In mid-August of 2001, I ended a fifteen-year run on the track of Corporate America, spent mostly with one large company. Leaving that firm, that world,was a wildly spontaneous decision on my part, fueled by the perfect storm of lifestyle changes, bad career choices and a rare opportunity to return to public school teaching. I felt exquisitely lucky that August. I had no idea how lucky I was.
I had wound my way around and up throughout the firm and landed in Communications, where that English degree was finally put to good use and I got to write for most of the workday. I made a respectable living, the people were fun, and my work was valued. Still, when I saw the internal posting for a Communications Director spot, a little voice egged me on. Not only would this new job be a nice promotion, it would secure the all-important “Vice President” title as well. A title that was, in a large financial services firm like this one, coveted as much for the attendant ego gratification as it was for the annual cash bonus it merited. Sure, it reported directly to a First VP with a monstrous reputation, but all the right corporate buzzwords were woven into this one job description: Lucrative, high profile, high exposure.
It was a two-hour interview. She was everything she was rumored to be: Arrogant, high-strung and mercurial. Somehow, she got me to agree to a month-long “audition” so to speak, during which I communicated with her mainly via email, and then sent her speeches and articles and presentations appropriate to the things she described.
Toward the end of the month, she called me at 5:30 in the afternoon and said that she needed a speech for the opening ceremony of a corporate-wide event. “No problem!” I chirped enthusiastically, then, with a little nervous laugh I added, “Wait, isn’t that tomorrow? Unapologetically, she assured me that she was, in fact, scheduled to deliver said speech at 9:00 a.m. the following morning. There was a pause, and she finished with a deadly coy, “Oh, well, maybe it’s too much to ask.”
I heard the challenge in her tone and knew this was a test. I was frantic. I did my best impersonation of nonplussed. “I’m on it,” I told her, and then I called the babysitter and asked her (again) to stay late.
There were others taking a stab at that speech too. She chose mine, and that was the day she asked me to “name my price.” Her choice of words unnerved me, but once again, I shook it off. In keeping with the “go big or go home” mentality I was working at that point, I told her (in an equally even, challenging tone) an absurdly high number. She didn’t flinch. There, I thought,game on.
The truth is that I was as close to selling my soul to the devil as I would ever be and I should have never, in a million years, imagined that I was anywhere close to being in her league in any kind of game, much less the game I was signing on to play.
The older me, the one who reflects on this and other times in my life, wonders about the fact that I disregarded every instinct that I had about her. She made no attempt to camouflage her difficult disposition, and I sensed early on that the hoops she had me jumping through were getting higher and higher. Why was I not asking myself if I could work for someone like that? Instead, I embarked on this mission to excel, to please, to succeed, frankly, where no man had succeeded before.
Which brings me to the notion that I could have, for example, just listened to the man who currently held the position. He was more than willing to share his experiences (not to mention his anti-anxiety meds) with me. He explained to me that because he had not yet been with her for a year, the only way he could transfer out from under her and still stay with the firm was if he was willing to see the firm’s counseling service and plead emotional problems. As it turns out, he was. And he did.
Ego is such a formidable force. I dug in my Brooks Brother’s heels, looked away from the evidence and my obstinate resistance to considering it seriously. There was something familiar and disquieting about my own choice in that regard that lingered like old perfume.
Ego notwithstanding, there were probably a number of factors that knit together my stubbornly skewed perception. I had remarried the year before, but the financial insecurity of the single mom was still with me, as was the secret suspicion that I wasn’t good enough. I had something to prove, and was probably rein-acting something personal; hoping that this time, it would have a different ending. The really creepy part is that I think she honed in on that. As a former trial attorney, she had a knack for making quick and accurate assessments of people. I’d bet my bonus that she was gifted in terms of jury selection. She could smell vulnerability, and she was shameless about capitalizing on it. In a very dysfunctional way, our pairing was serendipitous.
It was the end of January when she called to offer me the job. I remember her exact words: “I am pleased to offer you the position, and to meet your salary requirements as well.” With a quiet reserve I did not feel, I accepted her offer, briefly discussed an official start date and hung up the phone. I walked calmly to the nearest ladies room, checked every stall to be sure I was alone and then I let out a delirious whoop of joy. There may have been a few salsa moves a la Victor Cruz. I’m certain that there was fist pumping and an exuberant chorus of one yelling “Yes! Yes! YES!!!” Had I known at the time that this moment would be the best I was going to feel for the next six months, I would have reveled in it even more.
If things had turned out differently, I’d spin this is as a cautionary tale:Denial and greed and pride, oh my. But the luxury of hindsight compels me to view it as one of life’s watershed moments, one that would soon trigger other watershed moments, and before it was over, huge chunks of my life would be altered and re-defined. Here was this not entirely blind curve in the road and I was just entering the turn, all juiced up on a dangerous cocktail of adrenalin and ambition.
