The Time That We Lose

Yesterday, my wife and I dropped our son, our youngest, off at a week-long overnight camp on a local college campus. As we were walking back to our car, we had a flash forward moment. In five very short (and I’m sure very fast) years, we’ll be doing this for real. The realization was unsettling. In adult land, five years is not very long.

Every parent wants his children to grow up into healthy, independent adults. It’s what we work so hard on as parents. Everything we do is geared toward that goal. It’s a bumpy and treacherous road because few things go as planned, and quite frankly, some days you wonder if you’ve failed miserably at the one job you have as a parent, but there are so many wonderful, beautiful moments that wipe away any fear of failure you have. In those moments, time seems to stand still briefly, and you know it’s all worth it because if this isn’t, nothing is.

It’s those moments that we treasure so much. Over the years, I’ve taken pictures of some of those moments, and others just reside in my treasure chest of memories. I remember the first time my infant daughter (my oldest) grabbed my finger and looked at me like she really saw me for the first time. My heart melted in that moment and I knew then that I’d do anything for that little girl. She will always have that hold on me. I remember when I came home from my first long business trip when the kids were toddlers. I had arrived in the middle of the night. The next morning, I woke up before the kids and when my son finally came down the stairs and saw me he jumped from the last few stairs into my arms because he was so happy to see me. You don’t get those moments back, but they fill your heart with such joy that it runs over.

Before you know it, those sweet, little kids that once followed you every step of the way outgrow you. They no longer need (or want) you around. It’s a perverse thing in that you want them to grow up, but you don’t. Sometimes, I wish I could freeze time in those joyous moments with the kids and keep things as they are because I know that the next moment will come too soon. It’s all that time we lose that bothers me. In our hectic daily lives, time just slips away. The moments pass like the slightest murmur in the night.

I like to think I’m ready for the time when my kids pass into adulthood, but the truth is that I probably won’t be. I’ll be happy and sad at the same time, but I will always have those memories.

Episode 10 – Standard Ink

I heard George coming down the aisle before he arrived at the entrance to my cube. I could hear the raised floor squeaking under his weight as he turned the corner near my row. When I looked up, I saw his big head bobbing as he walked toward my office. He wore a concerned look with his thin lips stretched across his face in a pained expression. His double chin bounced as he walked. He cut right to the chase.

“I heard you got reassigned to the job reduction team full time,” he said.

I stared at him for a moment. He looked bad even for him. His eyes drooped as if he hadn’t had much sleep. His short and wispy hair hadn’t been combed. His attire screamed conflict with a yellow, button-up shirt choked by a crooked brown tie. It reminded me of an ensemble my grandfather may have worn to church.

“It’s called the ‘Path Forward’. It’s not the job reduction team, and besides, how did you hear that? I don’t even know if it’s final yet.”

“I heard Swanson telling Richard that you were leaving to join the project full time.”

I imagined George perched outside Swanson’s office eavesdropping like some not-so-svelte spy.

“Richard hasn’t said anything to me yet.” Julie and I had just talked about this last night when we went out for drinks, and I wasn’t sure how serious she was. Apparently, she was dead serious.

George smirked. “The grapevine is faster than official communication on The Inside.”

I cringed at George’s silly moniker for our department.

“Do me a favor, will ya?”

“What’s that?”

“Give me a heads up before I get laid off.”

“You’re not going to get laid off.”

“Just promise me you’ll give me a heads up.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. He gave me a pleading look. “Okay.”

George seemed relieved, but he still looked sad.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you start a job search now?” I asked.

He wore an expression like I had just insulted him. “I’ve spent my entire career here. No one else is going to hire me. I have no discernible skills that are marketable. I’ve done the same thing for over 30 years.”

“Sales skills transfer across any company.”

“I’ve called on the same customers for 30 years. Most of them just buy because they know me. These relationships won’t transfer to another company. Once I’m done here. I’m done.”

“Don’t you have any other skills?”

He laughed. “No. I was a Philosophy major in college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I came here. It was easy. I got comfortable, and I just never did anything else.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something if you have to.”

He looked at me like I just told him that the earth was flat. “Thanks,” he said meekly before he turned and walked back to his cube. I listened as his footsteps faded down the aisle.

I made several sales calls and enjoyed some surprising success with some clients that hadn’t been called in a while when I felt the wind shift in my general direction. I looked up and Swanson stood at my cube entrance. His shadow loomed over my cube like he had just floated in front of the sun. I wasn’t sure how he managed to sneak up on me like that.

