Fem Careweekend-reads

Elliott Holt

Halfway through the first day of our annual Beauty Summit in Miami, the facilitator says it’s time to take a break from our ideation session and have a team experience. We all close our laptops and look up at the giant screens at the front of the hotel ballroom. We’ve already seen a series of inspirational videos put together by the ad agency. We’ve seen children running on beaches, reeds blowing in the wind, interracial dance troupes. We’re prepared for more.

But then this wiry pipe cleaner of a man who definitely doesn’t work for the company goes to the podium. He’s wearing a gray business suit and a red and yellow jester’s hat. “Hullo,” he says. “I am German and I am part of za World Laughter Federation.”

“Is Germany funny?” says Eileen Callahan from R&D. She’s working with the cosmetic division to develop a foundation that works at the cellular level.

The cosmetic team is at the table on our right; the hair care team is at the table on our left. I’m with fem care. Anti-dandruff is at the table behind us. The fine fragrance group is across the room. They’re all in from the Paris office and think they’re too sophisticated to sit with the rest of us.

“Now wiz the hands up in the air,” says the German in the jester hat. “HO. HO. HA HA HA.”

We all repeat after him: “HO. HO. HA HA HA.” It doesn’t feel like laughter. It feels like something more sinister.

“What are we supposed to feel here?” says Luis Gonzalez, who is an assistant brand manager on fem care. After two years of marketing natural fiber maxi-pads to Latin American women, he’s learned to look for emotion in everything.

“I bet you didn’t think you could spend a whole day talking about the menstrual cycle,” he said to me earlier.

“Luis, I’m a woman,” I said. “Menstruation is actually a pretty familiar topic.”

“Und now, we are at a cocktail party and we shake the martini and laugh.” The German roams around the room, approaching each table with his imaginary cocktail shaker. He moves with the jumpy, staccato rhythm of a silent film star.

“HO. HO. Hee hee hee,” we say, and shake up our own invisible drinks.

“Mine’s a mojito!” says Luis. He’s wearing a Hawaiian print shirt.

Forced joviality makes me nervous. It’s the reason I never liked summer camp.

“Okay,” says the German jester. “Now the scolding laugh.” He wags a finger at our table, as if he needs to make an example of fem care, as if we’re not already treated like the ugly stepchildren.

“HO. HO. HEH HEH HEH,” we repeat. He moves on to chastise the others into participation.

I like my job. I really do. I am good at market research. I get to know my consumers as I analyze data about their lives. I know how much money they make and what they do for a living and how many children they have and how many computers they own and what magazines they read. And even without the names—because I almost never know their names—I have a strong sense of what matters to these women. I know what kind of food they’re making for dinner. I imagine them preparing tacos with the Old El Paso kit, and then tucking their children in and reading Goodnight Moon. I imagine them waking up in the middle of the night because they are so worried that they’ll oversleep. They’re lying there, frozen with anxiety, counting the minutes until their alarm clocks go off and they have to pack lunches. Tiny cups of applesauce and pre-wrapped crackers with cheese and carrot sticks that will end up in the trash can with every other kid’s vegetables. All that miniature food is enough to make anyone crazy. They’re tired of taking care of everyone and of trying to do so many things at once. And so it means something to know that our products improve their lives in some small way. That, thanks to us, their skin feels softer, their armpits are dry, their hair is shiny, and their maxi-pads don’t leak. And that thanks to our double-digit growth, I just got a raise.

Luis is wagging a finger at Barb Lawson. Barb spends her life scolding the rest of us, so it does feel pretty good to give her a taste of her own medicine. If Barb is overly combative, it’s because she is the kind of woman who never wears the right thing, and she knows it. She’s got nothing but her patented anti-dandruff technology to make her feel special.

“HO. HO. HEH HEH HEH,” we say, and there’s nothing lighthearted about it.

I keep waiting for the moment when the fake laughs inspire real ones. I figure that’s the point of this exercise. But as I look around, it seems like we’re in the saddest place on Earth. It’s like all the hopelessness we’ve ever felt is concentrated in this enormous room right now. I can feel all the unanswered letters, all the lost dogs, the mate-less mittens lying alone in snowdrifts. These laughing exercises make me want to kill myself. And I know how I’d do it too. It would be an homage to Sylvia Plath and her oven, just to subvert everyone’s expectations.

“Annie from CRD? Who knew she liked poetry?” they’d say.

