Our office was so small that leftover birthday cake sat in the kitchenette until the crumbs petrified and the whole thing sagged and fell in on itself. At the peak, we numbered five—the Boss, the Secretary, and three staff. It was only a summer job, but the dynamics, those dysfunctional and terrifying familiar beats of office politics, still thrum inside me today.
Admittedly, my tactic was rather unsophisticated: head down, do the work, stay out of the drama. It wasn’t a horrible way to proceed, but it was proof of my immaturity that I thought it would work.
In week one, I figured it out: A, who had been around since the office was founded, was the favorite child, the son the Boss never had, the acolyte extraordinaire. I was always surprised when he skittered out of the Boss’ office looking as pale and vulnerable as I felt. He was the favorite—shouldn’t he saunter out of meetings, head high and gait assured?
B was shadowy—she, like me, decided to lurk in the shadows, stay out of the way. She was better at it than I was—she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. Her pale skin and soft blond hair made her seem ghostly. She floated from her desk to the conference room, her expression always the same neutral inscrutability. She never emoted—not so much as a smile. I know because I kept track.
By week two, I’d snuck to my car to call a friend, holding back hot tears as I described a meeting where I’d been excluded. “They shut the door! Practically in my face.” I went around and around (What did I do? Why does Boss hate me? Is he going to fire me? WHY WON’T HE JUST FIRE ME?). I would have kept going too—ad infinitum—but it was 83 degrees and humid. As devastated as I was, I wasn’t prepared to die of heat stroke in my 1986 Honda Accord.
Not all the days ended with tears or hot, frustrated sighs and furtive glances at the calendar: how much longer until this job is over?
My birthday fell in week five, and by any measure, I was feted adequately with a cake (chocolate) bearing over two decades of candles. B pushed hers around on the plate and left the first moment she could without it appearing awkward or hostile. At the other end of the table, the Boss and A got into a long discussion about the propriety of NCAA rules. I slipped out the side door, mumbling thank you for the cake.
I survived that summer in part because I accepted my role as number three out of three. Last place. Humiliating at times, but freeing too. The floor was right below me all along. Stakes were low, pedestals well above my head. By week eight, I stopped trying so hard to break into the top two; I settled, accepted, surrendered.
Right after Labor Day, I cleaned off my desk and said my goodbyes. I assumed I’d never see anyone from that random chapter in my employment history. I congratulated myself on doing all my work on time, learning a bit about the field, and mastering a way to cry without making a sound.
Years later I ran into A at brunch– a forkful of omelet raised to his face. “Christie!” he called. Dodging a roaming toddler and a waiter with a tray the size of the Coliseum, he made his way to me. Surprised by his warmth, I returned his hug, introduced my family. We went through the basics—what we were doing now (both of us law), how many kids (me two, him three), where do we live (both of us in the city).
“I’ll let you get back to your eggs!” I said.
“You know you were his favorite.”
“The Boss. He talked about you for years after you left. He said it was the best summer ever. He liked your gumption. Always said he knew you would be successful at whatever you did.”
Had I been eating, I would have choked. Rendered mute, I nodded. He must have confused me with another intern. The Boss had never indicated he felt anything about me one way or the other. In the empty space between me and the Boss, I made up plenty of stories (he hates me, he hates me, he hates me).
A threaded his way back to his table, and I to mine. The shock lasted for several hours. When it finally wore off, I scrolled through my memories of that summer, but couldn’t find a single piece of evidence for what A had said.
Not a single piece.
What was I missing?