“Potter, Mr. Rich’s office has requested that you be assigned to the Path Forward project full time. You’ll move down to the 10th floor starting next week. Make sure you finish up your work here. You’ll be transitioning your accounts to Fineman.”

Before I could respond, he nodded and glided off down the aisle with his turkey neck trembling as he walked. I wouldn’t miss his gruff, impersonal manner, but I suddenly felt a little nostalgic for Inside Sales. I had spent my entire career, no matter how short it was, in this group, and it had, surprisingly, begun to feel like home. For a moment, I could understand how George got comfortable there. It was easy to fall into a routine and just become numb to it.

“Mr. Fineman,” I said as I stepped into George’s cube. His face was glued to his monitor. He sat so close that I wondered if he was nearly blind. He spun around in his chair.

“What’s up? Did Smith tell you about the project yet?”

“Not Richard. Mr. Swanson.”

“This must be a big deal if Swanson came out of his office to tell you. I wonder why Smith didn’t tell you.”

“I haven’t seen him since this morning. Maybe he’s in a meeting. Anyway, Swanson said I need to transition my accounts to you. When do you want to do that?”

George eyed me as if he was annoyed. “Can we go to lunch?”

I remembered our last lunch and quickly backpedaled in my mind. “I brought my lunch today.”

“How about we grab some coffee downstairs?”

I looked down the aisle to avoid George’s pleading expression. I couldn’t think of an excuse quick enough to avoid sounding like I didn’t want to go with him. “Sure.”

George locked his computer and grabbed a ridiculous overstuffed key chain from his desk and shoved it into his pocket.

“Are you a high school janitor on the side?” I asked nodding to the hand he had pushed into his pocket.

“What?”

“Why do you have so many keys?”

“These are just house and car keys.”

“How many houses and cars do you own?” George seemed annoyed at my attempt at a humorous conversation, which backfired.

“I don’t own a house at the moment, but I live with my mom, and she’s very nosy, so I have to lock everything up in my room, or she’ll rifle through it while I’m at work. She’s retired. She has nothing else to do.”

I quickly changed the subject as we walked into the elevator bank. “Do you have any plans this weekend?” Before George could respond, a door dinged open and we stepped silently into a crowded elevator.

Once we reached the lobby level, everyone filed out of the elevator. George and I were the last two people to step out. I followed George to Top Bread, which in addition to serving stale sandwiches sold coffee that was just one notch above muddy water. Anything beat the sewage that brewed in the stained coffee carafe on our floor.

George ordered a sad, small cup of simple black coffee, which I felt was certainly befitting of him. I went a little fancier and ordered an espresso. After we both had our cups in hand, we grabbed small table in the corner away from anyone else who milled around the shop. We sat in silence for a moment sipping our coffee.

“We can transition your accounts to me this afternoon,” George said conceding to the inevitable.

“Okay.”

George scanned the seating area in the shop as if he were looking for anyone who might be eavesdropping. “I’ve heard that they are going to start selling our products online.”

“Where did you hear that?” I asked. I was almost amused by his confession.

“I can’t reveal my sources, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that means for Inside Sales. Swanson has to be pissed.”

“Why? It’s good for the company.”

“It may be good for the company, but it’s not good for us. All of those people up on fifteen will be out of a job including Smith and Swanson. Maybe not Swanson. He’s one of the big guys, so I’m sure Rich will protect him.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you may think you got out, but what’s going to happen to you when the job reduction project–”

“Path Forward.”

“What?”

“It’s the Path Forward project, not job reduction project.”

“Whatever. I call it what it is.”

“I think you are making it sound worse than it is. Every company has to adapt.”

“Adapt to what?”

“I don’t know…the 21st century.”

George clapped his mouth shut as if I’d said something disgusting to him.

“This isn’t about adapting. It’s about making Rich wealthier. If he cuts costs and makes the company more profitable, he looks like a hero.”

“What happens if he does nothing?”

“Let’s not talk about the theoretical. Let’s focus on the issue at hand. When this project is over, what’s going to happen to you?”

“I don’t know. Julie and I haven’t discussed it.”

“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You’ll be let go. They won’t have anything for you. The Inside will be eliminated, so you can’t go back to your old job. They’ll have no choice but to fire you.”

“Okay.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really. Maybe at that point I’ll be ready to do something else.”