I have to get out of this conference room. I feel like I’ve been trapped in here for a week already. I spend most of my days alone in my office and all these group sessions are wearing me out.

“Luis,” I say, “I need to go find a tampon.”

Despite his posturing, proximity to an actual menstruating woman still makes Luis squeamish. I can see it in his face. I slip out the back of the ballroom. The hallway is over-air-conditioned, and the carpet has a garish pattern in gold and brown. I want to get as far from the conference as possible, so I head for the elevators and ride to the sixth floor, where the gym and outdoor pool are located. When I get to the pool, there’s no one else there. It’s just me and fifty lounge chairs with blue and white striped cushions. There are cabanas draped in flowing white fabric and a border of orange trees around the perimeter of the deck. It’s impossibly glamorous.

I still get a kick out of staying in nice hotels. I always feel like I am impersonating a grown-up when I go on business trips. I check into my room and wonder if there is a hidden camera ready to record behavior that is less than adult. Is someone watching while I extract blackheads from my nose and smear them on the mirror? What do my colleagues do alone in their rooms while I am scrutinizing my pores and waiting to be found out?

I cross the pool deck to the ladies’ lounge on the other side. And it’s only when I’ve hoisted up my dress and made myself comfortable on one of the toilets that I hear a muffled whine from the stall next to mine. I lean my head over and peer under the divider and see a pair of black stilettos.

“Are you okay?” I say after a moment. I think the woman has a right to know I’m here. I wouldn’t want her to think I’m eavesdropping.

She hesitates when she hears my voice and then she starts crying the way children do, in loud and furious spurts. I give her a minute or two to get it out of her system while I exit my stall to wash my hands. The soap is a soy and pomegranate concoction that’s very on trend—everyone is doing naturals and organics these days.

I hear a break in the sobs and clear my throat. “Can I do anything?”

“I don’t know. Are you a dry cleaner?” The voice is raspy and sure of itself.

“Pardon?” I say.

“I have blood all over my fucking dress,” the woman says.

“Oh, God,” I say. “I hate that.”

I can hear her rotating the toilet paper roll on its spindle.

“Do you need a tampon?” I say and can’t help but be excited to find a research subject when I wasn’t even looking. You never know when you’ll unearth a good consumer insight.

“I don’t think a tampon can soak up this mess,” she says.

“Or I could get you a pad,” I say. “There’s nothing more degrading than walking around with a wad of toilet paper in your pants. Trust me, I’ve been there.”

“It’s not my period,” she says.

“Oh,” I say. “How long has the bleeding been going on?”

“Two days.” She blows her nose. “If you must know, I had an abortion the day before yesterday.”

“Well,” I say.

I hear her tearing more toilet paper off the roll and adopt my most reassuring moderator voice. “The bleeding is normal. But it must be uncomfortable. Do you need some ibuprofen?”

I’ve always been a person that people confide in. I think it’s because people think I’m too square to have my own secrets. I look innocent and trustworthy and ready to listen. I was a peer counselor in college. It was my job to coax the girls with bulimia to stop sticking their fingers down their throats, to convince the date rape victims to press charges against their attackers. They told me their stories because they thought they’d never see me again. It’s a powerful feeling to be privy to something that others aren’t. I understand why people can’t keep secrets. They spill them because they can’t resist showing off the authority they were granted.

“He doesn’t even know I was pregnant,” she says from inside the stall. “He has grown children. In college. He always complains about the tuition.” She starts to laugh as if it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. But then she stops laughing as suddenly as she started and emits a sound that’s somewhere between a snort and a cough.

“Do you have kids?” I ask. I’m still about ten years away from menopause, but I know my eggs are like dying stars; they’ll burn through their fuel and go dark eventually.

“I planned to,” she says.

I’m trying to decide how to tell her that the first two weeks are the hardest and that it really does get better after that. But then I hear the toilet flush.

The woman emerges from the stall. She is willowy with shiny black hair and chic even with red teary streaks on her cheeks. She looks like the kind of woman who has never succumbed to the urge to eat a second donut. She’s a little older than I am, probably in her early forties, but I don’t see a wedding ring. I try to imagine her when she was in ninth grade. It’s a game I play, looking through the lens of adolescent angst to see who would have been a friend in the days when they were hard to come by. This woman, with groomed eyebrows and the effortless elegance I associate with French actresses, was probably recruited to pose for advanced drawing. She probably skipped classes to smoke cigarettes with the boys in some rock band. Or dated a college guy who picked her up from school and took her back to his dorm to have sex before his roommate returned from class.

