference room when we walked in a few minutes before eleven. Jim was there, representing the finance department, and he raised an eyebrow at me when I walked in. “What the fuck?” he mouthed silently to me. I could only assume I looked about as bad as I felt, but I ignored him, taking a seat further along the table and closer to the front of the room.
Mark walked in right on time and called the meeting to order. “Okay, people. Let’s talk business.” There was a collective groan. He always said that line at the start of a meeting. “First of all, as you know, we secured the business with Mr. Benson and his company.”
“Yea!” Trent, from the art department cheered. Mark smiled before he continued.
“We have to acknowledge Tina and Kate” -- he pointed to each of us in turn -- “for putting together a terrific concept. We wouldn’t be here without them.” Everyone applauded and looked our way. Tina was beaming, and I couldn’t suppress a smile, although I feel my face turn red as well.
“That said, we have a lot of work ahead of us to pull this off. So, to that end, I have a quick announcement.”
Here it comes, I thought. I braced myself for the humiliation I would probably feel when he announced that Tina would be the point person for the client, instead of me. Mark continued.
“I’m pleased to announce that Tina will be heading up the group to get this done, with Kate right behind her.” A few faces turned my way in astonishment, including Jim’s, but I avoided everyone’s gazes, keeping my eyes focused on Mark.
Okay, that wasn’t so bad. I let out the breath I was holding.
“And,” Mark continued,“effective today, Tina has been officially promoted to Senior Executive in charge of promotions.”
Wait, what did he just say? I tried to process what I had just heard as some of the others in the room applauded and turned to Tina with their congratulations. She was smiling again, and Mark motioned for her to join him. She stood, giving me a quick glance as she made her way to the front of the room. I sat frozen, forcing a smile onto my face, as if I’d known this was coming all along. Inside, I was crying, screaming, gripping my chair hard to keep myself from jumping up and running out of the room. My mind was racing, thinking back to all of the conversations I’d had with Mark and with Tina, looking for something I had missed. Mark made his way around the table, sitting next to me in the chair Tina had just vacated. He glanced at me with a smile before turning his attention back to Tina, clearly reassured by my expression.
What just happened here?, I wanted to scream at him, gripping the chair even harder. That is my promotion. The one I was going to get for being a “team player!” How could you have given it to her? She doesn’t even know what she is doing! You said that I’d have to be the one to teach her. I don’t understand.
The rest of the meeting passed in a blur, and I barely paid attention as Tina went through the timeline she created -- correction, we created -- that morning. I sat in silence, volunteering no information except when asked a direct question. Everyone seemed excited about the project, and I was grateful that excitement took the focus off of me and what had just happened. When the meeting broke up about an hour later, I remained seated as everyone filed out of the room, pretending to be writing notes, so I could avoid answering anyone’s questions. A voice startled me, and my pen slipped.
“That went well, don’t you think?” Mark was still seated next to me.
“Yep,” I swallowed, looking over at him. “I guess it did.”
“Tina will do great, especially having you to help her. We’re lucky to have you here, Kate.”
“Yep,” I nodded, wanting to say a whole lot more but at the same time afraid to open my mouth for fear of going off of the deep end.
A word jumped out at me. Fear. I was afraid. To stick up for myself. Afraid of what could happen. Of what I would do. I suddenly saw a vision of myself atop that diving board from my childhood. I was staring down into the water. I could see myself clearly as I pondered the far drop into the pool. I watched myself, waiting, holding my breath. Then, just as clearly -- and almost unbelievably -- I saw myself start to turn, to go back to the ladder and climb down. Too scared to jump.
Stop! I wanted to tell myself. Stop! What are you afraid of? It’s just a little drop!
Mark got up with a smile and started to leave the room. As he reached the door, I finally found my voice.
“Stop,” I whispered, my mind still focused on my vision.
He stopped and turned around. “Yes?”
I raised my head, meeting his eyes. My heart was pounding, but I forced myself to continue.
“I quit,” I said quietly.
“What?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
I cleared my throat. “I quit," I said a little louder.
“Kate, what are you talking about? You don’t want to quit. Think about what you’re giving up.”
I stood up, his words making me even more angry than I already was. I struggled to keep my voice controlled. “No, Mark, think about what you are losing. I worked my butt off on this project. I’ve been working my butt off for years! That was supposed to be my promotion, Mark!”
His eyebrows raised in surprise as he heard my words -- words and a tone of voice that’d I’d never dared use before now.
“Kate, look. I could probably talk to the partners about a small raise or something if . . .”
“No, Mark!” I said, cutting him off. I paused to keep from yelling as I chose my next words carefully. In a split second, I decided I wanted to be civilized about this. I didn’t need to scream and stomp my feet to get my point across. No point in antagonizing him, and maybe I was learning the balance between being nice and too nice, as Clark had said. As much as I wanted to punch Mark in the face, I decided that doing so might not be the best thing for my future interests. I was still seething, but I took a deep breath and worked to remain composed as I continued.
“Mark,” I said evenly. “I appreciate the opportunities you and the other partners have given me. Over the years, I have learned some invaluable skills. It appears, however, that I have outgrown the needs of this company and these skills are no longer appreciated. Therefore, effective immediately, I am giving you my resignation.” He watched me in disbelief as I made my way around the table to where he stood at the door. When I reached him, I looked straight into his eyes and willed myself to find my voice one more time. Teeth clenched, I said, “I quit,” before pushing past him and out the door.
Walking down the hallway to my office, I felt as if a big sign was taped to my back -- Hey, guys! I just quit! -- and that everyone was staring at me. When I got to my office, it was empty -- Tina must have gone to lunch -- so I wasted no time typing up an “official” resignation letter. I packed up the few personal items I had, retrieved some of my notes, and walked over to Mark’s office to drop the letter off with his secretary. She must have been expecting me, because she didn’t seemed surprised when I gave it to her.
I turned and walked to the elevator. My adreneline was pumping so hard I could barely control the shaking in my hand as I pushed the Down button. I waited only a moment before the elevator doors opened. Jim was in the elevator, and he got out and held the door for me while I got in.
“Hey, you!” he smiled. “Do you want to get a drink after work tonight? You know, to celebrate and all? Maybe talk?"
I pushed the button for the first floor. “Can’t tonight, Jim,” I said briskly. “I’ve got plans. And, I . . . well, I just quit.”
He straightened in surprise, his hand moving from the elevator doors. “What?!” he asked in disbelief.
I shrugged and smiled, his shocked expression the last thing I saw as the doors closed. I reached the first floor and headed out of the building. I was still so pumped that I decided to walk a few blocks to calm down. Before I knew it, I had walked ten blocks, so I decided to walk the rest of the way home -- thirty or so blocks weren’t going to kill me.
As I walked, I thought about what I had just done. I had quit. I had actually quit my job. Surprisingly, I wasn’t upset. Instead, I was excited. For the first time in a long time, I was actually excited. Like I’d been carrying a weight around with me for so long, and I was finally able to cut it loose. I was alive, full of energy. My future was unknown, and I could make it anything I wanted it to be. A new beginning, a new life.
As if on cue, my cell phone started to ring. I grabbed it out of my bag and answered. “Hello?”
“Kate?” It was Emile. “It’s a girl!”