He seemed perplexed. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.” I imagined taking a few weeks off to play Xbox, and I’m sure a smile crept across my face.

“You kids today have no plans. You don’t think beyond what’s in front of you.”

“I’ve only been here nine months.”

“That’s the problem. They put people like you on this project, and no offense, but you don’t know what it’s like to work at Standard.”

George put his coffee down on the table and crossed his arms. He pouted as he looked past me to the small crowd of employees who had just entered the shop.

“Look, I don’t mean to be hard on you. It’s not your fault. You’re just doing what you’re told. I’m trying to help you see what’s coming.”

I wanted this conversation to be over. I drank the last few drops of my espresso. The warm liquid settled into my stomach, and I could feel the exhilaration of the caffeine pulsing through my veins. “I appreciate it,” I said as I put my empty cup on the small table between us.

George didn’t seem convinced. He turned up his cup to finish his coffee. “I need to run an errand, so I’ll meet you upstairs after lunch to transition your accounts. It shouldn’t take long anyway.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

George stood up and dropped his empty cup to the garbage bin near the door and walked out into the lobby. I watched him amble through the lobby until he disappeared around a corner.

He was right. I wasn’t thinking about what happens next. I didn’t really care what happened next. All I cared about was the opportunity to work more closely with Julie, and if that meant I wouldn’t have a job in a few months, then so be it. It’d be worth it.

Adrift

The path I have traveled,

Runs longer than the one to come.

The potential and possibilities,

Have faded with the sun.

I must traverse the twilight,

Until the darkness makes us one.

The stars shine so bright,

A wistful promise come undone.

Where do I go from here,

Adrift in the darkening sea.

I must traverse the twilight,

Until the darkness makes us one.

I yearn for the eternal hope,

That rises with the sun.

But the finite number,

Makes us all come undone.

I must traverse the twilight,

Until the darkness makes us one.

14 Remain

On Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to beautiful Burlington, Vermont to run the Vermont City Marathon. Despite the warm temperatures, I enjoyed the race and finished within the time I expect nowadays. Vermont marked my 40th state in the quest to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turn 50 years old in December 2020. I started this quest around my 40th birthday, so I’ve been running marathons regularly for almost nine years. It’s been equal parts thrilling and frustrating because just when I think I’ve cracked the code on running these things time and gravity conspire to do a number on me.

There was a time in early 2014 after I suffered an ankle injury when I feared I’d never make it this far. It took a long time to recover from that injury, and I didn’t run a marathon for over a year after that. Truthfully, I haven’t been the same since. My right ankle still gives me fits nowadays, but we’re like an old married couple in that we bicker and ignore each other hoping that the issue just goes away. I still don’t fully trust the bastard because he’s always looking for an excuse not to run.

Despite my love-hate relationship with my right ankle, I’m still running and I’m on track to finish my goal before I turn 50 unless the right ankle reads this and reacts in a pure fit of spite. Stranger things have happened.

Friends ask me what’s next after I finish the 50 states. Well, I won’t be quite done with marathons at that point. I’d like to run a marathon on every continent as well. I’ve already run one on four continents, so what’s three more, right? Also, there’s the small matter of Washington, D.C. It’s not a state, but it seems weird to leave it out if you’re going to claim you’ve run marathons all over the U.S. By my count, that means I have ten marathons left for the remaining states plus another one in D.C. I need to race in Australia, South America, and Antarctica to finish off the continents. That leaves 14 marathons to go. That’d put me at 62 for my career, and that’s just enough for me.

After that I’ll hang up my marathon running shoes and retire to running 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. Those distances accrue less abuse to the body, and let’s face it, if I’ve learned anything from this marathon challenge, it’s that I’m not getting any younger.

 

My Favorite Thing

I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past 25 years. I’ve been all over the world and have visited most of the states in the United States (only New Hampshire and Maine remain untouched by my feet). One of my favorite things to do when I arrive in a new place is to walk around and see what there is to be seen. In some cases, it’s nothing much, but in others, I usually discover some interesting sights and learn more about the local area than I otherwise would if I just drove around.

What I consider walkable is probably a bit wider radius than most people would entertain. If it’s within a three-mile radius, I’m walking it. Of course, I could rent a car or take an Uber, but it’s hard to see things when you’re driving or speeding by in an Uber. You can’t really see a place until you slow down enough to actually look at it. Although my walking pace is brisk, I never miss an opportunity to stop and explore. I have hundreds of pictures on my phone to prove it.

