Or, The Impossible Task of Knowing What’s Right
The morning I decide to quit my job, I wake up with an unfamiliar sense of conviction. A sort of athletic confidence, based in the core, like a new set of abs. Carefully, I fold myself out of bed. I pause by the window, place a hand on the frame, and peer out into the fog, a thick swath of wet gauze. “Are you sure about this, Mel?” I say, because I know myself. I haven’t done a sit up since college.
The fog responds only with the gurgle of the city it conceals.
With a huff I turn and walk to the bathroom, on the way stepping over several pairs of discarded tops, a polaroid of my dad, and a dog-eared yet never-finished copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I confront my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I replay the question.
Are you sure?
Promptly, I’m disgusted. The question feels redolent of everything I’ve grown to dislike about myself in the years since graduation, when I first moved to San Francisco. Prescriptions for Zoloft and late-night, panic-ridden texts to my dad. A pretty much constant fear of my boss, Jamie Avery — founder and CEO of MobileMark, Inc. A habit of spending hours each day scrolling through Facebook, jealously monitoring updates shared by people I knew in college, announcements penned in that fake-humble Facebook style about promotions accepted, SaaS companies started, or generally important-sounding bits of life-progress being made, all while I’m sitting at my desk before my company-issued laptop rotting compacting doing nothing all god damn day, just simply existing, a girl adrift, apprehensive and fearful and medicated and complacent. Like I’ve forgotten that I at one time wanted to be a CEO of something myself.
I set my jaw, level my brow. Here’s the deal, Mel, I say to myself. You’re 25. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard when he was like 20. Emily Blunt overcame a stutter. You can be more than just an account manager. You can ascend. In Lean In, Sandberg writes, “Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”
I think of the woman I want to become—executive, intelligent, entrepreneurial.
Are you sure?
“Fuck yeah I’m sure,” I say.
With a jolt I pivot out of the bathroom. Slip into a pair of heels. Dressed, I lock my front door and start for the bus. I keep my shoulders pinned back and my eyes steered forward the whole way. The sharp clack! clack! clack! of my heels against the sidewalk resonate pleasantly throughout my body, from my feet to my brain stem, like my whole frame is strong, now, cohesive and sinewy and in sync with itself.
“This is good,” I say as I walk, breeze nipping at my cheek. This is good. This is the me I’m supposed to be. So what if Jamie Avery is scary? It’s time to be bold.
The bus approaches the stop just as I arrive. It leans like an elephant to let me on. I board with my fingers balled into fists. With a clank and a lurch we start up the hill, into an undulating curtain of that gauzy grey.
At the big steel front doors of the MobileMark office, I scan my keycard and proceed into the kitchen. Here is where I’ve worked for the last 3 years. I walk past the refrigerator stocked with kombucha and gluten-free pizza, past the kegerator sloshing with ice cold Anchor Steam, and past the yoga room with its rubber mats and sunflower walls that I’ve never seen one MobileMark employee ever actually use. It’s early — the engineers don’t usually arrive until 11 — and so the large, segmented table at which every MobileMark employee has a spot is empty, save for the space-age clutter of monitors and Redbull.
I set my bag beneath my segment of table space, unsheathe my laptop from its protective pouch, and sit down in my ergonomically-conscious black chair. I take a quick look around, just sort of to confirm that I’m alone. Then, instead of opening up Gmail or Salesforce, I plug my headphones into the jack and open up YouTube, where from a list of videos Recommended For Me, I select a clip titled “Puppies Catching Tennis Balls For The First Time.”
As it does every morning, the gentle unspooling of the acoustic soundtrack settles my stomach, and lulls me briefly into a state of mindless contentment — a state in which I’m unworried about emails I’ve yet to answer, quotas I’ve stopped hitting, or, on this day, especially, hard conversations I’ve yet to have. It’s a glorious time of day, my favorite time of the day, probably. A tennis ball bounces off a baby Golden Retriever’s baby golden snout. I allow myself to chuckle. It’s so cute.
I go to turn the volume up a bit, because this is my favorite part, but it’s then, through the open door of a conference room across the way, that I hear a voice. I pause the video and take out my headphones. My stomach curdles. Right away I knows who the voice belongs to: Jamie Avery.
I watch the open door of the conference room from over the lip of my laptop. I deduct that Jamie is talking with a VIP client, possibly the team over at Game of War — her voice glistens with that presentational sheen, one of its many applications. That was the first thing I noticed about Jamie — the first thing that scared me — when I first started working for her three years ago. At one moment, expounding to crowds at a conference or investors seated at a conference table, her voice could enchant, could dazzle, like a wand of finely polished wood. But the next moment, admonishing her sales team on a Monday morning, say, her voice could be a knife, a thing you could cut ice with.
“We have the metrics to back it up, Jerry,” Jamie says from inside the conference room, possibly as she circles closer in her orbit of the table to the room’s open door. I listen intently. “The increase in traffic alone justifies the investment…”
Her voice fades, and I take a breath. I realize my heart is suddenly beating remarkably fast, and that the little blond hairs on my arms are standing on edge. I hadn’t anticipated seeing Jamie until later today.
