The next few days were a blur of self-pity and shock. Also embarrassment, not only because I’d been fired (excuse me, “laid off”) but because I’d been too clueless to see it coming. I had been stupid enough to think I’d actually been doing sort of a good job. Hadn’t’t I fixed countless chapters? Wasn’t’t I the one everyone went to with their grammar questions? Of course, looking back, it was all too clear: the scaling down of my workload in the last few weeks; the closed doors whenever I walked past the VP’s offices; the acceleration of Christy Keller’s training.
Ah, Christy Keller. No wonder she’d been so nice to me! She was probably laughing her ass off behind my back, knowing she’d be pushing me out all along. I was shocked and outraged when I looked up from the couch to see her name on my phone’s caller ID. How dare she call to gloat during my Oprah marathon? Wasn’t’t there anyone else at the office who could tell her where the paper clips were?
And then back to me. What, exactly, had I done wrong? No matter how much I pressed her, on the phone or via email, Elaine refused to tell me. I didn’t’t get it. Why not just let me know what my transgression was? I’d never had a complaint about the quality of my work. Even my sarcastic sense of humor had always seemed to be generally well regarded. I hadn’t’t pissed anyone off, not that I knew of, anyway. Maybe it was that time I forgot to make a fresh pot of coffee? I had a vague sense that I was being ridiculous. Oh, well – time to watch Judge Judy.
Travis had been wonderful, knowing instinctively when to call, when to text, and when to leave me the hell alone. I instantly forgave him for not telling me when he found out I was getting the heave ho – he’d been eavesdropping on the big bosses and would surely have been suspected as the leak. That explained his nervousness on the phone with me that day. My parents had been their usual incredible selves—in between my choked sobs on the phone my mom had reminded me of how brilliant I was and my father had insisted on sending money until I found my next job. I was too defeated to refuse. Even my 8-year-old nephew Donnie was a comfort, explaining to me that the average American changes jobs 5-7 times, so I still had about 6 more to go. He had been memorizing statistics since he was 5. At least I came from good stock. Yeah, big deal. I was brilliant and unemployed.
Finally, on Tuesday morning, I dragged myself into the shower and got dressed. It was 2 days before Christmas and I had to pick up a gift for Donnie. Luckily, Marcy’s had processed my return and deposited the $129.50-plus-tax back into my pathetic checking account. I grabbed the debit card from my wallet, put on headphones to shield me from the onslaught of Christmas music certain to be playing at the mall, blasted Sheryl Crow on my Ipod, and left my apartment.
I had just paid for the magic set Donnie wanted and was heading toward the mammoth line at Free Gift-wrap. I pictured the events of that Friday a hundred more times in my head as I trudged along. I saw it all clearly. What I didn’t’t see, unfortunately, was the spilled water on the floor.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up on a hard little bed, in a room with SECURITY written backwards on the other side of a glass door. “Steve McQueen” was pounding in my ears and my left ankle was killing me. I looked up. Christy Keller was standing in front of me.
I stared at her the same way Donnie stared at Mars on the Discovery Channel. “I called Security when I saw you fall. Are you okay?”
I kept staring at her. Then, I saw something on her face I hadn’t’t seen before: lines around her eyes. “Uh…yeah, I guess…”
“Fine. They said your ankle is not sprained, but it’s gonna be hard for you to walk for a little while. I live across the street. You’re coming with me.”
She saw the look on my face. “Samantha, I’ve been trying to talk to you for days now. Now shut up and lean on my shoulder. Let’s go.”
Her apartment was nothing like I’d expected: small, cozy and lined with books. My eyes widened as they set on a particular one: a yearbook labeled Dayton High School, class of ’94. I looked up from the love seat she’d placed me on and studied her face again. There it was, what I’d been unable to put my finger on before: exhaustion. But there was something else too, something in the deliberate way she hung up my coat and poured tea: determination. A kind of toughness behind the beautiful blue eyes.
Her eyes followed mine back to the yearbook on the shelf and she broke the silence. “There are a few things you should know about me.”
“I already know all I need to know about you.”
“I don’t think you do, Samantha.”
“What the hell don’t I know? That you came in to take my job? Please, Christy, you got what you wanted, what more is there?”
“Well, for one thing I never intended to take your job.”
I said nothing.
“And for another thing, I used to own my own publishing company. I’ve written a little bit, too.” Her arm extended towards the nearest stuffed bookshelf. And there I saw it: “by C. Keller” over and over again on dozens of book spines. I stared up at her.
“So I do know a bit about this business. Oh, and by the way, I’m a little older than you think.”
My eyes shifted to the faded yearbook and then back to her face.
“I’m 34, Samantha.”
“No, YOU assumed that I was a kid out of college. I didn’t see the point of trying to correct you.”
“And why not?”
“Because it was obvious you didn’t like me. I figured the less interaction, the better.”
“But you were so damned knowledgeable, I actually started to like you,” she confessed with a wry smile. “And when I found out what they were planning to do to you, I felt really guilty. I just want you to know that I had nothing to do with any of that. I needed a job bad, and I knew when I accepted this position that they were underpaying me. One day I overheard a couple VPs congratulating themselves on the bonuses they were going to get for replacing your much-higher salary with mine.”
She eased herself into the upholstered chair opposite me and continued.
“But what could I do? Even if I’d quit, they were still going to eliminate your position. I remember one of them saying to the other, ‘You’re right – there’s no way Samantha’s going to take a pay cut! Well, she’s one of the best in the business – she’ll find another job soon.’ And the other continued, ‘I don’t think she’s happy here anyway.'”
My eyes narrowed, searching for answers on Christy’s forehead.
“Why would they say I wasn’t happy here?”