I’ve done this just about everywhere I’ve been. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but I do remember traveling with a former coworker back at the start of my career. We worked together at a paper products company and it seemed that every location we traveled to was as dull as a butter knife, but she wanted to go out and explore it nonetheless. I remember a trip to Phillips, Wisconsin, which is barely a dust speck on the map, where we discovered a park full of sculptures made from cement and broken glass. It was odd and seemingly puerile but interesting much like many oddball roadside attractions scattered across the U.S.

We drove to a lot of places, but we also walked a lot too, and since then, I’ve always enjoyed a walking tour no matter where I am. I learn so much about a city or town when I walk it. I can almost form the map of the town in my head. I can drop down into the middle of anywhere and get a good feel for the streets just by walking around. It’s fun to see how everything is connected and then expand my reach from there.

This weekend I’m in Burlington, Vermont, which is a place I’ve never been to before. I arrived late last night, so I didn’t get to see much then, but after breakfast this morning, I walked a few miles snaking through the town center and meandering through the myriad shops. Afterwards, I walked down to Lake Champlain and strolled across the bike path at the waterfront. Later, I took a walk up the hill from the lake and visited the University of Vermont’s beautiful campus, which was erected in 1791 when the U.S. wasn’t even 20 years old. The campus architecture is phenomenal and particularly picturesque on a gorgeous spring day.

I’m only here for a couple of days, but after walking through so much of the town, I feel like I know it or at least I have learned enough about it to keep it in my memory. That’s why walking a town is one of my favorite things to do.

Episode 9 – Standard Ink

I stood alone in the lobby. Only a few stragglers made a beeline for the door leading to the parking garage. My phone flashed a time of 5:31 PM. Standard Tower emptied like a busted water main at 5 PM every day on the dot. Standard employees couldn’t wait to escape the tower. Normally, I’d already be back at my apartment by now dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and playing Xbox.

I heard an elevator ding, and then, the unmistakable click of heels on the worn tiles in the lobby. A few seconds later, Julie emerged from the elevator alcove and spotted me in the middle of the cavernous lobby standing next to a forlorn planter. She smiled as she walked toward me like she was genuinely glad to see me.

I immediately noticed that she had let her hair down. She looked entirely different that way. From the moment I had met her at the career fair until a couple of hours ago on the tenth floor, I’d only seen her with her hair pinned up in the usual ponytail. When I thought of her, that’s the image that persisted in my mind. I liked that look because, with her hair pulled back, I could fully see her beautiful face, but something about her hair being down made her even more attractive.

I caught my breath as she walked up to me.

“Ready to get a drink?” she asked, smiling.

I almost stuttered, but I managed to keep my composure. “Are we driving?”

“No, let’s just walk. Let’s go to Neeko down the street.”

I’d never been inside Neeko. It was one of those fancy restaurants that tried too hard to be fancy instead of focusing on serving good food. I knew this because I had stopped outside to look at the menu one day, and everything on the menu had some odd name with a frilly, nonsensical description as if someone had written it using a thesaurus to avoid the use of any common words.

We began walking toward the front exit. “I’m glad this day is over,” she said as we walked.

“I feel that way about every day,” I replied. She laughed.

“So, you’ve been here a few months now. What do you think?” she asked as I held the door open for her.

“About what?”

“Standard.”

I thought for a moment. She had given me this opportunity, so I didn’t want to tell her how I really felt because it might sound ungrateful. Besides, this very moment was worth the pain of working for Standard.

“I think a lot has to change at Standard if its going to have a future.” I surprised myself by how serious I sounded.

She considered this and nodded. We walked in silence for a brief moment as if she were pondering my comment.

“That’s why our project is so important,” she said as we diverted our path around a determined couple going the opposite direction. “We need to decide which path to the future to take.”

“Do you think we will?”

“Of course, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. Ev has promised that we’d have the power to change the direction of the company.”

“Ev?”

“Evan. Mr. Rich.”

“You call him ‘Ev’?”

“Ev…Mr. Rich and I have known each other for a long time. I’ve been to his house. I know his wife and his kids. His kids are my age.”

I considered her for a moment. I wasn’t sure how to interpret this new information, but it sounded like Julie was the teacher’s pet. I thought she was in her position because she was extremely capable. That’s certainly how it seemed, but what did I know? I didn’t even have a year of experience under my belt, and truth be told, I had been smitten by her from the very moment I met her. I had developed a very wide blind spot for her.

