I needed a distraction from making life decisions. For example, I wanted to finally
Sometimes it’s hard getting your due.
Also I needed to get paid. That was one distraction. Every day I worked on a document for the startup, hoping it would end with a check. They owed me for months of work. I became obsessed with the numbering of each row in the document, and then I became obsessed with the color to assign each row. There were three to choose from: not going to happen (red), might happen (yellow), and will definitely happen (green). There were many empty desks near me. The company had survived a bad year; they’d laid off dozens. One day, while trying to describe all the requirements the system needed for customers to manage their profiles (A user can optionally add a statement describing what he or she wished were different in his or her life), a young woman appeared and occupied a nearby desk. Long, silky red hair grew out of her head, tumbling to the middle of her back. Her profile was that of a dolphin’s, which instantly reminded me of Clarissa (with its expected sting), whose profile also looked like a dolphin’s. This memory of her was one of a dozen that stubbornly stuck with me, chronically, and they became like my heartburn, unmanageable with meds or drink or time.
Karen looked more like a cute chipmunk than a dolphin, but she didn’t work at the office so I couldn’t integrate her into my distraction workflow, which danced between the bitterness of working without having seen a paycheck, and the need to keep working to improve my chances of getting one.
One night I told her, Karen, that she looked like a cute chipmunk after she complained about my lack of an ass. “If you weren’t so funny,” Karen said, “you’d be really fucked up.” She leaned in, her teeth bared. “Can I bite you now?” Karen kissed and bit, like a cat that doles out each of its affections with warnings.
“If you let me bite you, I’ll give you a back rub,” she offered.
“Like one bite?”
“Nooooo. For one minute.”
“I’m not going to let you bite me for a minute.” But my neck hurt from, I think, sleeping on a wedge at night to help stave off the acid reflux.
Karen kissed and bit my neck until I yelled “Ow!” Then she announced, “I give you a back rub now.”
I never love the women I go out with. I love them after we’re done, when it’s too late, and especially when they don’t care if I love them or not. But Karen stubbornly stuck with me, and I couldn’t find reasons to stop liking her.
At the office, while a colleague, a Goldman brat, tried to impress me with his investor contacts, with his hedge fund contacts, with his skepticism of the startup’s valuation, its market sizing numbers, its projected 18-month margin, my eyes shot to the redheaded girl.
“So have you gotten paid yet?” he finally asked.
“Actually, Goldman twat, no.”
It was an excellent excuse to head over to the wannabe CEO’s office and see what was what. It had taken weeks even to get a signed contract. I’d let everything slide; I was back to trusting people. I was back to being a pussy, after working so hard against it when I sold the Vermont house to the 81-year-old man. I’d wanted this job; it had come just when I needed to get out of myself. It had not been an immediate desperation, but a simmering one that had come from losing a sense of direction.
I passed the red-headed woman’s desk. Her hair was a sea: riveting to look at, while impossible to settle on a single spot. I could see a bit of her face, too. It had the angles of the alien redhead, the invasion force always talked about by a friend who’s married to a redhead. “They all look alike,” he said, wearing a worried look. “I’m not saying they communicate with each other, but…”
“David!” cried the CEO. “How’s that document coming?”
“Deep in the weeds, man.” I asked him about the two invoices I’d emailed weeks earlier.
“Yes, yes, I feel bad about that. I apologize; it’s not fair.”
“Oh, don’t apologize!”
“I think Ralph should have a check for you in his office. I have a meeting with him later.”
“Oh, that’s great! Thanks!” Since Ralph was the chief operating officer of the digital agency incubating the startup, this sounded promising.
The startup had no money yet. Everyone worked for free, but me. The agency was supposed to pay me; they would recover the money once the first round came through. This complication was why I had charged a lower fee than usual: to help them out. But it also was helping me out, because the alternative was sitting in my apartment.
The redheaded woman favored jeans and blouses. She was a distraction from the distraction. She was short. She had an ass, a round, motherly ass that you could imagine behind a baby carriage while thin pale arms pushed the carriage forward.
A week disappeared and still no check. By now, three invoices sat in the CEO’s inbox.
“I was wondering what was going on with that check?”
“Oh, David. Again, I truly apologize. I’m going to have Richard write you a check. I’m seeing him tonight.”
Richard was one of the founders of the startup. Something had changed, then. There had never been a first check.
“Oh, that’s great! Thanks. It’s not as though I have to pay the rent!”
“Of course not! And those credit card bills!”
“And those credit card bills!” A gentleman doesn’t really need the money, you see. A gentleman only works to interact with the world. When a gentleman asks for remuneration, it is, at best, seedy.
Unlike the redhead, almost all the other women at the office were Ambers. The Peruvian hated Ambers. This was what the Peruvian — Karen — and her French friend — Mathilde — called American women. It was Karen’s contention that something fundamental afflicted women here. “For example,” she said. “French women are bitches. They don’t hide this. They are bitches to your face. American girls, they pretend to be nice to you. Oh, hi! Nice to meet you! But they really don’t mean it. They’re fake. They’re Ambers.”
“No, you can actually tell if they don’t mean it.”
“Listen to when they say it. If they say, nice to meetchu, that’s when you’re in trouble. When they compress it like that, the Amber’s telling you she’s a bitch.”
“Ah, that’s good information.”
The redheaded woman wasn’t an Amber. Her face — rock hard, unyielding — gave no fake-friendly invitation. I eventually realized that she wasn’t smiling at me; it was just the shape of her dolphin mouth. The only friendly part about her was that ass following her around the office like a happy, loyal dog.
No check came, of course. The CEO stopped dropping by my desk. I still came into the office, though. Where else would I go? Also, the contract stipulated that I deliver a specification document which I — gamely, stupidly — continued to slave over. But now it was time to escalate, to go to seed, to become not quite a gentleman, like Leamas from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I’ve always wanted to be not quite a gentleman.
So I started sending emails. Soon, one of the founding partners came to my desk and said that the law firm setting up the new company would write the check. And I said, okay, thanks, THANKS, and we shook hands like gentlemen. And once again the Great Pussy somehow had entered me.
During the next few days, whenever the redheaded woman walked by my desk on the way to the coffee machine, or to a meeting, or to the printer, I stopped working on my document to casually swivel around, pretending I was searching the premises for a colleague. Where was he?
Karen said I needed validation from women because high school traumatized me. I had suffered from a strong libido, but no one to share it with. I said it was hard to suppress, this need to be desired, but I tried. It was one of the reasons I wanted to move to a small town. There’s nobody to look at. In New York, I look at everyone. It doesn’t even need to be a woman; the city is surfeit with human spectacle.
No check came, of course. I wrote another round of emails, and this time I made it clear that I’d hold the document hostage. The CEO bcc’d me on some terse emails with the lawyer, who seemed perturbed and annoyed by my persistence. Isn’t it always the case that if you must demand to get paid, somehow you’re the villain, the asshole? I now understood the frustration of mobsters screaming, “Give me my fucking money!” when they beat the shit out of deadbeats. I became self-conscious. I was afraid of being seen as too much of a Jew.
Soon, even the redheaded girl didn’t interest me. Her presence couldn’t overcome the tense and bitter mood the situation had put me in. The Goldman twat couldn’t cheer me up with his entertaining ego. The food at my favorite lunch spot tasted bland.
Finally, a check came. By then I had pussied out and delivered the first draft of the specifications. Unfolded in my hands, the truth laid bare in ink: they had paid me most, but not all of what they owed.
I saw Karen that night. I told her about the redheaded woman. I complained about the check. She threw her head back and laughed.
“Oh, David, that’s why I like you! You are so seeeeemple.”