WITH ALL THE activity around her, Tess was having a hard time concentrating on what she was trying to write. Plus the screen kept getting smudged. She extracted a wet wipe from the depths of her handbag, after a haptic search of the bottom, and rubbed it vigorously. She opened Instagram by accident.
Sighing, she set the iPhone down beside her notes and took a sip of her cappuccino, now cooling off quickly. The café was bright and only about half-full of customers. The table next to Tess was empty, and a couple sat at the one adjacent. They faced each other, seated on opposite sides, but they were both so engrossed in their screens, they did not even see each other. Why even go out? Or why go out together? People should be together if they are together. She cringed a little at the hypocrisy of what she was saying – but anyway she was not here accompanied by anyone. If she had been, she would paid attention to them. To him, she imagined a little wistfully.
To Whom It May Concern:
I would like to introduce myself to you and your company. As you mentioned in your advertisement, you are looking for a young and dynamic legal assistant for your law firm. I am sure that I would be the perfect choice for you, especially because –
Especially because? Especially because I have been looking for a job for such a long time that I would clean your trash bins with my tongue if you asked? Especially because this is a market with so many unemployed lawyers in it that you can’t even order a coffee without the risk of getting a subpoena. Or a disquisition on the import laws as regards the purchase of coffee beans from Central and/or East Africa. Section 7, subparagraph 3.4a and 3.4b. Lawyers.
She deleted the email’s opening lines, again.
The part she was less happy about was that she could not actually cite the law so easily anymore. It had been nearly ten years since her university days. When she first enrolled, she was filled with hope and vigor, determined to reset the direction of her life and steamroll over the mess that he left when he left. Emma needed a stable and reliable home in which to grow up, and Tess was desperate to make sure she had it. Her persistence was so fierce that sometimes her friends would worry or try to step in. No thank you. You are so very kind. I can manage. This was the mantra: I can manage. Like the Little Engine That Could. Tess always knew she could, she knew she could, but sometimes the top of that hill drew farther and farther away.
Emma was only eight when her mother started bringing home stacks of heavy books from the law library and spending her days and nights buried in them. Tess attacked the law with the tenacity of poorly trained pit bull. A good pit bull can be commanded to stop from time to time, but Tess was inexorable, undeterrable, implacable. And she wouldn’t let go.
Her father had been in the navy, an officer, and had very clear views about discipline and starting things that you finish. In school, Tess was not allowed to quit the debate society even when she had been systematically humiliated by her brilliant if arrogant teammates. Tess would smile and defer and try not to show how much it was hurting her. They were much smarter than she was, but they were mean about it too. Unnecessarily and hurtfully mean.
Track and Field was the same. Even after her repeated sprained ankles turned out to be a congenital weakness in the ligaments, it was not an excuse to give it up. She eventually persuaded the coach to dismiss her. If it had been her idea, the Major would not have accepted it. The Major did not accept explanations, excuses, justifications, or rationalizations. When the world would not conform to his view or follow his orders, he found the compliance and obedience he needed in Jamaican rum. Eventually nothing else mattered. Tess knew the Major’s weakness, but somehow his authority was never diminished because of it.
The law was the ideal place for Tess to excel. She knew that lawyers were always well-respected and fit for any kind of social setting. She knew that the law was vast, but maybe she could learn a lot about a smallish area if she applied herself enough. It was clear and concise, but it also allowed for interpretations and interpolations and disquisitions. She liked that word: disquisitions. Lawyering was about fact but also a lot about presentation. For Tess, the ability to intertwine and embellish and circumlocute herself in and out of difficult situations, by deploying her native charm and occasional wit was what she considered to be her greatest strength. What better profession than that of a lawyer to display her aplomb and grace in bringing people over to her way of thinking?
Despite her near-rabid drive and willpower, it still took her several extra years to graduate. The needs of daily life pressed their hungry mouths insistently against her. She took jobs here and there, unrelated things, irrelevant things. She translated a page here and there. She carried groceries to the elderly a few times. For several months she had a job in a busy office as a kind of paralegal or legal secretary. While this was happening, it was hard to get back to studying. The lawyers she worked for were busy and preemptory, but nice to her on the whole, decent. She was happy to solve their small problems, anticipate their needs, make sure their briefs were ready on time and in order. It made her feel that she had been welcomed into the world of the law.
