A few weeks ago I was offered a short-term consulting contract in an area not unrelated to my current pursuits. The woman who offered me the contract is a contact I know through the dayjob. The only job, now, I guess. The Job.
I respect her enormously. She is not much older than me, and she has a very difficult job. She is ambitious and straight-forward and concerned for the welfare of mankind, and I am flattered that she wants my two cents. On Monday we meet for lunch. I have a stack of papers, two notebooks and a clipboard.
She arrives 20 minutes late and frazzled. Hard week, she says. Crunch time. We exchange expressions of sympathy.
I circle things and underline things and ask questions.How about this? I say. And, Let's be specific. Can we say this?
I notice she isn't eating, hasn't touched a thing, and then abruptly, she pushes her plate away. "Let's go my house," she says.
I say yes, although this is not a particularly good idea. I haven't been sleeping well, and I am running on coffee and enthusiasm purely. On her sofa, my thoughts, so carefully arranged, begin to unravel. We are no longer talking about the particular job I am here to do, but about the nature of the work itself, and the nature of things in general.
"It's hard," she says. "It's hard to get taken seriously. Don't you think? When you're younger than everyone else and you're a girl, and people think you're attractive? It's awkward. It's weird. Doesn't it bother you?"
It probably used to. A lot of things used to bother me about the way I might look to other people. Being young and a girl was part of it. I didn't worry about being attractive that much, I guess, because I didn't think I was. I worried more about my scruffiness, my way of always looking like I just rolled out bed, after sleeping in my clothes. I worried somebody important would look down and see the heels of my shoes held together with duct tape and upholstery nails and know I was a fraud.
"You must know what I mean," she says.
I nod. Maybe it was stripping that cured me of that particular strain of self-consciousness. At the club, it mattered what I looked like, so I learned to put on make-up. I grew my hair long and learned to curl it in big, loose waves like a centerfold. I learned to know which looks from men meant they thought I was pretty, and which looks meant they thought I was pretty but not pretty enough, and which looks meant I was an ugly cow they wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. I learned that their opinions were worth exactly what I could extract out of their wallet, and no more.
When I do the work I do now, I have no age and no gender. I want to look whichever way will get me in the door fastest, which generally means neat, demure, and slightly frumpy -- a look I call Sunday School Teacher Applies for a Bank Loan. As long as I get where I want to go, people are free to think I'm pretty, or not, or smart, or not, and if they under-estimate me, well, that's not necessarily to my disadvantage. Age and sex are just masks, anyway. Not masks we get to choose, but still, masks.
"I pretend I'm a forty-year-old dude and I'm just tricking them into thinking I'm a 28-year-old woman," I tell her. "Then I feel sneaky and smart."
She laughs, which is good. I want her to laugh. It's nice that she likes me.
"You want to get high?" she asks.
It's a bad idea, and I know it. I'm so tired, my thoughts are held together with string. Seven seconds and the THC hits my brain, things start to unravel. I tap on my clipboard with the butt of my pen and we try again. It's useless. The problems we are supposed to solve start spiraling outward. The solutions retreat. Before I know it she is telling me the plot to The Golden Compass and we are talking about organizations of people as living bodies, with individuals as their genetic material. Then I am explaining the multiple-mutation theory of inherited cancer susceptibility -- a gene has to mutate a number of times before it becomes cancerous, but you can inherit an already mutated gene that is like a tiny ticking bomb, so that only a single mutation is required, just one, and then: oncosis.
"Oh my god," she says. "My boyfriend is a cancerous gene. He's mutated too many times, I think. He's broken."
I know her boyfriend. He is a charming drunk who goes home with the hottest girl from every party. I respect him tremendously as a professional in this field that we are all in. As a person, less.
I excuse myself and go to the bathroom and when I come back she is crying. She takes her glasses off and wipe at the tears with her fingers. "I'm leaving him," she says. "He'll never be OK. I thought I could fix him, but I can't."
I nod. I have had my own share of unfixable men. I am myself a pre-cancerous gene, probably. Too many more divisions and my structure might begin too change. But all cells are pre-cancerous, I guess. Given enough time, enough adverse events.
"I'm proud in a way, I guess," she says. "I held everything together with hope for years, but I don't have any hope any more. I really thought I could help."
She bows her head. Later I will wonder why I didn't just hug her. It's not like I'm averse to hugging. Hugs are cool. But for tears I hold still, like I would hold still for a hummingbird. It doesn't seem to me that grief always needs to be comforted. So often the pro forma gestures of comfort seem like the would-be comforter's own discomfort. Here, pat-pat, everything's fine, stop crying, please stop. And then the crying person is suposed to say, yes, OK, thank you, I feel better now. And stop.
Other people's crying doesn't bother me. The tears we weep from grief and joy are chemically distinct from the tears we cry when we get dust in our eyes -- they have stress hormones in them, and endorphins, and birthing hormones and orgasm hormones and falling-in-love hormones. Which is to say what everybody already knows, that crying is how we squeeze the pain out, deliver ourselves, and gain release.
I hate to see people get hurt, but I think I might like seeing people cry. Crying has always been hard for me. When I was sixteen or seventeen I learned to induce tears by inflicting pain on myself. It was an accidental discovery, a blind instinct. In certain states of unbearable feeling I found out I could cut my thigh with the tips of a pair of nail scissors. The pain alone didn't bring the tears on; it was the sight of the blood that never failed to shock me, and then I would cry. I would be wracked with crying, and afterwards I would feel dreamy and sweet and usually fall asleep. You can still see the scars. When I started dancing I was afraid people would ask me about them, but no one ever did.
Sometimes the best comforter is to see the pain and know it's there, that bright streak of blood that says, yes, you are hurt. Some hopes have to die. Sometimes the structure of our hope becomes malignant, and it had better die than keep dividing.
I try to hold the space. I sit quietly and give her all of my attention. She cries and cries, and then she takes a long breath as the endorphins kick in and do their work, and I see her shoulders settle down, I see her chest rise and her belly soften and then she smiles.
I don't leave right away, but I put my stack of papers and my two notebooks and my clipboard back in my bag. We go onto the patio. She shows me her plants, names them for me. We take her dog outside and throw a ball. But I don't stay too long, because people who have cried need their rest.
I worry she'll feel self-conscious about it later, so I'm happy when I get an e-mail that says, "Sorry we didn't get more done. Next time. I had a good time, though."
I had a good time, too.