She laughed. “Come on, Samantha.” Her laughter subsiding, she studied me. “Are you saying you honestly don’t know where that perception would come from?”
“Gee, you seem to have all the answers – why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Well…to someone who doesn’t know you, you come off as…somewhat…on edge.”
Now I was angry. What right did she have to…
She could see my reaction. “Hey, you asked me!”
“Listen, Christy, I really don’t appreciate your little analysis. I don’t know where you get off saying that I’m on edge, but let me tell you something. You need to…” All of a sudden I looked down at my hands. They were clenched. The knuckles were white.
We looked at each other. At the exact same moment, we both started cracking up.
We laughed and laughed, suddenly bonded by this shared catharsis, this release of months worth of tension. We laughed like two girlfriends, trying to compose ourselves repeatedly only to dissolve into hysteria again and again. It felt at once bizarre and strangely fitting. We laughed until we were exhausted. Then, I noticed something.
“What’s that?” I pointed at the red gash on Christy’s neck from where her silk scarf had loosened.
She took a deep breath and responded. “That’s a Christmas gift from my stepfather.”
“I’m not talking about the scarf.”
“Neither am I.”
“What the hell are you…”
“Samantha, when I said there was a lot you didn’t know about me, I wasn’t talking about what brand of laundry detergent I use.”
“But I don’t understand. Are you telling me that your own stepfather DID this to you?”
She smiled the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “Oh, Samantha, this was the least of it, trust me.”
And before I could open my mouth to ask the next question, I knew the answer.
Christy went on, “My family is not exactly what you’d find on a Christmas card.”
I nodded for her to continue.
“The day I turned 12, I promised myself that by 18, I’d be out of that house for good.”
“Why?” I closed my eyes.
It was as if she knew I’d already figured it out. “What he did to me all those years was disgusting, degrading, and terrifying – but nothing compared to what my mother did.”
“What did she do?”
“She stayed with him.”
Two hours later Christy and I sat down at her antique wooden dining table to eat the dinner we’d just cooked together. Once I’d heard the worst, the rest had come pouring out of her – I sensed it had been a long time since she’d confided in anyone. I now understood why she always wore those scarves, always tied just so. Rather than a fashion statement, it was an attempt to hide the scars from her stepfather’s attempts on her life when she’d threatened to tell about the sexual abuse. She told me this with a strange abandon. It didn’t matter any more; nothing really mattered any more. She told me of the years it had taken to finally get up the courage to tell her mother, and she told me of her mother’s shocking, soul-crushing response: She’d just continued washing dishes and stared straight ahead.
Over ice cream and the best coffee I’d had in years, it was my turn to speak.
“Christy, I am so sorry that I judged you like that. I’d just been through a lot of stuff before…”
“I can understand your wanting to be careful. I’ve worked with back-stabbers too.”
“Yeah, but now I feel so stupid.”
“Why? My stuff doesn’t negate yours. You’ve got every right to feel angry and protect yourself. Although you have to admit, I did beat you in the Crappy Life department.” We both went hysterical laughing again.
“Christy, I can’t believe what you’ve been through and you’re still standing. And here I am, feeling sorry for myself ’cause I didn’t get a promotion or two. I feel so shallow!”
“Hey, thanks – but you’d still be standing too. We woman writers are a strong lot.”
My head jerked up. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know if you remember this, but one day you were barreling down the hall, yelling into your cell phone, and we bumped into each other. A couple hours later I was walking back that same way and found an old notebook on the floor. I swear, I initially opened it only to find a name inside to return it to, but then I saw it was the beginning of a novel. I know I shouldn’t have read it without your permission, but it was too good to resist. During your lunch break, I put the book back on your desk. Good thing I did find it, because when I drew your name for the office Secret Santa, I now knew what to get you.”
I was shocked yet again. “You mean that beautiful leather journal was from you ?”
She smiled at me. “I knew that message I wrote would drive you crazy.”
I remembered the gorgeous writing tablet I’d received a few days before. Tucked neatly inside had been a small card emblazoned with the message: “You are a great writer. Now write!”
“What’s the matter?” She saw my eyes start to tear up.
“Nothing. Shut up.” I forced a quick smile.
“You told me to shut up?! Now I know you like me!”
And out of absolutely nowhere, I hugged her.
On Christmas Day, I excitedly brought Christy to my parents’ house in Westchester. My mom beamed at us, glamorous as usual in a black cashmere dress and tasteful diamond stud earrings; my dad was loud and cuddly, full of advice and corny jokes; my sister Anna was striking with her gleaming auburn mane brushed to perfection; my brother-in-law Phil was warm and kind, enveloping us in an unconditional, sweatered embrace; and then their son Donnie came sauntering into the room. He stopped when he saw me.
“Aunt Sammy, are you aware that 56 percent of Christmas gifts are returned Dec. 26?”
“OK, Mr. Statistics, then I guess that means you won’t be wanting yours.”
His smile lit up the room. “Now that I’m taller than you, I’d advise against making me mad.”
“Oh, so you think you’re a big shot now, just because you’re a PHD in Mathematics?”
“No…I know I am.” As we play fought like we did every year, I the light hit Christy’s blond hair, now pulled back in a chignon with wisps falling about her porcelain face. At 54, her looks were still exquisite as ever. I pulled her into the fight, and, laughing breathlessly, made my escape. I stood watching my nephew and best friend shrieking with laughter, and began to smell the “Christmas Knishes” that were a staple of my family’s annual holiday dinner. My sister and her husband held each other close in the kitchen, while my parents turned on Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” album. As I watched this scene, my own particular Christmas tableaux, I took out one of my business cards and looked down at it. In crisp, black letters it read:
IN BUSINESS 20 YEARS
I smiled, shook my head, and sat down to dinner.