It seems like everyone but me is making it.
All over the city, young women are working at glossy magazines, foreign affairs think tanks, insiders-only investment firms funds run out of posh townhouses on the Upper East Side. There are girls who introduce British musicians on rock video cable television programs, there are women on camera in front of the Berlin Wall.
I work on Wall Street. Don’t ask me how I got here. Things are a bit slow at the moment. I came on board just when all the excitement was dying down. What I do here is read. I read all the major papers every day and the weekly business magazines and Sunday supplements over the weekend.
The other day I was reading one of those women’s columns in The New York Times. The writer wrote about being raped. She gave the year of the occurrence, which was her freshman year in college. This made her a few years younger than me. I noted her other activities in the blurb at the bottom of the piece. And found that she was doing much better than me in several respects. Now it’s not unusual, for someone to be outpacing me, but this case was especially esteem-deflating. This girl, who has been through the same thing as me, is being published in the Times already. She’s doing something with her experience.
She wrote about her ordeal in such excruciating detail that I doubt most people would have completed the article. I read all the way to the end. I wanted to see what, if any sense she had made of her ordeal. She said that people need to be educated about these things, but that no one wants to know. I wouldn’t have wanted to know either, if I didn’t already.
I clip the article and put it in my Special File.
The summer after high school, when my best friend Elise was commuting to her summer internship in New York, a teenaged boy tried to hijack her in the train station parking lot. He said he had a gun in his pocket. That summer Elise almost always took the eleven o’clock train back to Bridgeport from the city because there was so much to do in Manhattan after work. Lots of girls would have been scared to go out to the parking lot alone at midnight. I would have, but not Elise. When the boy told her to let him in the car, she said I don’t believe you have a gun in your pocket, let me see it. And the boy said he was just kidding and went away. If she were a guy, you’d say Elise had balls.
I am not assertive like Elise or the girl who wrote the column in the Times. She wrote that she speaks regularly on the issue of gender-related violence, is pursuing a graduate degree in women’s studies, has taken this experience that happened to her and built an entire identity out of it. She should be congratulated for that, don’t you think?
This girl who wrote the Times piece said that her assailant had the upper hand because he surprised her. They say that is the rapist’s big advantage, surprise. Most bad things that happened to me, or which I’ve witnessed happening to other people, haven’t been surprises – getting fired from jobs, my parents’ divorce, the gradual demise of old friendships and the more jarring completions of romances. I could see all these things coming from a long way off, years sometimes. But still it seems that there was nothing I could do to stop any of them from happening.
I have to say that I disagree with those who say the rapists’ advantage is surprise, or physical strength, or carrying a weapon. Their advantage is the fact that they want to do it. Women, it never crosses our minds to go out and do something like that, not even someone like Elise. Elise and I lived together for one toiling year in Manahattan. After that she went off to law school. She moved back to the city again, but she’s someone else now. Or maybe the problem is, I didn’t keep up, didn’t turn into someone else, too. She’s figured things out, Elise. I wonder how. If I were more assertive, I’d call her up and ask.
I am not assertive enough about my career by a long shot. All I do here is read the papers and Xerox all the articles that mention my company or things which might affect my company — they tell me what these things are, what to look for – and get the whole package up to the executive floor by nine, when Mr. Furman comes in. In order to do this, I get here by six a.m., before anyone save the maintenance men and the one security guard who works the two to eight shift. That was the one thing that caused me to hesitate, before accepting this job – being alone in the building. In the end it came down to money. Before I took this job I couldn’t afford anything, I used to have to debate whether or not to get a soda, after having walked miles home from somewhere in the hot city summer to save bus fare. It would have been silly not to take the job. On my phone the extension for security – 8744 – is prominently displayed, in case of an emergency. But there is just the one guard, and it would be hard to explain quickly over the phone the directions to where I sit, and by the time someone came, something would have happened already, if it was going to happen, if I were to see it coming.
Earlier in my tenure, when I was still trying to make something of this job, I proposed to write a one page summary of the news collected in my Xeroxed clips. They looked at me and said they’d think about it and then came back and said no. Perhaps it was the way I asked. Perhaps it was the little tremor I got in my voice that made it seem like I was begging for a favor. People don’t like that. It’s a sign of weakness.
So it seems that they only want me to do what I do. What I get paid isn’t much, for down here, but it isn’t all that bad, when you consider what I do is all I do. My work is pretty much finished by mid-morning. After that I have a little long-term organizing to do, and for the rest of the day I just continue reading the other, non-business sections of the paper, sometimes clipping articles and putting them in my Special File, sometimes just sitting here, doing nothing.
