Station Eleven (Page 29)

“Dear V. She’s his friend Victoria.”

“Former friend, I’d imagine. I’ll call him tomorrow,” Clark said.

“He’ll just start rambling and deflecting and obfuscating,” she said. “Or maybe that’s just how he talks to me. Do you ever talk to him and get the sense that he’s acting?”

“I actually have to run,” Clark said. “I’ve got an eleven a.m. interview.”

“I’m coming to New York soon. Maybe we should meet and discuss this.”

“Okay, fine.” He hadn’t seen her in years. “Have your assistant talk to my admin and we’ll set something up.”

When he hung up the phone, Dear V. was all he could think about. He left the office without meeting anyone else’s gaze, mortified in a way that somehow precluded talking to his colleagues—had any of them read the book?—and stepped out onto Twenty-third Street. He wanted to track down Dear V. immediately—surely he knew someone who could get him a copy—but there wasn’t time before his meeting. He was conducting a 360° assessment at a water-systems consulting firm by Grand Central Station.

Over the past several years, these assessments had become his specialty. At the center of each stood an executive whom the client company hoped to improve, referred to without irony as the target. Clark’s current targets included a salesman who made millions for the company but yelled at his subordinates, an obviously brilliant lawyer who worked until three a.m. but somehow couldn’t meet her deadlines, a public-relations executive whose skill in handling clients was matched only by his utter ineptitude at managing his staff. Each of Clark’s assessments involved interviewing a dozen or so people who worked in close proximity to the target, presenting the target with a series of reports consisting of anonymized interview comments—positive comments first, to soften the blow of the takedowns—and then, in the project’s final phase, a few months of coaching.

Twenty-third Street wasn’t busy—a little early for the lunch crowd—but he kept getting trapped behind iPhone zombies, people half his age who wandered in a dream with their eyes fixed on their screens. He jostled two of them on purpose, walking faster than usual, upset in a fundamental way that made him feel like punching walls, like running full-speed, like throwing himself across a dance floor although he hadn’t done that in two decades. When Arthur danced he’d had a way of flailing just on the edge of the beat. A young woman stopped abruptly at the top of the subway stairs and he almost crashed into her, glared as he brushed past—she didn’t notice, enraptured by her screen—and he stepped aboard a train just before the doors closed, the day’s first small moment of grace. He stewed all the way to Grand Central Station, where he took the stairs two at a time to a marble corridor just off the main concourse, passed briefly through the spiced air of Grand Central Market and down a connecting passage to the Graybar Building.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said to his interviewee, who shrugged and gestured him into the visitor’s chair.

“If you think two minutes counts as late, we’re not going to get along very well.” Was that a Texas accent? Dahlia was in her late thirties or early forties, with a sharp-edged haircut and red-framed glasses that matched her lipstick.

Clark went into the usual introduction and preamble about the 360° they were doing, her boss as the target, the way he was interviewing fifteen people and it would all be anonymous, comments split off and categorized into separate reports for subordinates, peers, and superiors with a minimum of three in each group, etc. He listened to his voice from a distance and was pleased to note that it sounded steady.

“So the point,” she said, “if I’m understanding correctly, is to change my boss?”

“Well, to address areas of potential weakness,” Clark said. Thinking of Dear V. again as he said this, because isn’t indiscretion the very definition of weakness?

“To change him,” she insisted with a smile.

“I suppose you could see it that way.”

She nodded. “I don’t believe in the perfectibility of the individual,” she said.

“Ah,” he said. The thought that crossed his mind was that she looked a little old to be talking like a philosophy undergrad. “How about the improvement of the individual, then?”

“I don’t know.” She leaned back in her chair, arms folded, considering the question. Her tone was light, but he was beginning to realize that there was nothing flippant about her. He was remembering some of the offhand comments her colleagues had made about her in previous interviews, when his questions had come around to the team. Someone had called her a little different. Someone else, he remembered, had used the word intense. “You’ve been doing this for a while, you said?”

“Twenty-one years.”

“These people you coach, do they ever actually change? I mean in any kind of lasting, notable way?”

He hesitated. This was actually something he’d wondered about.

“They change their behaviors,” he said, “some of them. Often people will simply have no idea that they’re perceived as needing improvement in a certain area, but then they see the report …”

She nodded. “You differentiate between changing people and changing behaviors, then.”

“Of course.”

“Here’s the thing,” Dahlia said. “I’ll bet you can coach Dan, and probably he’ll exhibit a turnaround of sorts, he’ll improve in concrete areas, but he’ll still be a joyless b*****d.”

“A joyless …”

“No, wait, don’t write that down. Let me rephrase that. Okay, let’s say he’ll change a little, probably, if you coach him, but he’ll still be a successful-but-unhappy person who works until nine p.m. every night because he’s got a terrible marriage and doesn’t want to go home, and don’t ask how I know that, everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious. And you know, I’m reaching here, but I’m talking about someone who just seems like he wishes he’d done something different with his life, I mean really actually almost anything—is this too much?”

“No. Please, go on.”

“Okay, I love my job, and I’m not just saying that because my boss is going to see my interview comments, which by the way I don’t believe he won’t be able to tell who said what, anonymous or not. But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think—this will maybe sound weird—it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite—”

“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”

“You don’t think he likes his job, then.”

“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep? He was nodding, taking down as much as he could. “Do you think he’d describe himself as unhappy in his work?”

“No,” Dahlia said, “because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction. You know what I mean?”

“No, please elaborate.”

“Okay, say you go into the break room,” she said, “and a couple people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word? You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”

“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing. The previous day he’d gone into the break room and spent five minutes laughing at a colleague’s impression of a Daily Show bit.

“That’s what passes for a life, I should say. That’s what passes for happiness, for most people. Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”

He got through the rest of the interview, shook her hand, walked out through the vaulted lobby of the Graybar Building to Lexington Avenue. The air was cold but he longed to be outside, away from other people. He took a long and circuitous route, veering two avenues east to the relative quiet of Second Avenue.

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