“Wow, I didn’t realize you were that close to him.”

“He’s a mentor to me.”

We dodged a dude on a Bird scooter as he rolled down the sidewalk and made our way around two large, slow-moving people who seemed out of breath from the exertion of walking.

“He’s a good mentor to have.”

“I’ve worked for him before. I was one of his analysts at Hamlin.”

“What’s Hamlin?”

“It’s an investment bank.” I thought of Steve, the mob boss banker, and imagined Julie working in an office full of Steves.

We came up to the entrance to Neeko. A putrid smell greeted my nose, something fishy. I glanced at the outdoor patio as a waiter delivered food to a packed table on the corner of the patio. Not only was the food overly fancy here, but it smelled bad.

Julie asked to sit on the patio, and the host, a pretentious, perpetually-offended looking fellow, obliged. He wound us through the main dining room out to the patio. When we reached our table, he glided to one end and waved us to our seats like he was asking us to dance. He seemed officious and snotty. “Enjoy!” he said as he scurried away.

“What do you want to drink?” Julie asked.

Before I could answer, our waiter swooped in and introduced himself. He was only slightly less pretentious than the host. Julie informed him that we’d only be drinking. If he was disappointed in the tip potential of our table, he didn’t let on.

“I’ll have a whiskey sour,” Julie said. I ignored the waiter’s stare and scanned the drink menu. Nothing really looked appealing. I’d never been much of a drinker. Even in college, my level of alcohol intake was embarrassingly low. My wild nights in college consisted mainly of all-night Xbox marathons. I scanned the endless list of beers on the menu, none of which looked familiar except for Corona.

“I’ll have a Corona.”

“Very well. I’ll have those right out to you,” the waiter said before he pivoted and disappeared into the crowded restaurant.

Julie leaned in and smiled. “This place is busy for a Thursday night.”

I scanned the packed patio. The crowd was much different than the typical college hangouts I had enjoyed when I was in school, which already seemed like a lifetime ago. Many of the men and women still wore business suits. Some of the men had removed their jackets and loosened their ties. Others had rolled up their sleeves as well.

The conversations were a cacophony of senseless noise that ebbed and flowed under the patio awning. An occasional comment caught my ear out of context leaving me to wonder what conversation it belonged to, but I remained fixated on the woman across from me as she spoke about work. I wanted to get her off the topic of work and learn more about her life outside of Standard Tower. From the moment I had met her, I had wanted to get to know her. Now, I had my chance, but she still carried on like we were sitting in a conference room on the tenth floor.

“What do you do in your free time?” I asked. I realized after I said it that I had deflected the conversation in a totally different direction. Julie seemed to take it in stride. She sat back, narrowing her eyes as she thought about my question.

“I don’t have a lot of free time.” She paused, pondering the question again. I could see the wheels turning in her eyes. “I like to knit.”

“Knit? Like make things?”

“Yeah, you know, blankets, hats, sweaters…”

“Oh, my grandmother knits.” I winced on the inside after I said this.

Julie laughed. “My mom calls it an old lady hobby, but I really enjoy it.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.” I scrambled to repair whatever damage I had done.

Mercifully, the waiter interceded placing our drinks before us in an exaggerated fashion. “May I interest you in any appetizers?”

“No, thanks,” Julie said.

The waiter skittered away flashing a tired smile before he turned around.

“Do you do anything else?” I asked.

“I go to spin class several times a week.”

I nodded, impressed. That explained how she stayed in such good shape.

“What about you? Do you do anything else besides Xbox?”

Suddenly, I felt self-conscious about my game playing like I still slept with a stuffed animal from my childhood. I’d never really felt that way before, but in the glare of her attention, I felt childish and immature. I wished I had something more interesting to say. If I ever wanted to attract a woman like Julie, I knew I needed to be more than some guy who played Xbox. I scrambled to think of something. Anything.

“I’m focusing on my career right now,” I lied.

She nodded as if she believed my answer. Internally, I felt somewhat relieved even if it weren’t true.

“I did the same thing when I was your age. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’m trying to balance things out more. I’m trying to have a life outside work.”

She smiled at me and I noticed that she had twisted a lock of hair around her finger. She played with it subconsciously as she took another sip of her drink. The ice clinked against the glass as she sat it down.