My office is two mustard-colored walls and one free-standing partition. The ceiling is low and half the fluorescent lights are on the blink. A promotional poster for the company featuring our building in all its spired glory against a lavender twilight sky partially covers the scrapes and smudges on one wall. There is an African violet in a silver-tone plastic pot which I bought at Woolworth up the street last fall. Both plant and pot are looking a little the worse for wear (the silver-tone paint of the pot is chipping.) The plant, along with some photographs of country scenes in winter torn from an old magazine and stuck to the wall with pushpins, were part of a live-improvement plan I started earlier this year. I can’t say whether the plan was successful or not, or if indeed, it is still in effect.
Some might argue that I could use my initiative to think up things to do during my free time. However, I haven’t much initiative left. Years ago, I had initiative for lots of things, but I seem to have burned myself out, attempting to do each of them with too much enthusiasm, with an air of frenzy, almost. Once the burned-out period was over, I couldn’t locate the resources necessary to continue trying.
I do have some initiative for other things, like taking walks in this misty March weather, preferably near the water. I often visit Battery Park on my lunch hour. With my raincoat and toothpick I cut a mysterious figure. (If I were a man, people would be afraid of me.) I have initiative, too, for walking in the country, for coming to rest at a small hill and looking up to watch the clouds float by. But to do that, I would have to live in the country, which I don’t.
I’m not complaining. I am glad to have a steady job and a regular place to live. Three years ago, when I was making much less money than I am now, I lived in a residential hotel. I went to live there beause I had to get out of where I was living in a hurry, and didn’t have any money for a deposit. It was supposed to be temporary, but I stayed there for eighteen months. It was an odd place, but not bad – two meals included, locks on the doors and windows. All women, so you didn’t have to worry about anyone lurking in corners as you roamed the halls in your bathrobe, on your way to the shower or the soda machine. They were very strict about that, had a security guard at the door to keep men out. Most of the women who lived there had been through some sort of smash or other involving a man – divorce, domestic violence, prostitution – some situation they’d decided to remove themselves from. So the policy seemed appropriate, although whoever made p the rules when the place was founded couldn’t have anticipated that. The people who ran the hotel acted a bit like jail wardens, but we, the residents, were very careful with each other, very reticent about revealing or probing each other’s lives. I was grateful for that.
Still I didn’t like anyone on the outside to know I lived there. The hotel was a bit seedy, a bit too far on the west side, near Tenth Avenue, right near where that girl got her face slashed. Did she see it coming? I wonder.
I have lots of free time here. If I had an office like Mr. Furman’s on the 61st floor, I could spend this extra time watching the boats chug around the base of the Statue of Liberty, and the clouds slant towards the horizon in shimmering stripes on these later winter afternoons.
That is the precise view I saw Mr. Furman enjoying last week when I was summoned to his office unexpectedly. I found tall Mr. Furman in his dazzling white shirt leaning on the window sill, gazing dreamily ouot. The he turned to me with his smile, reaching his hands out for the documents I’d come up to give him. I had to stand there and wait while he read, in the office with the door closed. Stupid, how I’m still bothered by something like that after so many years. What I did was breathe deeply and count to ten, out the window across the street green copper cornices, five six seven eight pigeons. He hands me back the papers with a smile.
My office is many floors below Mr. Furman’s, and my view is one of blackened pipes snaking across the soiled nether brick walls of the building opposite. Next door to my cube is an abandoned conference room with walls of tall windows offering views of three construction sites – all buildings going up around here. At the end of the day I can see a stream of pedestrians pour across the street and disappear under the scaffolding, heading for the subway: young men in fawn or steel grey raincoats; a middle-aged woman in a too-short, too-tight, brown all-weather coat, taking care to step around the puddles and ice patches. Watch out! Don’t fall! I want to tell her.
The skyscraper next door will be over eight stories tall when it’s finished. I wonder, sometimes, if it won’t collapse the pavement and crush me and everyone else down in the IRT one day.
These are my days. Interesting, no? The last break I had was serving jury duty last summer. Most people complain about jury duty, but as you can imagine, I found it quite a bit more interesting than being here. Like here, most of jury duty is waiting around doing nothing. But unlike here, at jury duty there are other people to do nothing with. There were some interesting people in the waiting room. I met a man who was an understudy at the Metropolitan Opera. I guarded his script while he went to the rest room. I met a woman who was the New York correspondent for a foreign paper. We had lunch together the first three days of waiting. We talked about – oh, all kinds of things – and the point was not lost on me that she was the kind of person I needed to befriend, the kind of connection I ought to cultivate, if I ever hoped to get out of here.
On the fourth day we all filed into the court room for questioning, a surprisingly thorough process. It was almost as if we were the ones suspected of a crime. There is a point during the jury selection process when the judge asks all the potential jurors one by one if they’ve ever been the victim of a crime. I knew this was coming up, and I didn’t know until the very last minute if I was going to say yes or no. Naturally I didn’t want to expose myself in front of so many strangers. But in the end when you put me in a box under oath I tell the truth.