I moved into my new offices by Valentine’s Day and the honeymoon period began. I would split my time between Princeton and downtown Manhattan, just as she did. The first two months were filled with certain regular initiatives that became my main focus. Little by little, however, these were interrupted by unreasonable demands; ancillary “projects,” the corporate writer’s equivalent of, “Would you pick up my shirts from the cleaners?”
One of these was a “roast” that she absolutely had to have for an old friend of hers whose retirement party was that same evening. I’d never met the man, and she insisted that she was too busy to fill me in. His secretary was out of the office that day as well. I hadn’t a thing to go on other than one of his colleagues telling me that he was “bald, and liked to golf.” A normal person with a normal boss would calmly discuss the impossibility of the situation with their superior. Knowing this was not an option, I went into the bathroom and threw up instead. Then I wrote it, flying by the seat of my pants the whole way.
By April I was having regular migraines. At the end of May, the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend to be exact, Boss-zilla interrupted my daughter’s sixth birthday party at our house. “I. NEED. YOU!” She screamed accusingly into the phone. I’d learned to keep my responses level, unemotional. Don’t feed the monster. She was fairly hysterical as she spewed her diatribe straight from the deck of her summer home in the Hamptons. That evening, after cleaning up party debris, I got on the computer and stayed there until the wee hours creating a PowerPoint presentation with talking points and the stump of a speech on the same topic. I hit “send” at about 4 am and fell into bed. Then I turned off my phone and didn’t look at email for the rest of the weekend.
When I got back to the office on Tuesday, she ignored my presence, but left an “Action List” on my desk consisting of thirty-two items due at the end of the day. Later, I would discover certain intriguing details of a brouhaha that took place after she had presented my weekend work to her superior, calling it “unusable.” He declared it “outstanding.” As I read his email expressing his appreciation for my “fine work,” I felt a glow of satisfaction that only slightly eased the knot in my stomach. Above the subject line I saw that Boss-zillabeen copied on that email.
Soon after, in June, she called me in to declare a speech I’d prepared for her “turgid.” I almost laughed. She continued, saying something like, “You know, it’s kind of pretentious-“
“I know what turgid means.” I cut her off, my tone a warning.
We locked eyes. I held her shocked gaze knowing that my own was cold.Bring it.
At the end of July I saw an ad in the paper for an English/Public Speaking teacher at a nearby public middle school. I had taught high school English briefly right after college, and daydreamed of going back to it someday. Add to this the fact that my new husband and I had four school-aged kids between us, and together we agreed that I should send a resume. I was at the beach on vacation when they called me for an interview, and by the time I went back to work, I had my letter of resignation in hand. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect her to try and convince me to stay, which she did. Pulling out all of the stops, she used everything at her disposal actually, to change my mind. Another watershed occurred with shocking clarity, revealing what I’d been so reluctant to see before; that ours had all the earmarks of an abusive relationship. And just like that, it was done. Shifted. Over. All the angst, the self-doubt and the ire that she inspired just vaporized.
My secretary, who had taken the call when the offer came, sat in my office with me and laughed until we cried over the fact that I was really going to do it, I was jumping ship big time, and for a ridiculously low new salary. Ironically, here again, had I known what the future held for me, I would have reveled in the moment even more.
Two weeks later I was home, off for a few days before beginning my new/old career. The relief I felt was indescribable. I remember sipping coffee on the deck, marveling at the ubiquitous nature of landscaping in my neighborhood. I’d never been home to see it before! Never imagined there were so many of them! The sound of lawn mowers was incredibly soothing to me; a constant, lazy drone that I hadn’t really heard since childhood it seemed. It came to represent everything I’d missed sitting in sound-proofed, over air-conditioned offices for too many years.
One week after that, I was at the beginning of my first full week of teaching. As the kids filed in for my period 2 Public Speaking class, one of them said to me, “Mrs. H., did you hear? A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
In a kind of fog, I went upstairs to the library where someone had told me there was a news program on the TV, along with a clear view of the Manhattan skyline. There was. With excruciating slowness, details emerged about the attack. I stood there staring out at the clouds of billowing black smoke where there once stood two powerful buildings and silently contemplated the unspeakable evil behind these acts. I prayed for friends and family members. At one point, I tried to make out the two cousins to the Twin Towers, the North and South Tower of the Financial Center, and shivered, finding it difficult to breathe. “What day is it?” I croaked, to no one in particular.
“Tuesday.” Someone answered.
I stared straight ahead, heart pounding, trying to process the thousands of emotions and scenarios running through my head, shifting like a deck of cards from terror to frustration to confusion and rage to uncomprehending gratitude.
Right up until three weeks prior, I spent Tuesdays at 2WorldFi, otherwise known as the South Tower of the World Financial Center. My office, on the 40th floor, faced the swiftly collapsing World Trade Center buildings.
Thank you, Boss-zilla (who is, as of this writing, alive and as cantankerous as ever) for assuring me that most of my co-workers were fine too, in spite of the fact that the windows of my old office blew in like a child’s soap bubble in the wind, spraying glass and debris throughout the entire floor.
Our pairing had been serendipitous indeed.