“Do you want another drink?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She flagged down the waiter and asked for two more drinks. Her confident and determined manner mesmerized me. It pulled me into her orbit in a way that I couldn’t explain. I knew I’d do anything for her. I’d even stay in my dreadful role just to be around her.

Just when I thought I was headed down the path of getting to know more about her, she shifted the conversation back to work. As she spoke she gave me this bemused, curious look as if I were a comedian attempting to make her laugh. I felt an unusual current between us that I couldn’t quite explain. Another round of drinks came.  The tenor of the crowd ebbed and flowed on the patio like the ocean tide. It felt like we were frozen in time while the world went on without us. She talked about her early days at Standard and about how Ev had asked her to join him at the company. She could have talked about anything and I would have focused my attention on her just the same.

“You should join the project full time,” she said. “You could be one of my workstream leaders.”

“I don’t even have a year of experience yet,” I replied because I was too surprised to think of anything else to say. Working for Julie would be a dream come through, but I didn’t want to sound too eager.

“It doesn’t matter. Standard needs new blood. There are too many lifers who just want to do what they’ve always done. They’re never going to think beyond today.”

I thought of George, and I couldn’t help but agree. George was just floating along until he reached retirement. If he could ever retire.

“What about Swanson?”

“I’ll take care of him. He’s just a crusty old guy who gets off on being a jerk because he’s been there so long. He’s really part of the problem if you ask me.”

I’d never heard her speak ill of anyone. This was a side of her I hadn’t seen. I leaned into the table as if I were encouraging her to go on. She didn’t take the bait.

“What do you say?” Her smile gleamed at me from across the table. She could have been asking me to do anything, and I would have agreed.

“Sure. When do you want me there?”

“I’ll talk to Swanson tomorrow. I’ll tell him I need you down on the tenth floor on Monday. Inside Sales can easily adjust to losing people. They do it all of the time.”

“I can’t say I’ll miss The Inside.”

Julie gave me a bemused look. “The what?”

“The Inside.” I laughed as if she got the joke.

“That’s what you call it?”

“Not me. Some of my coworkers call it that.”

Julie laughed. “That’s really corny.”

“I know.” I could feel my face flush even though I had attempted to laugh at the absurdity of my team.

The waiter approached the table with the check in a leather-bound portfolio that he discreetly slid onto the table between us. We nodded to him but we continued our conversation and finished the last of our drinks. The patio had mostly emptied leaving just the two of us and another group of four on the opposite side of the patio.

Our conversation hit a lull. I looked at Julie and she smiled. I leaned up to the table to get the check and she must have had the same thought because she reached for it at the same time, and our hands met. Her touch electrified me, and my hand lingered for just a moment too long. Again, I could feel my face flush. I panicked and pulled my hand away with the portfolio.

“My treat,” I said.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to. I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you for inviting me.”

“Thank you for joining me. I needed this.” She smiled at me and I melted in my seat as the waiter appeared and took the check from me. I sat back still electrified by the sensation of our hands touching moments ago. It was silly, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel we had a connection on some level beyond the professional level, or at least that what I hoped.

Episode 8 – Standard Ink

“That took some balls, dude,” Benji said to me when he sat down at the conference table in our tiny, glass meeting room on the tenth floor. “I mean, no one else had said a thing about Chad’s ideas, and you popped his bubble in your first meeting.”

“My idea wasn’t that outlandish,” I replied. I looked at my phone, which flashed a time of three minutes past three in the afternoon. Sabrina was late and she hadn’t emailed or texted or anything. I could criticize Standard and its employees all I wanted, but they were never late for meetings. Most showed up five minutes early to meetings, so Sabrina’s absence surprised and annoyed me. Now, I was stuck talking to Benji, who wasn’t as bright as he first appeared when I met him a week ago at my first project meeting.

“No, but Chad didn’t think of it. He was pissed. I could tell. He grinds his teeth when he’s angry and it makes his cheeks swell up.”

“So no one had brought up online sales before I joined the project?”

“Nope.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Well, I take that back. Bob did.”

“Bob?”

“My colleague, Bob.”

“Why didn’t you guys present the idea.”

“Chad dismissed it. He said Standard’s DNA was face-to-face sales.”

I couldn’t help but smirk. “The entire 15th floor is dedicated to phone sales.”

Before Benji could respond, Sabrina pounded through the glass door out of breath. “Sorry, I’m late. I had another meeting run over.”

