I bumped into an old acquaintance the other day. We were both in the midst of errands, grabbing a smoothie for an on-the-go lunch.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said in an easy-breezy way.
She was toting a bag from a department store and was wearing her workout clothes. She slid her sunglasses to the top of her head. There was warmth in her eyes and she seemed glad to see me.
“You?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
We took sips of our smoothies and stood for an awkward moment. Then she checked her phone.
I could have said a million things. We could have caught up on old times. I could have asked about her kids or could have complimented her on her weight loss. She seemed to be holding in her words as well.
In the end, “Fine” was all we said.
As I walk away, I wondered, Had she attended the same School of Hard Knocks as I?
Instantly, my face burns with a memory, as clear as when it happened twenty-seven years ago. I was a receptionist. It was my first “real job” in a top-tier law firm where I worked full time while putting myself through college–A dream job for someone like me who was carrying a full load of classes. It afforded me a chance to study between answering phone calls and greeting clients.
It was the tailend of the crazy 1980s, in the era of “Greed is Good,” and the law firm ran twenty-four hours a day whether it was a holiday or not. I wore big-shouldered navy blazers and had a frizzy perm.
I often volunteered to work the early morning shift so that I could attend classes in the afternoon. On this particular day, I arrived at the crack of dawn to set up a conference room for a client meeting. I was back at my reception desk when a corporate partner and two associates got off the elevator. Passing through the lobby, one asked, “How’s it going?”
I held up Milton’s Paradise Lost. “The hierarchical nature of the universe,” I sighed.
“Some light reading,” the first year laughed. The other associate raised his eyebrows, impressed.
I told him what I was studying, excited that someone had taken note of my ambitious pursuits.
The conversation was brief; but I felt buoyant. Rarely did any of the lawyers stop to greet me, or even meet my eye, as they passed my desk multiple times throughout the day. After all, I was a receptionist. The lowest on the corporate totem pole.
I answered a few phone calls and saw the same partner approach my desk. “Hi again!” I gushed.
His eyes bore into mine and he spoke icily:, “When someone asks you how you are doing, they don’t really want to know. A simple ‘fine’ will do next time.”
He turned back to his office and never said another word to me again.
For years and years this nasty piece of advice clung to me like a bully’s spitball shot right at my chest.
I was never particularly verbal to begin with. Less so, after my battle with meningitis, which subtly altered my speech rhythm and recall for words. In the years that passed, I attended many hob-nobby nights out where I rarely uttered more than “Fine” when greeted. I stood at my husband’s side, smiled, and looked attentive; but offered little more.
We all have these moments that shape us for better or worse. Maybe this moment is why I turned inwardly to writing.
Recently I was going through some storage boxes and came across my son’s art work. He used to love to draw. Manga-style, mostly. Very detailed, with a knack for drawing figures in action that I thought was pretty impressive for a first grader. Together, my son and I created a deck of battle cards from his designs. Then a couple years later the drawings stopped. He tried his hand at basketball and boxing and his interests turned towards sports rather than art. Any required art project from that point on lacked the creativity that had been present in his earlier years.
“Why don’t you draw anymore?” I casually asked him while driving him to college last fall. He concentrated on the clouds ahead, thinking. He captured the memory and pursed his lips like he had swallowed something bitter. Then he told me. It was a story similar to mine. It didn’t involve Milton or Paradise Lost; but it did involve an individual who wanted to make sure he understood the hierarchical nature of the universe.
“Whatever,” he shrugged, not wanting me to make a big deal out something that happened ten years ago. I have a tendency to want to fight my children’s battles. No doubt he could envision me tracking down this heartless dreamwrecker and chest-poking her until she apologized. A mother’s indignation runs deep; but moments like these are but little speed bumps on the highway of life.
Besides, my son wasn’t particularly bothered by it because he has my husband as a life coach. For those of you who don’t know my husband, he is someone who says it like it is–typically infused with some colorful obscenities. When he taught my son this particular lesson about “Sticks and Stones,” it went something like this: “Son, there’s always going to be that one dick in the group…” (I would have loved to have overheard his “Birds and Bees” talk.)
This advice to my son (a.k.a. the penis speech) came around my fortieth birthday. Although not intended for me, something in it must have registered down deep. I summoned my inner-Tess McGill. I found my voice. I forced myself to go beyond fine. I muscled my way into conversations. I sprinkled in some personal opinions and bits of my limited wit. I may not have a Harvard education like that partner in my former law firm, but I still have something to say.
Whether subconsciously or not, the conversation between me and my son regarding his abandoned artistic endeavors must have resonated with him. The next time he came home from college, I noticed that he had started doodling again. There were animated figures in the margins of his class notes. Just for kicks, he picked up a calligraphy set and began to teach himself the art of pen and ink lettering. Like my voice, the bud of his creativity lay merely dormant beneath an icy surface waiting for spring.
I think all of us have encountered that one person, that one dick in the group that gets in your head. Although perhaps not physically possible, mentally, well, there it is. It’s poking around between your ears and it kind of f***s you up for awhile if you let it.
At some point we shake off lingering doubts about our self-worth and move on. We find our place within the world, beyond someone else’s notion of where we should be in their pecking order.
With this understanding, I met an old friend for coffee, someone from back in those law firm days.
“How’ve you been?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
Then I took a deep breath and went so far as to tell her that I had just finished writing my second novel.
“Second?” she marveled. “When did you write the first one?
“Over 20 years ago,” I answered. “No biggie. I never got it published. It was more of an experiment to see if I had it in me.”
She looked hurt. “Still…Why didn’t you ever say so?”
I think back to that morning at the reception desk, knowing what my response to that partner would be today, and realize that my friend and I have a lot of catching up to do.
Note: The title of this post came from a song of the same name by former Rainbow keyboardist, Tony Carey. The song is dated, the video is terrible; but I still love it. The lyrics have nothing to do with the topic of my post unless you really stretch the meaning. Yet somehow the song set the mood while I spun my story. Take a listen. I bet you’ll be humming the melody for days.
Categories: My Posts