“Here we go,” I said to Farrah as we approached our destination—one of many skyscrapers in a seemingly infinite row of steel and glass that reached as far as I could see. I swear those buildings looked like they were touching the tranquil September sky. When we entered, I led Farrah through the usual round of security clearance checks until we made it onto the elevator that would take us to the 31st floor.
“Maybe you’ll end up at a place like this after all,” Farrah said, her voice filled with genuine—albeit naïve—encouragement as we walked throughout the hallway.
Ever the pessimist, I replied with a dismissive, “We’ll see about that.”
As we passed through the heavy glass doors that read FEADURHEDZ in oversized block print letters, I opened up a bit. “They sent Jeniyah to Philadelphia about three months ago. You met her before. She’s real chill and would let me help with all sorts of projects. But her replacement, Adam, is full of himself and doesn’t want my amateur input polluting his brand,” I explained.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just Adam. They hired a whole mess of people from some major networks recently, not to mention a few publications dinosaurs looking to stay relevant since print was essentially dead. Everyone had become super nit-picky about every little thing, making it virtually impossible for me to get anyone to take my work seriously.
Farrah wasn’t listening to a single word, though. Instead, her attention wavered back and forth between her phone and the cute new guy from sales who paced back and forth in the hallway.
Sales was too preoccupied with whatever it was that he was thinking about, and didn’t look up at her. That was odd. Farrah usually had no issue attracting male attention.
“Oh. That’s too bad,” Farrah murmured, her eyes glued to the oversized screen that barely fit in her grasp. “Allison just texted,” she said, loud enough for Sales to hear. “Her brother is performing tomorrow night at some comedy club on Third and can get us in. Are you coming? Oh, shoot. Al’s trying to video chat with me now. She always tries to video chat whenever there’s something she wants to show off. Such an attention seeker.”
I groaned, knowing precisely who Farrah was talking about. Although we had only met once during our senior year at an off-campus party, Allison struck me as an over-privileged, Boston suburb brat who thought she was a big deal. I remembered how Allison had droned on and on about how she was some major social justice warrior, but somehow I doubted that she had ever even stepped foot in Southie.
“I can’t go,” I replied, keeping my opinion cards close to the vest. “I have the all-day Saturday shift at the dining hall tomorrow. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, back-to-back. Cringe-worthy.”
“That’s too bad. You know, you ought to try waitressing. It’ll pay way more, provided you don’t scare all the customers away with your sassy self.”
“Meh.” I wrinkled my nose. “I’d probably spill something on someone—on purpose. Better keep me behind the scenes when it comes to hospitality. Anyway, Dad’s office is just at the end over there. You remember, right?” I redirected the conversation as we continued down the hallway.
“It’s been a while, but yes, I remember. This place has changed quite a bit, hasn’t it?”
“All of this,” I motioned with one exaggerated wave of the arm, “went through big time renovations.”
There used to be all these eclectic paintings and murals on the walls. But the office had done a complete 180, taking on a more corporate look. Ever since its successful Chicago expansion, FEADURHEDZgrew momentum seemingly overnight. With two more offices popping up in LA and Philly, and talk of hitting up Nashville and Denver, HEDZhad executed a nearly flawless transition from being considered just another cute quiz-and-meme social media site, to big-time player.
The entire place had been ripped out, gutted, replaced. No trendy exposed red brick walls accented by bohemian light fixtures and eclectic wall art. Everything had been completely redesigned, constructed of glass and chrome. All the walls, doors. Tables and desks. Even the furniture and wall hangings were either a pale shade of gray or sterile white. New blood, new look, new brand.
As Farrah and I reached Dad’s department, we soon found ourselves surrounded by a plethora of twenty-somethings I recognized from both the social media team and IT. Greenpoint had married Silicon Valley, and it was a very tense, semi-dysfunctional marriage. They were anxiously buzzing while engaged in several simultaneous conversations that somehow seemed to connect with, and yet deviate from, one another all at once. They, like Sales, looked preoccupied. I wanted to say hi, but something told me that they weren’t in the mood for small pleasantries.
Then I heard it. The words no one wants to hear anyone from IT say: “I hate when they make us lock out emails.”
Locking out emails? Emails, as in plural? Thatwas never good.
“What’s going on around here?” I whispered under my breath. Today was not the day to show up late, I soon realized. My chest fluttering full of anxiety, I nipped at the inner flesh of my left cheek—an old and familiar compulsion I often fell back on during times of uncertainty.