She took a seat across from me, cast a smile at Benji, and gave me her business face. I wasn’t sure about the vibe she was sending me. I’d only met her once and other than the introduction, I’d had no other interaction with her.

“So what are we doing?” she asked. She cocked her head to the side like a pug that heard a noise, and I wanted to laugh. Actually, I wanted to come clean and say that I had no idea what we were doing, that I had just blurted out an idea because I hadn’t been paying attention to Chad’s droning summary, but instead, I opened up my notebook and made a big show of clicking my Standard Ink ballpoint pen like I was about to write a novel or something.

My mind scrambled around my idea. Benji and Sabrina kept their eyes on me, and once again, I could feel the pressure building with each ticking second. The clock in the small conference room was suddenly very loud.

“What would we need to do to move Standard’s entire business online?”

They took their eyes off me and I almost sighed in relief.

“Standard doesn’t have any online sales presence right now, so that’s a big ask. Shouldn’t we start smaller?” Benji asked. Sabrina shook her head in agreement.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“Chad doesn’t think the company has the capacity to do online,” Benji said.

“How hard is it? Every company does it, even small ones,” I replied.

“You don’t know the company very well. How long have you been here?” Sabrina asked.

“A few months.”

“I’ve been here two years, and I just don’t think it’s ready,” she stated with a tone of authority that wasn’t warranted.

Sabrina didn’t look much older than me, so I wondered how much wisdom she could have garnered in having a year and a half on me. Nevertheless, this volley continued for the whole meeting with me serving up balls that both Benji and Sabrina thwacked back at me. We didn’t accomplish much of anything other than establish that I didn’t know the company very well. By the end of the meeting, I felt discouraged and deflated. I sat back in my chair and stared out onto the open office through the shiny glass after they left to go to their next meetings.

This work thing had me down. I thought about quitting, but the rent was coming due, which reminded me I’d have to move back home if  I quit. I couldn’t give my dad the satisfaction of crawling back home like that, but the urge to walk out the door was overwhelming. I wasn’t enjoying work, and this project didn’t get me closer to Julie as I had hoped. I’d barely seen her in the week since my first project meeting.

I closed my notebook on an almost blank page when the glass door clinked open.

“Are you free?” Julie asked, smiling like she was happy to see me.

“Yep,” I said enthusiastically. I hoped she wanted to grab some coffee in the lobby or something. In the briefest of moments, I imagined us taking the rest of the afternoon to sip our coffees and talk about anything other than this project.

“Great! Let’s go to another meeting.”

“Another meeting? I don’t have another meeting on my calendar.”

“You weren’t invited to this one until just now.” She chuckled as if she told a funny joke. “We’re meeting with some investment bankers who want to talk about strategic options.”

“Oh.” I followed her out of the conference room and toward the other side of the building. A meeting sounded about as exciting as helping my grandfather pull on his sweaty compression socks.

I could see in the conference room before we entered. On one side sat three men in suits and on the other side sat Mr. Rich, our CEO. They all had muted smiles on their faces similar to the smiles my fraternity brothers and I wore when we met professors at school parties.

I could feel the sweat pooling in my armpits as Julie opened the door and confidently introduced me to the men in the room. She was impressive. She glided effortlessly from me to the CEO as if we were just a couple of guys on the subway. She showed no outer fear or timidity. I, on the other hand, struggled to keep a good grip as I shook Mr. Rich’s hand.

Mr. Rich was every bit as glamorous as he was on the company promotional videos. He was shorter than I thought he’d be, but he had a big, firm handshake that would have toppled me over had he not braced his other hand against my forearm. His graying hair was slicked back and impeccably cut. He was tanned and solid for an older gentleman, nothing like George or Swanson in my department. He had an affable, credible demeanor that assured me he was in charge.

The bankers were a different story. The older man in the middle clearly outranked the two younger guys on either flank. He had a fake smile that barely covered his impossibly white teeth, and his suit had all of the little accouterments that my dad had said were not worth paying for when he taught me how to buy a good suit. He had fat rings on one finger on each hand, one of which pinched my finger when he squished my hand in his. I’d seen a few mob movies, and he looked like he could have been an extra in one of them.

The two guys on either side of him looked almost identical, mere decorations in this power show. They mostly kept their eyes on the iPads in front of them, but when they shook my hand, their hands felt limp and insubstantial as if they didn’t want to show up their boss.