I close my eyes. You’re fine, Mel, I say to myself. My heart rate slows. You’re fine. Jamie is just talking with a client. No reason to panic. I open my eyes again and return back to the video, which I tell myself I’ll watch for just a few more minutes before getting started with work—
“Hey Mel, what are you doing?” Jamie asks, popping out from the doorway of the conference room, her blue eyes shimmering above a carved jaw line, smile beset by a floral shock of blond hair.
“Uh, just catching up on some emails,” I reply, exiting out of the browser.
“Great. Hey, you gotta second?”
A shot of something sort of oily and warm shimmers down my body. I close my laptop, and force myself to stand. I follow Jamie into the conference room. By the time I walk in, she’s already seated at the table. She sits before her laptop perfectly straight, like a serpent in a wicker basket. She doesn’t look up as I walk in.
“Close the door please,” Jamie says, keeping her eyes on the computer.
I close the door. Sit down on one of the padded plastic chairs across from her. I place my hands in my lap, and wait. Finally, Jamie looks up. She folds her hands on the table, and engineers a smile.
“Mel,” she says. “How are you today?”
I swallow. Stiffen my spine. Jamie’s smile says it all. Something is wrong. Does she know what I’m planning to say?
“Good, good,” I reply, heart thumping in my jaw. “And you?”
“Good,” Jamie says back. Then she shifts her weight. She looks briefly down to her lap, and, as if summoning some kind of hard-wrought resolve, takes a slow breath. Crosses her legs. When she re-affixes her gaze, her smile fades, and her jaw locks, and her eyes turn to little iron rivets.
“Mel, I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Yep. Something is definitely wrong.
“OK,” I reply. I find my bottom lip wants to quiver. “Um, what’s up?”
Jamie inhales through her nose, never breaking eye contact.
“Do you still enjoy working here, Mel?” she asks.
It’s at this exact moment — before Jamie finishes with the question, even — that I decide nope, never mind, I’m not going to quit today. Not right now, nor in the afternoon, as I’d originally planned. I won’t be quitting at all. I can’t quit. The thought feels suddenly ludicrous, the idea of a child who has made it this far into adulthood solely on account of being able to fake being an adult.
“Yes, Jamie, I do,” I manage, all nerves and eyes, a cornered squirrel. “Really.”
Jamie looks briefly again down to her lap, failing at concealing her disappointment.
“It hasn’t felt that way recently. Seems like you’ve been spending a lot of time watching YouTube. Going on Facebook.”
Suddenly it’s a struggle to control my breathing. Sirens sound. I bite down on the corner of my lip with my two front teeth, trying to keep it from doing what it now very much wants to do. I try and say something back, defend myself, essentially, but my voice falters. A silence builds like ash on the table.
After a few excruciating seconds, face crimped in a frown, Jamie continues. “Let me ask you this, Mel. What do you love to do?”
It’s here that the chaos of the meeting seems to slow. The sirens stop. My heart stops. The rotation of the earth halts on its axis and things freeze. And in this moment of frozen gravity I realize two things: 1) I have no idea what it is I love to do, and: 2) the something that’s wrong is most definitely me.
A certain darkness begins to creep into my vision, coming from the corners, these nipping shadows of it, a new, worse kind of panic, tinged with embarrassment, black fire, that which preceded the ash.
Again, I say nothing back.
After a while, Jamie nods. Then she purses her lips into a thin red crescent, and sits up somehow straighter in her seat.
“I suggest you find out, Mel. What you love. What you’re passionate about. Find out and then go do it. 100%. Give it your all. Lean in. You have too much potential.”
I let my attention fall from Jamie’s cold blue eyes to the hard white table. I find I no longer have to clamp down on my lip to keep it from quivering. It’s as if the sadness of suddenly realizing that you’ve made a mistake — that you are who you were afraid you were — is its own kind of sedative. Jamie, I almost will myself to say. Wait, I’ll get better. I promise. But I don’t. I don’t because the darkness is building up around me now, consuming more and more of my sight, like it’s not a fire, not ash, but something more total, something deserved, something I’m sinking into, like a well or a swamp.
“We’re a quickly growing company,” Jamie says. “And I need people on my team that want to be here.”
I know what’s coming next.
“I’m sorry Mel, but we have to let you go.”
One last thing becomes clear to me, before I leave the conference room. Everybody thinks they have the capacity to be someone else. That they could, if push came to shove, become something different. An improved version, maybe. A version that’s more capable, or more intelligent, or more brave, or moral. More aware. But that’s bullshit. Nothing is inherent (nothing good anyway). Everything good is practiced.
I manage to keep from crying until I’m out on the sidewalk, my bag packed, the sky above still a sagging, wet bandage. As I start down the street, unsure where I’m walking to, cheeks wet, vision tinged with a vaguely surreal fuzziness, like what’s happened here isn’t really happening, like these steps I’m taking — clack…clack…clack — aren’t really my own, like I haven’t actually made so many mistakes (I couldn’t possibly have made so many mistakes), I pull out my phone. It feels heavy as an anchor in my hand.
I’d pulled it out to order a Lyft, but when I look at the screen, I stop. Waiting there is a new message, from my dad.
“I love you, Melly,” the message reads. “And I miss you. I’m so proud of the person you’ve become. Call me when you can. XO.”
Slowly, I let the phone fall back into my bag.
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