As we approached Dad’s office, I realized that he, too, was probably anxiously buzzing about, elsewhere. But before I could even reach for my phone to text him, Dane, Dad’s assistant (and my pseudo office guardian angel) shot up from his desk like a ricocheted bullet and practically lunged at us, blocking Dad’s door. Waving a tablet frantically in his left hand, heatedly texting on a separate phone with his right, Dane was the definition of beyondflabbergasted. His dark, bugged-out eyes were only magnified by the lenses of his boxy, oversized eyeglasses. Tiny beads of sweat formed a clear, dotted line that ran vertically down the center of his neck. His face had drained a shade paler than usual.
“You’re LATE, Sage!” Dane scolded, his voice bordering an uncomfortable pitch that bordered hysteria. “It’s 3:10. Where were you? I can’t just sit around here all day. I have grad school at 4. It’s my early day. And the whole frickin’ board of directors is here, and they are INSANE. And IT started locking accounts. And there was almost an actual fist fight when Patrick from photography realized he was fired—people are dropping like flies. Something’s going down, and it’s really, really bad.”
“Pat’s gone? Wait! Is there an opening?!?!”
“Seriously, Sage? Pat’s gone. As in, a bunchof people will be gone. No one is promoting your intern self.”
“Oh.” But I couldn’t entirely focus my attention on what Dane was yapping about because his hair distracted me. He had done something new to it. Petrified and overly-dolloped in globs of hair gel, Dane had styled his hair into in this single, perfect dark wave of a coif that reached seven, possibly even eight inches over his head. I found myself just staring at it.
Dane snapped his fingers just inches away from my face—once, twice—plucking me out from the haze my mind had momentarily wandered into. “Sage. SAGE! Are you even listening to me?” He then gasped and asked incredulously, “Are you staring at my hair?”
I blinked. “It’s just …” then I pointed as if to explain myself, “so high.”
“Oh … my … God. Did you fall on the street out there? Is that what this is all about? You fell and smacked your anime face against the sidewalk? Since when did you become Miss Fashion Judgmental? Your hair was highlighted blue just a week ago—don’t get me wrong, it did look fabulous. I can still see hints of it in this lighting. But that’s neither here, nor there. For once, will you listen to me? The board is here. People are getting fired. Look around you!”
I touched my hair defensively. Admittedly, it was the first time I’d gone natural chestnut brown in years. I wanted to write off Dane’s behavior as just another bout of typical hysteria. But I knew it wasn’t true. Not this time. I motioned towards Dad’s office.
“Fine. I’ll listen,” I said. “What’s going on? Is Dad with the board now?”
Dane let out, yet another, exasperated gasp. “You’re not listening! I’m not even supposed to be here now, but I can’t just get up and leave. I keep reloading my email to make sure I have access—they are so firing me, Sage, aren’t they? Do you realize how many resumes we get, every day, from people who want my job? If I leave in the middle of all this and show any sign of weakness, I’m done for.” He then dramatically flung the end of his blue and gray plaid scarf around his neck with the very same hand that clenched his phone. Turning his attention to Farrah, Dane pretentiously added, “I’m studying public relations and communications.”
Farrah took one step back and held up her hands defensively in front of her. Again, she didn’t have to say a single word to me because the look on her face said it all. This time it read: What kind of crazy is this?
I needed to talk Dane down, fast.
“Chill,” I attempted to reason with him. “My Dad will not let them get rid of you. All of this probably has nothing to do with you—”
“You don’t know that, Sage!”
Farrah’s phone again. At what seemed to be his near tipping point, Dane glowered at her; his jaw clenched so tightly it caused an unsightly trembling of the entire left side of his face. For a second, I was almost entirely sure that he would snatch the menacing culprit out of Farrah’s hand and chuck it right out the 31ststory window.
Oblivious, of course, to his burgeoning ire, Farrah’s attention remained solely focused on her text messages. Ping. Ping. Ping.” Oooooh,” she purred. “It’s Liam. Hold a minute; I needto answer this.”
“Anyway,” I continued, trying to keep Dane cool, collected, and firmly grounded on planet Earth, “you can leave now if you have somewhere to be. They’re all at a meeting now, right? No one will even notice you leaving. I’ll hold down the fort. I got this. No one is getting rid of you. No biggie.”