The mobster was named Steve, and his associates were Eric and Marvin. After introductions were over, Mr. Rich and Steve chattered about golf, a terribly boring game, for a brief moment before Julie saved us all and started the meeting.

“We’ve been doing our research,” Steve started as he pushed bound booklets across the table at us, and we think you have some excellent strategic options for your company.”

I took the booklet from him and pulled it closer to me. The cover felt like leather with raised borders and the logo of the investment bank embossed in the center. I rubbed my fingers across it like one would rub a nice piece of leather. It seemed wasteful to use such a material on a report.

“We’ve identified three options for Standard that we’re prepared to advise you on should you choose to bring us on, and I’d like to take you through them,” Steve continued. His confidence bubbled over. He seemed like a boastful uncle who was doing us a favor by sharing his thoughts. I thought of my crazy uncle Charlie who never met a situation that didn’t require his ill-informed opinions.

I flipped open the report to the first page after I finally unglued myself from the supple cover. Once I paged past the table of contents, an endless biography for Steve, and a smattering of overly-indulgent quotes about the investment bank, I landed on the first page of any substance. The color graphs and diagrams were beautiful, an artful mix of colors and perfect text that almost seemed too well-designed to be true.  I couldn’t understand whatever it was the graphs were communicating, but maybe that was the point.

Steve tugged at his tie at one point as if he were loosening it to let out more hot air. The more he talked the less I believed what he said. He seemed smug and condescending without even trying. Meanwhile, his minions fingered their iPads occasionally flipping to another screen that I couldn’t read from where I sat. Neither of them looked at us.

“Where did you get these numbers?” Julie asked.

I looked over her shoulder and spied the page number she was on. I flipped to the same page, which was nothing more than a table with comparative financial numbers for Standard and several other companies.

“From our models,” Steve replied.

“They don’t make sense,” Julie said.

Mr. Rich leaned forward as if he had just found the error himself. “She’s right, Steve. Our profit margins are better than that.”

Steve garbled his response with some nonsense about risk-adjusted returns, but Julie wasn’t convinced, and I secretly cheered her on. I wanted to see Steve squirm. I had just met the guy, and I already didn’t like him. He wasn’t a likable character. He seemed too full of himself to be likable.

Steve shot a glance at one of his minions who frantically tapped on his iPad like the answer was hidden somewhere beneath the glossy screen.

While Steve and his colleague searched for answers, I turned to the other pages in the report, which read like a marketing pamphlet that hoped to convince you to buy something that you didn’t need. I thought about those slick brochures my dad brought home one day before he moved my grandfather into an assisted living home. The brochures made the places seem like resorts, but when I helped my dad move my grandfather into one of them, it looked nothing like the convincing brochure.

Somehow, Steve got past the bump in the road and resumed his pitch. Julie kept a skeptical eye on him, peppering him with questions and disrupting his flow. Mr. Rich seemed to be encouraging him, and I thought maybe he and Julie had some good cop-bad cop routine going on, but they didn’t seem that coordinated.

Mercifully, the meeting sputtered to an end. Mr. Rich had a flight to catch, and Steve, not to be outdone, had to be back in New York to meet with some big-name clients. I didn’t recognize the names of the clients, but he sure seemed proud to be associated with them.

After Steve had prattled his way out the door and followed Mr. Rich to the elevators with his minions in tow, Julie sat back in her chair and smiled as she turned to me.

“What’d you think?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Their presentation seemed all form and no substance.”

She laughed. “They think our business can be reduced to a spreadsheet. Reality is not that simple.”

I nodded as if I shared her perspective, but the truth was that I hated spreadsheets.

“They just want to convince us to do something so they can collect fees, but we don’t need them. I believe in our project team.”

I loved her optimism, even if it felt a little mislaid. After my meeting earlier, I certainly didn’t share her confidence in our project team. I decided not to share my earlier experience with her. Hopefully, the other members of the project team were experiencing better success.

She stood up and paused for a moment. “Do you want to go out for a drink after work?”

I hesitated only because it caught me by surprise. “Sure.”

She smiled again. “Great. I’ll meet you in the lobby in at 5:30.”

She left the room, but I stayed behind enjoying the moment. I didn’t care about anything else because whatever discomfort or annoyance I felt dissipated along with my thoughts of quitting. I lingered only a bit longer before I rushed upstairs to finish my work before it was time to meet Julie.