The senior partner soon took Tess’s broad and ready smile as something a little more. He started to spend more time around her desk than was required, making excuses to ask her questions and set small tasks for her. When this inevitably led to dinner, Tess looked for clarity.
“I am happy you appreciate me, Richard,” she allowed herself to say after a third glass of Crémant de Loire. “Tomorrow I might not be at my best in the morning.” A calculated giggle.
The next three years saw Tess (and Emma) being swept into a new world. An apartment in Paris became her semi-permanent pied-à-terre while “Richard,” the senior partner, went about the business of being a highly successful international lawyer. Emma began to learn French. Tess pretended to understand too.
It was all very storybook, making Tess feel safe and provided for. She didn’t mind that her studies fell to the wayside, that she was no longer working and earning her own money. A woman, according to the wisdom of her mother, just wanted to work for new shoes and other extravagances, and the senior partner provided anything else that she could have wanted. She felt happy and loved. The anxieties of her past began to abate and enter her thoughts less and less often. It had not been an easy path, Tess concluded, but she had arrived at the place she had always deserved. The universe smiled on her, and she smiled brightly back.
The world of work, Tess fully if unwillingly understood, was still by and large a man’s world. She knew that the law was on the side of women, and she knew fully that she was as capable as any man who wanted to test her, but she also knew that it was her prerogative not to assert that right as well. She liked being able to switch from being an independent woman to being a lady. A lady who was subject to a kind of eighteenth-century etiquette about which most men knew nothing. The senior partner knew, though. He was generally a gentleman.
By the time she found out that he had been cheating on her, both in London and in Frankfurt, where he traveled often “for business,” she was too invested. Too much time had gone by for it not to be completely devastating. He had been living a lie with her – no! a series of lies! – for more than a year, while she was here in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, playing house, thinking all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. She had never imagined this. Tess was emotionally shipwrecked and, essentially, marooned. With only her hurt, her rage, to support her, she demanded to be moved back home. Immediately.
The senior partner organized it all and paid everything; that part came easily to him, paying for things. There would be no discussion. Not now.
Back home, back to the old school for Emma, and back to the law books for Tess, the undiscussed discussion would become an ongoing background leitmotiv in her life. The senior partner would call. He would turn up at odd times with flowers and gifts. She understood the subterfuge of the gifts; it was not his “love language,” it was hers. He would not give up. He apologized until the words had no more meaning. They had sailed far beyond the safety and succor of “sorry.”
“You have to stop,” she finally answered. “If you want me to believe you can change, you have to prove it. Show me.” Tess wasn’t sure what she meant by that or what he needed to do, but he really did need to do something. The gestures and words were just more of the same fairy tales that lulled her into that unreliable sense of security, based on webs of ethereal and ephemeral language. No substance. And she wanted substance. Part of her wanted him to step up to the challenge and prove himself worthy; but a bigger part knew that he could not. If he could, could she accept him anyway? No answer. She didn’t know.
But probably not.
Sighing and looking down at the blank screen where she had just pixelated the cover letter draft, she found she had to look again at the advertisement again to remember what job she was applying for now. The deadline was Thursday, three days away. Three days to tell them why she would make an ideal Assistant Deputy Purpose and Inspiration Officer. They would call her the ADPIO. Maybe just ADy for short, like Harley’s old nickname. It sounded like assistant work. She could do that. The inspiration part might be fun. But hopefully no one would ask her what the job was all about. It was nearly time for her friend Susanna to arrive now, and she hadn’t done anything. She closed her 10-inch ASUS notebook and asked for another cappuccino. This one went cold before she could finish it.
Tess remembered fondly how Harley had opened up about that difficulty he had with his name, how his self-esteem and confidence were oppressed by the shame of the childish nickname. She would sometimes use it in fun. She wanted to render it harmless, not something to be ashamed of. Or she would use his full name: Harley Addison Edison! Come here right now! Sometimes he would laugh about it, but usually not.
Susanna was late. They were meant to talk about her work in public relations since Susanna had her own firm and mentioned that anyone could do it. Tess was knocking on every door and trying everything she could. She needed work. Any work. She had even half-joked with a street cleaner as he dumped a trash bin into his orange electric mini-truck, asking if she could try to drive for him.
This was a constant argument. How could she apply for such ridiculous low-paying jobs when she had sweated and sacrificed and earned a license to practice law? Tess was a qualified lawyer, even if she hadn’t passed any bar exam yet. She had done the work and got a diploma that opened up a huge world for her. It’s a very exclusive club, even if it seems like there are thousands of unemployed lawyers around (and there were), it is still something that she should use when looking for work.