“Look at this,” she says, turning around to show me a kidney-shaped bloodstain on the back of her green print dress. “Diane von Furstenberg. Ruined.”

“Maybe not,” I say. “It will probably come out.”

She says she has to give a presentation in about five minutes. That she doesn’t have time to walk all the way to the elevator bank and go up to her room on the twenty-first floor. And so I make the offer before I can second-guess my Pollyanna instincts. “You can borrow my dress,” I say. “We could trade. You wear mine, I wear yours.” I do have time to go to my room and change.

She scrutinizes my black dress for a minute and her eyes linger on my hips. “I’m a size six,” she says. “Sometimes I’m a four.”

I crane my head around to see the tag inside my dress. It’s an eight. “It’s a wrap dress, so you can just belt it tighter.” I yank it over my head.

“What the hell,” the woman says, and shimmies out of her own dress. She’s wearing a black lace bra and control top pantyhose stuffed with tissue. I’m wearing no bra—because I’m so flat that I don’t really need one—and a threadbare pair of white Hanes that I vowed to throw out a long time ago. I always wear old, stained underwear when I have my period. Plus there is an embarrassing streak of orange—an unsightly souvenir from an experiment with self-tanner—on my thigh. Now I find myself crossing my left hand over my bare breasts while I hold out the dress with my right hand.

That’s when she notices my wrist.

“You’re with the conference?” she says. She stares at my bracelet in horror.

We all have to wear these red rubber bracelets to identify us as official participants who have signed confidentiality agreements. God forbid someone from L’Oreal should sneak into the ballroom. The woman reluctantly holds up her right wrist. She’s wearing a red bracelet too. I didn’t notice it under her sleeves when she was dressed.

“I’m Annie, Global CRD, fem care,” I say, holding my dress against my body.

“Based at Bear Valley?” She tosses her soiled dress onto the bathroom counter.

I nod.

She exhales very slowly, as if blowing smoke rings. “Quite a run you’ve had in Mexico. With Nature’s Mother, I mean.”

“It should be a billion dollar brand by 2015.”

“So I hear. These days I’m focused on upstream skin care projects. You know, Neptune, Panacea.”

It figures that she’s in skin care marketing. The skin care people are the big men on campus, the homecoming queens. And project Panacea is very high priority. I don’t know much about it, but there’s been chatter. It could be the next big breakthrough in anti-aging.

She reaches inside her discarded dress and pulls out the lanyard with her nametag. It reads, “Susan Graves.”

“You’re Susan Graves?”

“That’s me.” She begins to massage her temples.

I’ve seen her picture on the annual report, but she looks different here. Softer, younger. Naked. Almost naked, anyway. She’s the first woman to head the beauty care division. She’s in charge of about fifty brands around the world. They say she’s in line to be CEO, if Samuels ever steps down.

Susan Graves takes my dress out of my hand and slips it over her head.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I say. I don’t want her to leave.

She belts the dress into place. It looks better on her than it does on me.

“Sometimes this business really gets to me. Sometimes I think I should just pack it in and move to Lake Tahoe or something. Get out while I’m still young enough to remember how to live.”

“I know what you mean,” I say, but I don’t really. I’d miss my consumers. I’d miss their stories. When I drink my coffee in the morning, I think about the forty-two-year-old executive assistant in Seattle who gets migraines every month and finds that acupuncture and a latte are the only things that ease her pain. When I’m driving to work, I think about the twenty-seven-year-old teacher in Quito who stays in bed for two days because her cramps are so debilitating. Or the thirty-four-year-old caterer in Atlanta whose pad leaked all over her jeans on a first date. I’d be lost without those women. These days, they’re all I’ve got.

Susan Graves looks at me as if I’m a room she’d like to makeover. “I have to run,” she says. “They’re waiting for me.”

Back in the ballroom, Luis wants to know where I’ve been. He doesn’t even notice that I have changed into trousers.

“I had to get the concierge to get me a box of tampons,” I say. “It was an emergency.”

The group has already started the next ideation session. They’re brainstorming about relevant emotional benefits for Nature’s Mother. We’re supposed to come up with category-specific emotions and Luis is taking notes.

“You’re on your period, Annie,” says Luis. He stands at the easel, ready to record my thoughts on our giant notepad. “How do you feel? How do you wish you felt?”

Allegra, who works in marketing with Luis, says women at this time of the month want to be free, unfettered, full of hope and possibility. “They want their beauty to be in bloom.”

