One of my very first jobs out of college was writing publicity literature for a right-wing political action committee. Suffice to say, it's not a post that receives prominent billing on my resume. Even worse, I disagreed politically with pretty much everything and everyone around me. But since I'd stubbornly insisted on moving to New York City, and my parents stubbornly insisted that I pay my own bills, I couldn't give it up until I got another job.
My father said that my leftist views would "moderate" when I began to pay my own bills. My friends called it "selling out."
So, rather than scream that I'd really rather be out hugging trees than cutting them down, I developed what Alison called the "Jessica's-home-but-not-answering-the-door" expression. It's designed to be pleasant, but utterly inscrutable. I might be thinking you're a complete nitwit, but I look as if I am thinking about what color blush I should be wearing.
Later, it came in handy working with the mammoth egos attendant to the world of fashion magazines. This week, I found that it worked well on my big date with Harris.
He shlepped me to a political fund-raising dinner, then to an art gallery opening at which no one looked at the art, and a birthday party for his firm's senior partner -- all in one night. There's another fund-raiser next week. I'm thinking of buying stock in a firm that manufactures Black Dresses.
I'd actually passed a pleasant evening standing at his side, a feminine, Phoenician Prince Philip, chatting amiably if called upon, but most of the time, my inscrutable expression in place.
Harris was talking to everyone in the room -- except me.
"Are you having a nice time?" Harris asked me, suddenly concerned, while we drove from the art gallery to the restaurant where he assured me we'd "only make an appearance" for the birthday soiree of Senior Partner Biff or Skip or Chip. Whatever his name, it was one of those given only to members of ethnically exclusive country clubs and cartoon chipmunk characters.
I was having a good time, in a strange sort of way, trying to figure out whether the trophy wives' jewelry was real or not. In the meantime, Harris was talking to everyone in the room -- except me.
But I didn't want to nag. I heard Alison's voice reminding me that the best way to get attention from someone with a Y-chromosome is to appear that it's not wanted. I lost myself for a few seconds as I imagined Alison as the author of a book on relationships, her hair teased into an enormous blond bouffant. Why is there always a correlation between hair size and success as a women's self-help guru. No wonder John Gray gets promoted so much -- the talk show producers are happy they don’t need to hire extra hair stylists.
"You really handle yourself well, Jessica," Harris cut into my reverie, admiration -- or something -- making his voice husky.
"You make me sound like a sports car," I said.
I was still wearing my inscrutable expression, I realized.
"I didn't really talk to you much, did I? These are sort of weird places for a date, aren't they?" he asked.
Handle myself well? What am I, a sports car?
"Not necessarily," I said. "They're weird for a Courting-Stage date, but they'd be fine for an Established-Relationship outing. Everyone in your office, actually in your world of networking, is going to presume that I am The Girlfriend now. Capital G."
He stared at me for a minute.
"'Courting Stage' and 'Established-Relationship'? Sounds like you've put a lot of thought into this. Is there a handbook I should buy?"
--Whoops, I thought. I have committed a cardinal sin: Premature Discussion of Relationship Status. And I didn't even mean to. Head into the light, I thought... lite discussion.
"No, it's probably better if only one of us neurotically over-analyzes everything through some sort of post-modern and probably anti-Feminist paradigm," I replied. Now, to change the subject: "So, tell me again who the bald guy in the grey suit is..."
"You're really a bit strange," he said (thankfully smiling). And then he started telling me about the bald guy, the CEO or CFO or CIS or something of a big pharmaceuticals company for which Harris was going to be doing some work.
I managed to get through the birthday party without any major snafus. The promised "drop-in" ended up being much longer and I patiently waited, even after the third time Harris had come over and said that we were going.
For a birthday party, this is bizarre, I thought to myself, scanning the crowd. I wondered what percentage of the guests came became they felt professionally compelled, motivated more by fiduciary ties than by run-of-the-mill human emotions.
I was just beginning to acknowledge my boredom when Harris emerged triumphant and hustled me out to the car before any other client could grab him to discuss some unsigned contract languishing on someone's desk.
How many birthday party guests came because they felt professionally obligated?
Harris had a meeting in Seattle the next day, but he reminded me that we'd both signed up for a Shabbat program at the end of the week. Uncharitably, I wondered if the people whose house we were going to were clients of his.
"You okay?" he asked, gently.
"Mmm. Fine," I said. "Just tired."
I can't expect him to be focused on me 100 percent of the time, right? After all, I knew these were business events going in. He was telling me how much his senior partner's wife had liked me. I had no idea who she was, but I nodded, trying to stifle a yawn.
When he dropped me off, he turned around as he walked back toward his car.
"Let me know how long this courting stage should go on, okay?"
I smiled as I shut the door behind me. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to get him a handbook.