Harley’s argument was that Tess spread herself too thin and cast her net too wide. She applied for everything that flitted across her screen. Cook, housecleaner, babysitter, secretary, assistant, marketing manager, shop assistant, bank teller… not to mention street cleaner. By applying to so many different things, no matter how easy they might be for her to do, she was diminishing her own value. A lawyer was valuable. Harley always seemed exasperated, at a loss for words, in trying to explain his point of view. She did not disagree, of course, but it did not get her a job. She could not ask him for money – her pride would not allow it. The Major, always in the back of her mind, would never approve. And she could not be in any kind of debt to Harley. That scared her the most. That would change everything in uncomfortable and awkward ways.
The obvious solution would be to hang her shingle as a lawyer or try to join a law firm as a junior associate. But the reason so many lawyers were waiting in the unemployment lines was that moving into real legal practice was expensive for a new lawyer. The bar exam would take her months of study and had a cost of time as much as money. Then the registrations fees, the licenses, the premises, and the other startup expenses. She had heard people say it could be as much as $50,000, even if others said she could probably get it done for around five thousand. Even so: she didn’t have it and did not want to ask for it.
Tess had learned that the French have a saying for conniving your way into and around impossible things: Système D. The D is literally for se démerder or “pull yourself out of the shit.” But Tess preferred to think of it as System DIY. Do It Yourself. She could and she would. Right now, however, she didn’t know how.
Susanna, wrapped in a billowing yellow summer skirt and white top, swirled in through the doors and brought a genuine and unrehearsed smile to Tess’s face, scattering her darker thoughts. Susanna was a good friend and such a positive person. It didn’t matter if they talked about work or not today, Tess thought. But as long as she was here…
After catching up, she did manage to grill Susanna on her PR business. The incredible part was that Susanna had no training in PR or business or any kind of communications. She was an English Literature major. But she managed to sell what she called a “common sense” approach to PR to a first client in the pharmaceutical sector and suddenly the others heard and they came in looking for her.
“It’s mostly psychology and common sense,” she said in a confidential tone. If anyone ever found out how unqualified she was she might have to answer some hard questions. “You need to listen well, see where they are weak, and suggest things they could do to fix it.”
“Going to school,” Tess ventured, “would help you with the ideas for fixing problems, right?”
“Maybe. I think so. I was reading Byron and Chaucer. They knew a lot about the human condition if you ask me!” Susanna laughed at her own joke. “But I will help you. Now tell me what’s going on with and your guy.”
Tess and Harley had been seeing each other for the better part of year now. The time seemed to be approaching to see where they were going. It wasn’t an easy question for her.
Tess liked him; he made her laugh. Harley was clever and a little awkward, in an endearing way for the most part. But they were still just dating. Why did Susanna or her mother want the dating to lead somewhere, to turn into a marriage and children and everything else that the world thought a young woman should have? He had not even met the Major and her mother yet. What would he think of them? What would he think of her after? Maybe it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but she wanted her parents to like her choice of a man. If Harley was going to be the choice that is.
“Are you seeing other men?
“No,” Tess intimated with a longer stress on the “o” than was needed. “But I could. And what if I did? I could if I wanted.”
“And that’s where we started: do you want to see other guys or is Harley serious?” Susanna was not being pushy as much as she was enjoying the drama of Tess’s love life. Hers was not worth mentioning right now.
They had met online. On Facebook, which, as many people pointed out to her, is not a dating site. Tinder was a swamp, full of awful swamp-things. She had tried that before, but she got a million men saying “hi” without a follow-up at all, a selection of phallic selfies, and one or two who, although they sounded ok at first either disappeared or pushed fast for phone sex. Tess had flirted with the idea of phone sex a few times in her life, but in the end she was much too self-conscious to really get into it. The Tinder guys did not help her like it more. She was always hearing stories of people who met through Tinder. They must be myths, apocrypha.
Facebook is not a dating site, true, but you can get to know people a little better. That’s how it had been with Harley. One day, out of the blue, he “liked” a post she made of herself on a beach on holiday. She had no idea who Harley Edison was so she started to investigate. He posted a lot, a few times a week, and she learned that a) he was funny and shared things that made her laugh. She learned b) that he overestimated his friends’ ability to read long articles that he shared from different places. He liked things that were on the edge of political but more social commentary, c). He had been married before, d), but we don’t see the ex anywhere. He speaks French and likes Paris, e), as she noted from a lot of pictures in more than one year.