Luis writes this down. “Beauty in bloom” will probably end up as a commercial tagline; it’s just the kind of ball the agency in Chicago would run with. I wonder how it will translate into Spanish.

I can see Susan Graves across the room at the skin care table. She’s a commanding presence, gesturing as the others in her group watch.

“I think that women want their days to feel like any other day of the month,” Allegra is saying.

“I think women want to be empowered by their own femininity, their fertility. Menstruation is a drag, but it’s what separates the women from the boys,” I say and almost believe it.

“This is good,” says Luis. “This is really good.”

<

R&D and CRD rarely get included in conferences like this. This is painfully obvious at the group dinner by the pool that evening. It’s a buffet and we can sit wherever we want. The marketing people recognize one another like fraternity brothers with a secret handshake. They are based in different countries and work on different brands, but they gravitate toward the same four tables in the center of the patio. They wear expensive shoes and talk about wine. Even Luis has been welcomed into the mix. The rest of us are left to mingle awkwardly, having high school cafeteria flashbacks as we try to find empty seats at the peripheral tables. I find myself next to Barb Lawson and I know it’s going to be a long evening.

“Look at them,” says Barb, gesturing at the marketing people. “Full of ideas that we can’t support technically. They want to talk about channeling moisture to the parts of the scalp that need it most. They expect me to support a targeted hydra-delivery system. I told them I can’t support that.”

I see Susan Graves in the buffet line, daintily serving herself salad. She’s an anomaly because, despite the fact that we’re a beauty company, we don’t have very many beautiful people working for us. Some of us are attractive, yes, but not beautiful. She looks up for a moment and I wave at her. She’s a mere ten feet from our table but pretends that she doesn’t see me. She looks right through my raised arm, as if I’m totally invisible, as if I’m just another researcher hidden behind a two-way mirror at focus groups, and then turns her gaze to the basket of bread on the buffet table. She’s trying to decide between a sourdough roll and a French boule. My hand lingers in the air until my flickering fingers finally burn out and I let them fall into my lap and hope that no one saw my unrequited wave.

“I’m a scientist, not a magician,” Barb is saying.

Another R&D guy named Charlie pipes up. “Yeah, they think they’re all that.”

“Good chicken,” I say.

Barb rolls her eyes as if I can’t possibly understand the cross she has to bear. “Marketing is all fluff, Annie,” she says. “These people are getting all the credit for selling our products. Why do they sell well? Because they work well. Why do they work well? Because I made them work well.”

“Barb,” I say. “It’s hard for them too. Susan Graves was crying this afternoon. I saw her weeping hysterically in the bathroom.”

As soon as I say it, I know I’ve gone too far. Barb is eager for ammunition and I realize that Susan Graves is a big gun. I try to backpedal, but it’s too late. There are ten people around me who want to know what she was crying about.

“Maybe they should transfer Susan Graves to pharma; she could market antidepressants,” someone says.

“It could have been hay fever,” I say, but the damage has been done.

I stay with my half-eaten chicken while Barb Lawson slips off to another table, whispers something to another R&D woman. There’s a giddy energy that sweeps around the edge of the patio. They’ve got something on Susan Graves and they’re not afraid to use it. I’d like to warn Susan somehow, pull her aside and let her know that the attack is coming. But she’s in the middle of a serious conversation with a bald man. She’s wearing a black dress with a gold belt. It’s a dress with no room for a baby.

“I think I’m going up to bed,” I say to no one in particular.

In my hotel room, I break into the mini-bar even though it’s against company policy. I eat a can of Pringles and a bag of Peanut M&Ms. I’m halfway through a jar of cashews when I drift off. I dream of babies in jester hats, floating in a pool. There are babies everywhere, forming circles like synchronized swimmers, kicking their dimpled pink legs in the air, in unison, until the image divides, cleaving like a zygote, and then subdivides and subdivides again, creating a kaleidoscope of plump baby limbs against the chlorinated blue.

I am woken by a knock at my door. Housekeeping has already been there to turn down my bed, it’s almost two in the morning, but I open the door anyway. It’s Susan Graves. She’s swept her hair up and her eyes are a little puffy, but she’s still alarmingly beautiful. “I have your garment,” she says, as she brushes past me into my room.

I follow her. She tosses my wadded up dress onto the desk and sits down in the armchair by the window while I make a hasty attempt to brush the potato chip crumbs out of my sheets. I’m wearing my hotel robe and feel like a hausfrau. I can’t believe that Susan Graves is in my room.