Dane’s jaw slid wide open. Then, slamming the tablet onto his desk, he abruptly grabbed my arm and pulled me inside Dad’s office, leaving Farrah behind.
“No biggie?” Dane hissed, as he nearly knocked me into the picture frames on Dad’s desk. “Jorie is here! Jorie. She was supposed to be in Philadelphia this week. But she just showed up like a complete sociopath—P.S., don’t evertell her I called her that. With all her people throwing their full weight around the place. Demanding an emergency meeting. Emergency? What emergency? Who does that, unannounced, at 2:45 on a Friday? It’s twisted. They pulled everyone into Conference Room South Side. They grabbed your father, Gavin, Amy, and all the major players.”
“Jorie is here?” I asked.
So it wasserious. Marjorie “Jorie” Reagan was my dad’s boss—everyone’s boss. A fast-talking, hell-on-heels, brilliant disaster of a person, Jorie pretty much single-handedly transformed FEADURHEDZinto an unstoppable powerhouse—but at a hefty price for everyone else. New blood. New look. New brand. Lots of layoffs. She was the kind of person you simultaneously feared and longed to emulate.
“Dane,” I said, using the same tone one might use to talk a crazed lunatic off a ledge, “You know how important it is in these situations to remain calm—”
“Pause.” Dane held up his hand, just inches away from my face. “Seriously, Sage. Don’t have time for this.”
I did not care for the whole hand-in-my-face maneuver. “You better watch where you place that hand,” I warned. “You’re lucky we’re friends. Instead of wasting time bickering with me, get out of here. Just tell me what needs to get done, and I’ll do it. So what if I’m technically interning for photography. Adam has no use for me, and with Pat canned, it’s probably a mini war zone there right now anyway. What does Dad need you to do? I got this.”
I nodded seriously. “Really.”
“Get to the copier. Now. You know how Jorie wants all her docs printedin front of her, on actual paper, because she can’t read from a tablet like a civilized person? There’s a document up on my desktop. Print it, make three extra copies, and place the three extras in a manila folder—not an envelop. A folder. Then, runto the conference room. Also, they’re going to be here all night … Oh my God—I didn’t call the caterer! They’re not going to have dinner! Oh my God. Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my—”
“It’s okay!” I grabbed him by both shoulders. “Breathe! You were completely blind-sighted. Tell me what I need to do!”
“Okay.” Dane inhaled then exhaled deeply. “So you need to place an order with Vincent’s. But specify gluten free. If I come to find out that there was a single breadcrumb on that eggplant parm, Sage, so help me—”
“Not a crumb?”
Dane threw a severe case of stink-eye in my direction, which again, I wasn’t feeling, but I knew it would be best to let it slide.
“I can’t get into Jorie’s dietary habits, this is just the way it is!” he snapped. “You’re the one who volunteered to be helpful, so be helpful! And while you’re at it, Farrah needs to hide in this room. She shouldn’t be out in there. Someone might see her.”
“You’re the one who shut her out!”
“Jorie’s going to flip if she sees an outsider! She’ll think WPGsent Farrah in to steal intellectual property.”
“Hmmm.” That was possible. WPG, The Wired Post Group, was our fiercest competitor and had this uncanny knack for stealing some of our best talent—including Sheila, my dad’s ex-girlfriend. WPG was especially dead set on zeroing in on the female perspective. Down with the patriarchy, indeed.
There had to be something I could say that could pass as remotely reassuring. The problem was, I drew a complete blank. As I looked up past Dane’s shoulder and through the glass door, I let out a noticeable WHEW of relief as Dad rounded the corner and headed straight for us. I nodded and motioned toward him without saying another word. Thankfully, he joined us.
Sensing the tension that permeated the room, Dad walked right up to Dane and said, “It’s alright,” and patted him on the shoulder. “You can get out of here. I know the deal on Friday; today’s no different. Just another fire to put out.”
Dane tossed one last sassy glare in my direction before practically falling all over himself to thank Dad profusely. It was somewhat annoying. Sure, I was just a lowly intern, but no one ever seemed to care that much about anything I ever had to say—and Dane was supposed to be my friend! After a few more proclamations as to Dad’s insurmountable greatness, Dane flew out of the office, leaving the door wide open, cell phone still glued in hand.
“Don’t worry about him,” Dad said, sensing my unease. He closed the door.
“Heard all about it,” I said. “Jorie.”