“You stalker!” Susanna erupted in mirth. Tess smiled modestly.
In the meantime, Harley had been checking her out too. A lot of likes on a wide selection of posts – some of her, some creative photography that she took on the street, some from travel (Paris! And without the senior partner). He liked the art she liked. They seemed to diverge on music, but ok. Then one day: an inbox message.
> Would you like to get coffee sometime?
It seems we have a lot in common and I would like to meet you IRL.
He had affixed an upside-down smiley face emoji next to it, as if to show that he was a little sheepish about asking. Tess smiled to herself and was about to say yes, wanted to say yes, but then she hovered a little.
It was more than coincidence that they should have noticed each other noticing each other. He had around 1,100 friends and she only had 273, including an inordinate number of family members. If someone liked her pictures, she knew it right away. Not that she was thinking that anything more than idle social media time-wasting was happening here, but nevertheless. Why not find out what kind of man liked how she looked? She didn’t have to engage with him. There was no social contract to fulfill on Facebook. She could have a peek.
Now that it was threatening to break into the real world (it took her a google-check to see what “IRL” meant. In Real Life? Yeah ok. Too many acronyms IMHO), she was suddenly a little nervous. This sounds like dating. And blind dating too. Although it wasn’t completely blind – they had learned a few things about each other – it was certainly dating with thick corrective lenses. Nearly blind. After about 20 minutes, she messaged back.
Politely: hello, nice to meet you, and –
> I am really busy studying for my law exams now!
When I am done, maybe we can meet.
> Ok, that’s fine. And best of luck on the exams!
And that was that, for a while. Maybe Facebook was a dating site after all. There is an extent to which we edit ourselves and the versions of ourselves that we project on social media. There was a version that was very public and curated and acceptable. It does not show emotions, neediness, suspicions, uncertainty, or any of the miasma of what constitutes a relationship. To some extent, it is possible that we all try to become the people we want to project. We aspire to be as smart and wise and cultured and funny and sexy as the persona we have created for the social media world to see. Maybe we use those qualities that we would desperately like to have or to cultivate. In the real world, however, it all gets found out. That doesn’t mean that we need to discover a serial killer in the person we have been following and perhaps even falling in love with. But we can discover small things, minor anomalies and disconnects between the persona and the person, things that change the other into another. And suddenly we remember that we are still strangers.
Tess was not ready to enter that world yet. She was in fact really very busy; it had not been about making excuses. She didn’t have time for anything more than finding work, studying the law, and her Emma. This looked complicated and time-consuming. It wasn’t time now, but it would be.
Of course Susanna knew this story so well! She had been with Tess from the beginning. From the moment when Tess called her to spill her unreasonable giddiness about Harley’s message. Today, Tess was not feeling like talking about Harley at all, or facing the question of what she really wanted. Anything she said would be wrong today.
“I will be here anytime you want. Or need,” Susanna said, leaning in to kiss Tess on the cheek and rising from the table. “And if you want, about the other thing, I can introduce you to a couple of PR firms. Think about it, Tessy.”
What do I want?
Tess began to drift and muse. I could want a nice house that I can decorate and invite my friends to come over and have tea or dinner or too much wine. I do want to have a job that is stimulating and interesting, and well-paid too. I want it to be close to my home so that I can be back as soon as possible. I want Emma to be happy and make lots of friends and study hard and get into a good college. I want conventional things. I want the things that every young mother wants, probably. I am not asking for the moon. I want simple things.
She had not said she wanted a man to be there when she got home. She had not mentioned a man at all. Did she really want to be alone?
She wasn’t alone – she had Harley. He was always there for her when she called. He was always ready to do something, go somewhere, or just stay in and watch movies. He was predictable and reliable. Without him, she imagined, she would still not be alone. She would go out, she would have friends, and finding someone for overdue sex had never been a problem for her. The feelings part was tough though. Raising Emma after the father disappeared, she felt more alone than she ever thought possible. But people rushed to her side, family especially, and she realized that she would never really be alone.
Would she end up alone if she didn’t marry Harley? He might not even be thinking of it, she thought slowly. She realized that she had not considered that before as a possibility.
To Whom It May Concern:
Why wouldn’t you want to hire me? I’ll be good. You’ll see. Especially because.
Copyright © 2022, Chris Farmer
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