Preeti's hands were on her desk, and I could tell it was serious. I sat across from her in a chair that did not swivel.
Her chair swiveled.
“Marc,” Preeti said in a way that made me wish I were in her chair. “You're great. You're doing well here. But we're letting you go.”
Preeti swiveled. Her hands left her desk, and she took her chair out for a spin. It was a smooth spin. “I don't want to fire you,” she said during her rotation, “but your work--”
“This is about the meth I snorted in the bathroom last Friday. I understand. Thanks for giving me a shot.”
Preeti used her hands to stop her spin. She'd taken the spin to assess her office, which was just across from Bryant Park but without a view. Her spin was to a windowless office in a building with a killer view, and all around her were items meant, I assumed, to compensate for her windowless office. In her spin, I'm sure Preeti glimpsed the signed copy of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. I'm sure she saw the picture of herself with T.S. Elliott's widow. Perhaps her eye skimmed across the framed mock cover of an edition of Shakespeare plays attributed to Edward de Vere.
“No. That's not why we're firing you.”
“Good. I'd hate for that to be the reason.” Actually, I preferred that to be the reason.
“...You did meth...?”
“In the bathroom. I swear it isn't something I usually do. I had a bad day.”
“Week. It was a bad week.”
Preeti dug her fingers into her desk while her face shifted—swiveled--to concern. “I honestly had no idea you were, you know. I didn't mean...”
“Nor did I.” My hands were in my lap. I wanted them to be on a desk but that seemed presumptuous of me.
“Your work lately is shoddy.”
“Because of the meth.”
“I was going to say because you seem bored, but now I--”
It wasn't meth. I mean, it was, in that I had done meth. My brains we addled, and each day I went to work, I was bowled over by what I saw: an original Tennessee Williams manuscript, a framed copy of Will Eisner's “Elder's of Zion.” I was working in a place that didn't require a view, where one could do a 360 in a chair and see wonders. My job was to send out checks to authors. I worked in the royalties department, and knew which authors, and estates of authors, made the most money.
Incidentally, William Carlos Williams made a lot of money.
Preeti stared at me. She blinked. “The bathroom?” she asked.
“I didn't know I was being filmed. Is there video?”
“Marc. There are no cameras in the bathroom. I didn't know you were doing meth on company property. Obviously if I had... well, we would have fired you anyway.”
Here's an interesting thing I knew about Preeti's desk that she, I'm sure, did not know. Secreted away in the top left drawer of her desk, I'd placed a poem. The poem was written by me, and it had been placed in the top left drawer of Preeti's desk a few days before I discovered a small packet of crushed-up meth in my coat pocket. Preeti had gone to lunch, and I slipped into her office with a few sheets of paper upon which was printed what I thought was a fairly decent poem. I kissed the top sheet, then opened the drawer. Inside, I found several ledger books, a few post-it pads, a half-eaten granola bar, and a company memo nearly a decade old. I lifted up a few of the ledgers, slid my poem between them, and returned them. Shut the drawer. Returned to my desk feeling as if I'd just let go of a part of myself I'd never get back. I'd created a Horcrux not important enough to destroy or reclaim.
“I'd fire me too, honestly.”
“It was a pleasure working with you,” Preeti said in a way that made me wonder if anything about me was a pleasure. “We've had our share of temps, and you were one of the best.”
“And this was my first temp job, so I can honestly say it was my best temp job,” I responded, without irony or cynicism. Truly, working for the publishing house had been my dream job.
I seldom dream big.
Later, on the train home, I listened to the muted clack-clack of the rails traveling beneath me, dully thumping in my head which was plugged tightly by the ear buds jammed into my ears. I wasn't listening to music. I was pretending to listen to music. Instead, I was listening to the train careening down the tracks.
In my lap was a book. A Confederacy of Dunces. I was pretending to read the book while pretending to listen to music while actually listening to the clack-clack of the tracks. As I listened—or pretended to listen while pretending to read—I imagined what I would say to my boyfriend of six years when I got home early, jobless. “Greg, it may seem bad now,” I would say. “But in ten years, we will laugh our asses off about the time I confessed to drug use at [Publishing House] and got fired. Please stop crying.”
Eventually my eyes wandered from the book I wasn't reading. I began staring at a woman I wasn't seeing. Clack-clack, clack-clack. All I was aware of was the sound, and the reverberations of the sound, and how my body seemed to me in that moment an empty drum filled with the fake heartbeat of the city.
The woman I was not seeing had grey hair, tightly curled in a way my hair was not (my hair was straight, and long, and if I'd been in a more present frame of mind would be tickling the back of my neck as it slipped into my collar as secretly as my poetry slipped into Preeti's volumes of ledgers). The woman was someone's grandmother. She was dressed for a hard day in the cold city—a bulky black coat, boots, scarf. No hat. Just hair. Curly. Perhaps the hat had been removed and tucked inside the strained-at-the-seams Barnes and Noble canvas bag resting between her boots on the floor of the clack-clacking train.
I'm not certain who became aware of my staring at her first: she or me. But when our eyes locked it became apparent that I was not entirely present or responsible for the direction of my eyes. She smiled at me and I looked away.
Then she leaned forward. She folded herself in half, reached out with one hand, and waved that hand in front of me until I looked back.
“That's a great book,” she said to me.
Pretending to be lost in music, I squinted at her, held up a finger, and plucked the ear buds from my ears (I'd heard her just fine, but in writing I'd been taught to show, not tell. It was best to show her I was listening to music than to tell her I was faking). “Sorry?”
“Great book. John Kennedy Toole.” Because of the noise of the train, the woman needed to shout. There were empty seats beside both of us, and it became obvious during the ensuing conversation that we each were consciously choosing not to move closer to one another. We maintained the subway-aisle separation for the next three stops. Instead of moving closer, we leaned into each other, and shouted our conversation because that is what one does in New York. You never sit beside a stranger and have a conversation. You instead sit across from the stranger, and shout at him or her as if the world had gone deaf in one ear.
“It is a good book.” I waved it at the woman. “So funny and with such a sad history.”
“Oh yes.” The woman scooted a bit closer, anchoring her butt on the edge of her seat. “Sometimes the confederacy conspiring against you is in your own head.”
“What?” I shouted back.
“The dunces are in your head!” the woman screamed back. The tracks between Columbus Circle and 72nd Street are exceedingly loud.
“There's always talk of making it--” I waved the book at the woman again-- “into a movie. A mistake, in my opinion.”
“A mistake!” she shrieked. “My god. Don't do a movie of the book! Do a movie about the publishing of the book!”
I nodded, the only appropriate response. “His poor mother. She spent a decade forcing people to read this. Imagine how she felt when one person finally said, Okay lady. I'll just look at it. No promises.”
“And then told her it was not only being published, but it would win a Pulitzer.”
We were at 81st Street now. Some weeks earlier, I'd watched a butterfly get on at 103rd Street, float around the train car for a few stops, then exit at 81st, which is the stop for the Natural History Museum. At the time, I imagined the butterfly was visiting relatives. This time, I watched the woman gather her things, stand, and give a nod to me.
No hat was ever pulled from the canvas Barnes and Noble bag. It seemed the woman was fully capable of braving the elements with her curly head of hair unprotected.
When I arrived home, I explained to Greg, my boyfriend forcibly transplanted from home in Alabama to the madness of New York, that I was jobless. “It was a temp job,” he said. “You didn't really have a job anyway.”
On cue, our upstairs neighbor dropped something, and the sound from our ceiling went clack-clack.