“I’m sorry you had to witness that little sob fest today.”

I sit down on the bed, facing her. I would like to be her friend. We could make spa appointments together. We would read fashion magazines while we got pedicures. She’d help me choose a polish color. I’d gravitate toward a neutral pink, but she’d push me to try something a little more vibrant. A cherry red maybe. That would really be something.

“It’s important that my team not question my decision making ability,” she says.

“Sure.”

“And if they think I’m having a meltdown . . .”

“You’re not having a meltdown.”

“But if the perception is that I am having a meltdown . . .”

“Yes.”

“Or if they think I’m some kind of floozy . . .”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s a problem,” she says. “A problem you can fix.”

“Oh, anything. Tell me what I can do to help.”

This is the moment, I think, when she confides in me about all the causes of her unhappiness. An affair with a married man, maybe. A sister with leukemia. An Eastern European product launch gone awry. I’m ready for anything. I picture her legs in the stirrups, waiting for the OB/GYN. If she’d give me an opening, I’d tell her what it feels like to have sex for the first time after an abortion. How tentative I was, how desperate I felt to be fucked especially hard as some kind of punishment for being less than vigilant with birth control.

“They’ll eventually give up trying to get to the bottom of my mystery,” she says. “As long as you don’t say anything.”

“I just mentioned that you were crying,” I say. “I didn’t tell them why. I didn’t say anything about your procedure.”

Susan Graves folds her arms across her abdomen as if she’s in pain. As if she’s got cramps. If only Luis were here to see this. The emotion that a lot of women experience when they get their period every month is relief. Thank God I’m not pregnant, they think. They remember the nights when the condom broke, when the condom wasn’t used at all, when the rhythm method seemed more than adequate, when it just felt good to be wanted. Thank you, God; I’ll never take another chance again.

“I didn’t tell them,” I say again. “Not that.”

She studies me carefully, trying to decipher whether I’m telling the truth, and I get the feeling she’s never had women friends. She’s the type who would order her steak rare just to prove she can keep up with the boys. Our company may market products to women, but they’re not ready for real women’s issues.

“Maybe you should take some time off and rest,” I say. “You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably got plenty of vacation days.”

“I don’t need time off.”

“You said that sometimes you just can’t take this business.”

“Is that what you heard?”

“That’s what you said.”

“No, I said sometimes I just can’t take the people in this business. There are people who just don’t belong here. It’s up to me to decide who those people are.”

I think of the quarterly emails that are sent to all of us in beauty care. Words of inspiration, straight from the desk of Susan Graves. “Think of the consumer as a friend,” read one. “If you could take her out for coffee, what would she have to say? Isn’t it time you let her voice be heard?”

“When is your next performance review?” She sits back in her armchair and crosses her legs. She has great legs for a woman her age. No spider veins crawling across her calves, no dimpled flesh around the knee.

“Not for five months.”

“Maybe we should accelerate that timeline,” she says. “I think it’s time to review your performance, don’t you?” She lets her hair down and shakes it out. She has mastered the nonchalant flip of our shampoo commercials.

I am not much of a drinker, but I go to the mini-bar and pull out one of the tiny bottles of vodka.

“I’ll take one of those,” she says.

I hand her a bottle. She unscrews the lid and takes a swig without puckering her lips the way most people do when they swallow something that harsh.

“I used to be in CRD. Did you know that?” she says.

I shake my head. Susan Graves seems like she vaulted straight from business school into the glossy world of marketing. It’s hard to imagine her toiling away in the unglamorous world of the Consumer Research Division. It’s hard to imagine her working her way up from anywhere.

“It’s true. CRD in AP/DO. We never got any respect.”

The antiperspirant and deodorant divisions still don’t get any respect. It’s as bad as fem care. Sweat and blood are not much fun.

“And there were so few women then. It was horrible. We girls have to take care of each other, don’t you think?” She smiles at me. One of her incisors is especially pointed; a snaggletooth that would be a flaw on anyone else. I suspect that her lovers have run their tongues over the sharp edge of that tooth and known they were in the presence of someone special. “A word from the right person and you could be promoted ahead of schedule. Perhaps you’re ready to run a division of CRD. You might have a future in management.”

“I didn’t tell them,” I say.

“Then we’re in business,” says Susan Graves. She raises her bottle, as if to make a toast.

“Cheers,” I say.

“I’ll be watching you,” she says.