“What kind of violent crime?” the judge, a kind-seeming, grandfatherly black man, asked.
“Assault. Assault,” I had to say twice, because he couldn’t hear very well.
“Did you report the crime?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“And did the matter come to trial?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked.
I did not answer right away.
“There wasn’t enough evidence,” I said finally. “No one believed me.”
The judge gave off a laugh, of sorts. He was embarrassed, I think, for at that point I’m sure he and all of the forty-odd potential juroros in the room guessed what kind of assault it must have been.
The judge asked me if I thought my experience would affect my judgment in the case at hand, which was armed robbery. I said no, but they didn’t select me for the jury anyhow. So that was the last of waiting around the court building with my new friend, the woman from the foreign newspaper. I wouldn’t be seeing her again, and I was hoping to get her contact information so we could keep in touch.
When we were filing out of the court room, she strode on ahead and I lost sight of her. I caught up with her leaving the court house, but instead of walking with me to the subway as she’d done the previous three days, she started talking very quickly and dissociatingly and dismissively, reciting an elaborate story about having to do some special errand up in the Village, which was why she wouldn’t be taking my subway.
An as she talked, her excluding brown eyes flew up over my head, and it became very clear to me, that I wasn’t to make any more advances, and that I had made a mistake, revealing myself up there on the stand.
I am surprisingly isolated here on my corner of the floor. One is always reading of the high cost of commercial real estate, yet my floor is nearly empty.
The telemarketers don’t start arriving until four, and technically I can leave then. Sometimes I sit here on these late winter afternoons and stare at the smudge on the wall, or at the African violet in its silver-tone plastic pot, until these images lose their previous associations in my mind and become altogether senseless things.
It is at this time, in the early afternoon, when the inertia is worst, and my dual senses of frustration and self-disgust peak. Almost in a panic I will get up and fetch myself a cup of water from the cooler across the hall, or go down to the news stand for Life Savers, or, if I’m up to it, run down the hall to the rest room, close myself into one of the stalls and try to squeeze out a few tears. I seldom succeed at this.
Afterwards, I will emerge, feeling slightly relieved, if only at having made the effort, splash some cold water on my face and smile at myself in the mirror. On the way out of the Ladies Room I will read the sign on the door: “Please close FIRMLY, or else the responsibility for wandering messengers is YOURS.”
Well, who else’s fault is it supposed to be?
This bad patch, this early afternoon paralysis starts to lifet magically when an alarm, which sounds like a school bell, but which comes from a nearby warehouse, rings at 3 p.m. – the signal that another work day is nearly over.
Out my one window, across to the right of the back of the building opposite, there is a perpendicular trip of open sky which is especially beckoning on days of sun and billowing white clouds. Sometimes I look out the window and see smaller clouds scudding across the strip of sky on a day that is almost spring, or look down in the street and see a girl in a pleated short purple skirt and white tights, rushing along, full of life, and I feel a tug, that hope I had when I was young.
It was in fact this strip of blue sky that inspired memory, and prompted me to buy a photo Rolodex from Woolworth’s. I have filled it with about thirty photographs of myself and my family and friends. It is the photos from longer ago that mean the most to me. I put in the more recent ones as decoys.
Here I have put my favorite picture of me and Elise standing on the outdoor platform at our high school graduation, our long hair streaming straight over our graduation gowns, our round faces tanned from sun. I was valedictorian, she salutorian, but from our mystical expressions, it’s clear we’ve been smoking something. That was before, a couple of years.
Here at the very end of the Rolodex is the last picture, before what happened happened. Looking at this photograph I can feel the hot sun on the side of my face, sitting in a field, in a red one-piece bathing suit, my arms brown and tensed because I was holding someone’s puppy. You can see he was in motion, this dog, his tongue slavering, his mouth smiling. That day my hair was put up, but falling down, my cheeks brown and rosy, and I was smiling a warm, humble, entirely oblivious smile. Because that was the one time I did not see it coming.
Just say no. I actually tried that.
“I’ll bet you’re thinking you’re lucky to be alive.”
I’ll bet you think I look like Satan right now. And he was right.
And I knew that he’d done this before, that some other girl had told him that. By then I knew everything in the room by heart, even if I didn’t know anything else: the water stain on the ceiling, the iron-barred window, the blasted green couch, the locked door, the digital clock radio reading 4:33. The variously sized spears and knives on the wall, the little table underneath with the locked drawer containing the key to the bedroom door, the bed, and over it, the picture of Jesus. The radio turned up loud to cover the commotion, all the songs that had been hits that spring, and all those the D.J. predicted would be hits that summer. And all through the night, not knowing if I was going to make it to the morning alive.
Thank you for letting me go.
What wasn’t clear to me then was that I would never again be free. That I wouldn’t be coming back.