“Right. Jorie. And that’s just the beginning.” Dad gave me one of his signature bear hugs, lifting my feet slightly off the floor. Then, motioning toward the mini-fridge he kept parked right next to his desk, he said, “I need caffeine … and I have to drink it in here.”
“Are you serious?” I asked. “What? Is soda outlawed here now, too? Before you say anything, Dane says I’m supposed to make copies of some document and order food.”
Dad plopped down into his black leather swivel chair and swung open the mini fridge door. Producing three soda cans and placing them on his desk, in a row, with unwavering precision, he popped the seal on the one closest to him and guzzled down its contents in seconds. “You can get to the copier. It’s not that much of an emergency. And soda isn’t outlawed. Just heavily frowned upon,” he said when finished with the first can. “Don’t need to hear the lecture. They’re all off sugar and have fully embraced ketosis, or what have you. Showing up to a conference with a slice of pizza could be career suicide here. Not that any of this will affect me for much longer.”
Judgment over some pizza? In New York City, no less? I could imagine what would
happen if they found out Dad was an occasional smoker. Bedlam.
Then it registered. What did Dad mean by much longer?
“Enough talk about this place. How are you, Sage? You haven’t been texting that much. Everything going okay? All set with money?”
I nodded. “Yep. I’m set,” I lied. Not that I didn’t want to tell Dad the truth—that I was barely keeping my head above water—but I couldn’t. Truthfully, Mom hadn’t exactly helped much to make my situation any easier. But if I shared that piece with him, it would be just enough to spark the flame and ignite yet another fight between the two of them. My parents had a very intense relationship. It was pretty much lost on me as to how they even ended up together in the first place. And although twelve whole years had passed since he technically left (right before my birthday, which was another long story), it didn’t take much to reopen the old wounds between them.
Mom and Dad rarely saw eye to eye on anything, and their misadventures in co-parenting were often marked with discord. They were two completely different people with two completely different mindsets, despite having grown up together on the same block. They just happened to be my parents. Even when one could compromise a point to the other, it was never a clear-cut concession.
One major dispute always seemed to revolve around Mom’s insistence that I didn’t need Dad’s financial help; a demand that most likely derived from her unwillingness to accept any form of assistance.
No credit cards. Checks. Money orders. Wire transfers. Scratch-off lottery tickets. No coffee cans filled to the brim with spare change that he’d collected and thought I could use on a rainy day.
Not that Dad’s parenting style was without fault, either. Although well-intentioned, Dad often made various extravagant attempts to mask his inconsistent parental presence through buying me a lot of stuff that I didn’t need. In a way, I could understand. After all, his father had drunkenly stumbled completely out of Dad’s life many, many years ago. Dad didn’t exactly have a reliable paternal model to pull parenting tips from.
Despite his nurture or lack thereof, Dad’s gut rarely failed him. At that moment, I could tell by the way Dad looked at me that he instinctively knew I was holding back. Finally, he said, “I know you’re broke, kiddo. What 22-year-old living in Brooklyn isn’t?”
“Well I appreciate your concern, but I’ll manage.”
“Are you taking your medication?” he asked, before popping back the tab on his second can.
“Dad!” I felt my forehead grow hot. “Yes. I am taking my meds. As prescribed.” I hated how Dad and Mom periodically questioned me about my medication, even though it had been years since I last tossed them. Sometimes I was amazed that they didn’t force me to video chat with them every morning and watch me swallow that stupid pill.
“You know I had to ask,” Dad said. “I trust you, Sage. It’s just that sometimes, well, this type of thing can become bigger than ourselves. More than we’d like to admit.”
“I have no intention of stepping foot in Sherwood Pines ever again! Never mind me. What did youmean before? What’s going on here? You made it sound like you’re not going to be working here much longer!”
Dad shook his head, placing his hands down on his desk, almost as if trying to brace himself. “All joking aside, Sage, get on those copies and dinner. It’s going to be a long night here. I better go back to the conference room before they start looking for me. Jorie doesn’t know I let Dane leave early for school. Her philosophy is if I don’t need Dane all day, then I don’t need him at all. The last thing we need is for her to text him, looking for me. The kid will have a meltdown on the D train.”
“Dad, I’m not joking. I’m dead serious. Are you leaving?”
“You don’t have to worry about me. I have options. Let’s leave it at that for now.” He motioned toward the third can. “It’s yours if you want it.”
