Acquisitions

DSCF3895Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.

She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.

“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”

“Did it go well with the cake?”

He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”

“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”

Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.

The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.

Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.

He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.

bank-mit-pflanzen-44421287528590gV7W“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”

“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”

He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.

Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.

The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”

“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”

“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.

Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.

“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”

“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”

As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.

“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”

“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”

Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”

Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.

“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”

His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”

Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.

Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.

Tryon-Public Lands Day 9-25-10 061One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.

“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”

Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.

“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”

He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.

“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.

He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”

Sela stirred but did not get up.

“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”

They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”

“What? I couldn’t possibly…you’re my teammate! Why on earth are you doing this?”

“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”

Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.

“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”

But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.

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Thoughts from a Jobless Worker Bee

This is my first full day post-job. I awakened at 6:40 as usual. I showered and ate breakfast (raisin cinnamon oatmeal). I didn’t hurry up and get dressed in nice slacks, sweater and shoes because I never do that on Fridays; it is my usual day off. But I made a cup of coffee, and that was a bit alarming, as I drink chamomile vanilla tea on the mornings I don’t work. Coffee (one cup) is for working paid ten hour days; they made it pungently strong there and it got my blood flowing at top speed. I even add one-third of a mug hot water so I can get it down. Or, rather, added and could, as that occurred in the past. That was before the tough choices were made.

What somewhat older woman in her right mind would leave a job she loves in this economy? Right before Christmas? Is it arrogant stupidity to  just walk away from work that can afford extras like trips, arts events, a little help for our children and grandchildren, unecessary shoes and dinners out? My spouse has a decent job that he also likes  great deal. So I got up the courage to ask him what he thought. His reply: “Do it.”

I lingered over my newest copy of Architectural Digest and sipped my coffee. As usual, the houses I studied in the glossy pages were coolly elegant or startlingly imaginative or deeply, expensively comforting. But my vision blurred and I was right back at the meeting I had had the day before at HR. The exit meeting I had requested with the HR Director.

I had fretted about it for a week. I had written and edited what I was going to say, consulted with a few people who have been directors and managers, and determined the priorities with bold bullet points in my memory. In the end, I sat down and said,

“I am resigning after eight and a half years here, but I feel it is under duress. I love my work and have for over twenty-five years at many places, serving a variety of populations. So, I need to tell you why I am choosing to leave.”

The woman before me was calm, relaxed and chatty. She talked about my work at the agency, some of the events and changes that marked the years. She spoke with me as  though we were chatting and I knew she was talented, with a good eye for what my face was saying, a good mind for discerning the larger truth between my words. (She was another sort of counselor, and she laughed when I noted that.) And because I respected her manner and methods, appreciated her gentle composure, I forgot what I had written. I just talked.

Still, how does one talk about things that make no good sense or are painful, experiences that are baffling and finally dismaying? How does a counselor talk about a business that is supposed to be helmed and served by dedicated individuals providing compassionate and ethically excellent services–but has failed in some crucial ways? If I was writing fiction I could tell the tale in all its surprising details; the anxiety would bleed out of it, and the anger would be easily dispensed and dispelled. But simply summarizing the facts?

But M. listened well. She asked the right questions. She responded with empathy, dismay, insight, support. She, in fact, understood so well and knew so much more than I expected that it suddenly felt as though she was on my team. She, too, clearly advocated for others, clients and staff. And even though I was blowing a whistle, she took my words and gave them more stoutness, and put them in a neat row to further examine. And said: “I am so sorry.”

A note here: I am hardly the silent one in a roomfull; I have a habit of nearly always speaking my mind, for good or ill. If difficult things still get swept under the rug, I lift it up and pull it back out more often than not. I abhor unethical behavior, actions (or inaction) that deliberately harm others, ignoring the truth even though it is messy, choosing to deceive which is the coward’s way out. I want us all to be accountable, myself first of all, and even after a lifetime of knowing that isn’t always going to happen, I am willing to take a risk and say either “I am at fault” or “you may well be.” There is nothing safe about this. I am not an adrenalin junkie; I don’t crave drama. I just want things to work out well,  if at all possible– for my clients, and for those I work with. And myself. And if things are not set completely right, then made better. Much better.

I was clear of purpose when I decided to leave my position for reasons of safety, both emotional and environmental. But when I told my clients, it became stickier. The working environment is one thing. But my clients are another. They have fewer choices that I have. They have very big problems: addiction and mental health, housing and economics, domestic violence, health and legal issues. Can I say this? I have loved them, each and every one, in some way. I made a decision when I was twenty, sitting in a place that fully resembled hell, to be of merciful, steadfast service, an advocate for others if I made it out alive. I promised God, to be truthful. And I made it out. Fifteen years later I walked out into the world with my paltry work history (but a mother of five) and nagging sense of failure and I was given the gift of a little job that was the start of making good on that promise. I was ecstatic to be able to watch over wounded, ill and otherwise challenged adults in an adult day care for minimum wage. From that start I began a career.

I haven’t looked back, though the work has morphed in many ways. Each day has brought me the chance to be of some use, and to hold their lives up to them in the light of hope, tell them they can recover and heal. Create solutions, inaugurate change. Grow stronger, be even braver. And they have and they do. I listen with great appreciation of their efforts, as they are more often than not heroic beyond imagining.

So saying good-bye to them was tough. Hearing their responses to the news took me to the brink of tears a few times, although I reassured them other counselors who would be just as helpful. I am clear that I am not the only one who cares–human service workers are innumerable, working in many difficult, even dangerous conditions. I know this because I have worked alongside of them.

So why did I leave? Sometimes you just know when it is best to exit. Sometimes you need to take a break, even though it seems an extravagant and risky thing to do. For me, it came down to the fact that needed changes could have happened, and yet did not; issues that sent an alarm within me after all these years were ignored by people who might have addressed them. And maybe I need to do other work, even work that has no monetary reward. Or just rest.

But back to M. and me.  She was attentive and heard me and was distressed, too. I am amazed. She took many pages of notes. She assured me that something would be done to address the concerns. And she suggested that if I still wanted to work there, I might reconsider. I should stay in touch with her. But it is not the right time to rescind the resignation. My voice had been raised for months and it had seemed to come to nothing until this hour. I was fortunate to have a chance to share it with someone who had power and I trusted her. We shook hands. I left with her good words in my ear. As I walked away, I waved to three other employees with whom I had worked over the years. I wanted to stop and say,”Hey, you have been great to work with–but I’m outta here.” But I smiled and went on my way.

Later, I listened to Yo-Yo Ma play his vibrant, expressive cello and I cried.  For myself, for things that have no clear lexicon. But I can tell you this: validation is a vindication as sweet as it gets, especially when you least expect it. And yet it is humbling, too.

Now it is the end of the day. I did all the things on my list. I don’t have one for tomorrow. I look out over a momentarily work-free (for pay, that is) horizon and I know something will happen that is interesting. That piques my curiosity. It always does. And I will be writing about it and wondering over it.