Our goal in CRD is to build relationships, to engender loyalty by making consumers feel like our brands understand them. Equity scans tell us which brands are “for someone like me.” We test our advertisements for engagingness, persuasiveness and recall, and then peruse the consumer verbatims to see what their statements reveal. We put demographic and psychographic boxes around people, reducing them to their key attributes to fit them on our market map.

Nature’s Mother has captured a huge share of developing markets, especially Catholic countries where women don’t believe in tampons. Before launch, it was my research that showed that consumers in those countries were afraid of synthetic materials. That’s why our pads—at least for this particular brand—are made with natural fibers and chamomile. Our marketing campaign is called “Absorbing Life.” We have other fem care brands too, including the best-selling tampon in the United States. But Nature’s Mother is helping us build the business in Latin America and Eastern Europe. We’re going into China next year. It’s a white space launch that could make my career.

After Susan Graves leaves my room, I can’t fall asleep. I lie on my back, then on my stomach, then on my back again. I tell myself I should brush my teeth, but I just stare at the ceiling and wonder what I would do if I actually got promoted. Will I end up sending inspirational emails to everyone in beauty care? Don’t forget that the consumer has the same hopes and fears as we do. Don’t forget that there are things about her that no test can tell us. Consumers cry too.

I can’t stay in bed any longer, so at four-fifteen in the morning, I pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, slip on my sneakers and leave my room. The hotel is eerily quiet at this hour—even the cynical laughter of late-night talk shows has long been put to bed—and I hear nothing from the guest rooms on my hall. In the elevator, I hardly recognize myself in the mirrored walls: my image is watery and diluted. I’m sinking deeper. Down on the fourth floor, the conference room is empty. Our summit doesn’t resume until eight o’clock, and without any body heat, it’s shockingly cold. I prop the doors open to let in some of the light from the lobby and survey the scene. In the semi-darkness, the easels look like abandoned playground equipment. There are dozens of pages of ideas—the eager scribbling of various brand managers—posted haphazardly on the walls. I find my way to the fem care table and turn our easel pad toward the light. Luis has written: “Beauty in bloom—Empowered by fertility???”

My pregnancy, all seven weeks of it, occurred when I was a senior in high school. My boyfriend lived around the corner from me and we used to walk our dogs together late at night, letting the leashes tangle up while we kissed. He was an abstract painter and a varsity tennis player, a shambling presence with a ponytail and a penchant for post-punk music. I feel like a butcher sometimes, slicing thinner and thinner until no one is recognizable. He was all those things, but he was also unbearably sad, and honest about his sadness in a way that people can be at seventeen, and our sadness attracted each other like depressed magnets, and for a while, the mere fact of one another’s presence was enough of a buoy to keep us afloat, to crystallize our moods into an exquisite kind of melancholy, and sometimes to make us bubbly in a way we didn’t remember we knew how to be. We were kissing regularly under streetlights, in the rain even, giggling while our poor golden retrievers were knotted together. I miss feeling that connected to another person. His name was Paul. But then there was the pregnancy test I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about and the appointment I made without his knowledge. Eventually, I started timing my dog walks so that I wouldn’t run into him.

In just three hours, Luis and the others will be back down here, ready to ideate. I could pretend that none of this ever happened and hope that management really is in my future. Susan Graves and I don’t work in the same building. Once we’re back in Bear Valley, I probably won’t see her at all. And yet, her name will still be invoked in meetings; her emails will circulate like commandments. She’ll still be watching me. Luis’s handwriting is slanting and insistent. I pick up one of the markers from our table and turn over a fresh page on the easel pad. Emotional benefits. I just need to figure out what I feel.

I used to watch Paul from behind the curtains of my bedroom window as he walked slowly past my house, dawdling in case I came outside. He always looked up at my window as if identifying constellations, as if he saw something eternal and bright about us. Now, nearly twenty years later, he probably wouldn’t recognize me if I passed him on the street.

I’ve been with the company for ten years. I’m one hundred percent vested. I’m signed up for the fem care softball team. I try to imagine what else I’d be good at, if I left and had to find another job. Interviews were never my strong suit. Give me an example of a challenge you faced and describe how you handled that challenge. I wonder if Susan Graves is sleeping. If she’s wearing a silk eye mask over her hydrating night treatment. If certainty is reasserting itself inside her as she dreams. Or if, in the morning, she will wake to a murkiness that can’t be washed and exfoliated away. What would you say are your greatest weaknesses? What might you do differently, if you could?

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