With a sheepish grin, Dad rose from his seat and headed for the door. But it all didn’t seem right. He was holding back. As Dad reached the doorway, he turned around once more and added, “After you work the copier, drop everything by Conference Room South Side. I don’t know if Dane specified.”
“Sorry about all this. I feel like we barely got a chance to connect. Any plans tonight?”
I nodded towards Farrah who remained on the other side of the glass wall.
Back turned to us, she had made herself comfortable in Dane’s swivel chair, happily texting away.
“Going with Farrah to a dinner thing,” I said. “There’s a new Peruvian place down on Houston. I don’t know if I want to go, but there are only so many crime dramas one can binge watch on a Friday night.” I was still perseverating on Dad’s hint about leaving the company, though. The thought of it wouldn’t leave my mind. “Dad, What did you mean by options?”
“Peruvian? Azucena’s?” he asked, completely sidestepping the more pressing question.
“I’m not completely sure, but that sounds right. Why are you ignoring me? I’m serious. Are you leaving this place?” I paused. “Are they going to ask me to leave, too?”
Dad deeply sighed, and his voice finally took on the more serious tone I had sought after. “Sage, you need to understand those decision makers always have options. Even when it might seem like there’s no end in sight, decision-makers can and willpivot. At some point, you’re going to have to think about your choices. Do you want to intern for a photography department that continues to shut you out, even when you’ve proven time and time again that you’re more than worthy?”
I folded my arms protectively across my chest. “Dad, you know I want more out of life. You do. But none of it seems to work out for me. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“I get it, kiddo. It hasn’t been easy for you. But you can’t back down. You can’t. In the meantime, don’t forget to live. Go to dinner tonight. Meet new people. Laugh. A couple of us went to Azucena’slast Tuesday. I think you’ll like it. Still on for City Island paella soon? Invite Farrah. Katie even. Her mom knows you’re in Bushwick? A long way from Cos Cob, huh?”
Katie—or Kat—as she had recently insisted everyone call her, was a friend of mine from Dayton, a prep school I had attended in another lifetime. At some point when her family moved up to Connecticut, and Dad moved back to New York, Kat and I had lost touch for a few years. We reconnected as freshmen when we ended up at the same college.
“So how do I become a decision maker?”
“In many ways you already are. Trust your gut.” Dad reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. It was the same one I had picked up for him a few years back from a tag sale in Croton. “You know your strengths, Sage. Here. Don’t get into too much trouble.” Counting off three twenty dollar bills, Dad reached for my hand and pressed them firmly into my palm.
“Dad, I can’t,” I objected. “Mom won’t let me take that from you.”
He smiled. “Don’t tell Mom. She’s not trying to be difficult. If anything this is her way of helping. Forcing you to be self-sufficient. She thinks if you depend on others, you won’t be able to defend yourself. It’s how she was raised. You remember her father, or as you called him, Grandpa Thomas. That man was old school all the way.”
Awkwardly shifting my gaze down to the floor, I tightly closed my fist over the money, crunching the bills into a crumpled ball that I quickly shoved into my messenger bag. I knew Dad was right. Mom’s mother had been ill, like me, only she had taken her life many years ago. Grandpa Thomas had raised my mom to rely on no one but herself. I still remember the deep-rooted contempt Grandpa Thomas held toward my father for leaving us. “Thank you,” I mumbled, feeling my cheeks flush several shades of embarrassment.
Placing his hand over my shoulder, Dad gave it a firm squeeze. Then, without saying another word, he left. As usual, as soon as Dad appeared, he was gone. It always seemed like there was ever enough time, or like his mind was somewhere else. But I had come to accept that about Dad a long time ago.
At least there was always City Island paella.
In the meantime, I had work to do. Dane was relying on me. I didn’t even want to think about how crushed he would be if Dad left the company. I also had myself to think about. Even though Jorie would sooner recognize the corner coffee shop barista before me, she was still watching everything. I’d never become anything more than a broke intern—never mind an actual decision maker—if I wound up on Jorie’s bad side.
Copies could get done in a heartbeat. Food was the priority. If I knew anything about Dane, it was that he was crazy meticulous. The number to Vincent’swould be in plain sight, where anyone could see it—but not on speed dial. Tapping a series of numbers made him feel more in deliberate. In control. Walking over to his desk, I didn’t have to look too hard before I saw it: a menu tacked up on his bulletin board, starred three times and underlined twice.
I picked up the phone. “Hi, yes. I want to place an order … catered … last minute … I know you guys can work some magic with me here.”