Draft Story, Part I
The first time a day went by without him calling, Ilsa told herself he was just a very busy person, and because she used to work with him, she knew that was no lie.
It was a Friday, that first time.
On that weekend, she heard from John twice, once on Saturday, around 9:00 a.m., and then again Sunday afternoon. The calls were weekend bookends and she tells me she had no special sense that he was wrapping things up. When we talk about it now, I point out that if she had peered more closely then, she would have likely sensed that he had made his decision and was looking for a way to lower the boom.
But I don’t think she ever allowed herself to imagine things not going her way.
Nor could she have imagined the tears and tantrums that would follow, and its clear she did not understand that she would carry herself doubled over for months afterward, a vessel harboring sickness and a special kind of regret only the truly wicked who are not particularly repentant can feel. Guilty or no: the vessel’s cargo was heavy trouble, and that trouble tugged it downward, all proclamations of unsinkability long forgotten. This is why I took her on, because I thought I could help her move on, become untethered from so much grief.
In assessing her case, I chalked up a lot of her decisions to the fact that she was a late bloomer—she simply hadn’t had enough experience to stop herself from sleepwalking into a place where her heart had no way of escaping except in pieces. I tried to stay patient, though my internal voice screamed at her in exasperation: “But my dear, he was married!”
Married. And, let me add – he was Ilsa’s boss. But ‘married boss’ didn’t stop him from an initial pursuit that began with him being empathetic and helping her navigate a spiraling-downward job, trading information about departmental business and workaday data. Ilsa tells me that this pursuit eventually, over the course of several weeks, became verbal musings about what it would be like to have an office rendezvous together, au horizontal, along with declarations of intense feeling and justifications for their impossible situation. And, to her discredit, ‘married’ didn’t stop Ilsa from wondering, in a whoosh of folly and romanticism, “Am I in love with this man?”
Let me start again, or at least let me start somewhere near the beginning.
First, about Ilsa: Let’s not hate her because she’s beautiful. Of course, all 30 year old women are attractive in their way, because 30 is still on the outer cusp of youth, and youth is attractive. But Ilsa has more than that going for her. She is a bona fide knockout. This wasn’t always the case, evidently, as exploration into her early years uncovered the fact that she had been considered the proverbial ugly duckling in her youth. But ugly ducklings have a destiny, don’t they? It is only a matter of time before they become swans. That matter of time was somewhere around the age of 25 for Ilsa. It snuck up on her, the reality of having good, or even better-than-average looks. Ilsa describes watching, in school, the privileged progression of her fairer, smaller, confident female peers. Classmates, then roommates, then workmates: those with an all-American generalized attractiveness seemed to know early on that they were entitled to the “pretty” moniker. But Ilsa was gangly when she was young, with out-sized features—big nose, big lips. She says it was through a private education, sponsored by herself through a fascination with Elle and Vogue Magazines, that she was able to begin the transition from awkward to something approximating good-looking. By the age of 28, she finally had the full and hard-won sense that her 5’10”, size-6-but-curvy body–and a face that’d finally settled on “striking”– would lead her into rare territory. By the time I met her, she had clearly learned to outfit herself in waist-cinching European-cut suits and to shod her feet in pointy-toed slingbacks with killer heels that shot her up over 6 feet tall. Her dark blonde locks swept across her shoulders. This, coupled with artful cosmetics with an emphasis on winged eyeliner, and, well, Ilsa had the slinky look that so many women aspire to. She was not one who needed to aspire to it any longer. She had perfected it.
I had toyed with a Narcisstic Personality Disorder diagnosis early on, because Ilsa is preternaturally self-aware about her own appearance. NPD would be a naïve call, though. While Ilsa is aware of being in the “beautiful people” cadre, she understands the superficiality of appearance. For her, it’s about more than ego. It’s also about worth. Any woman who plunks down $600 for a pair of shoes knows on some level that she must have the right, the attractiveness that entitles her to such things. But enough about her looks, for the moment at least
I have noticed that women like Ilsa, with broad educations in things like communications or sociology, tend to end up working jobs wholly unrelated to their degrees. She has a degree in philosophy, which is possibly the most unused degree on earth. I have never seen a job announcement for a philosopher, deep thinker, or dreamer. And so the work people who study philosophy end up most suited for is the industry of society. Non-profits, municipalities, schools, and the like. Of course, Ilsa’s in trouble now because of her work, and because of her inability, and John’s, to set limits in their working relationship.
When Ilsa first describes her work history to me, it sounds like a soap opera. On and off since she got out of school, she’s perched on desks, hip jutting forward, taking letters, slugging coffee, being a hot-shit ace and generally making herself the assistant-cum-right-hand that executives dream about. She’s steadily been promoted, and there are things I’ve discovered that are very interesting that I’d like to include in my final diagnosis, when I make it. To wit: Ilsa is definitely not a narcissist and is, in fact, an empath. As in empathic. As in supremely aware of the emotions and moods of others. I consider having this ability to be both a blessing and a curse in equal measure, and it depends on the person’s overall mental fitness to determine whether it’s “blessing” or “curse.” For people who can use their empathic skills at work, almost always, it is an unqualified blessing. People like Ilsa manage to take the emotional temperature of those they work with and for, and to cue into their specific and varying needs. Ilsa describes having one boss who needed her to reassure him prior to his public speaking engagements that he looked great, that he was prepared, and to say with all sincerity that “you are one solid motherfucker.” That’s what he needed. Another boss, a woman she describes as being a numbers genius, a “calculator on legs,” had insecurities that rose to phenomenal levels over mundane things like deciding on whether to click on ‘save’ or ‘discard,’ and needed Ilsa to put her hand over hers and physically guide her mouse to the ‘discard’ position. Ilsa describes how she coaxed her boss into actions, like a parent of a child who, with wide eyes, wonders if it’s really okay to throw a water balloon, even as her parents coo, “Go on, throw it. Throw it! It’s okay! THROW IT!”
So, when Ilsa was assigned to be the assistant to Candice, she was surprised and lost, because Candice was unknowable to her. Ilsa’s sensors would all slide one way, the needle trembling toward “stroke her ego” and then jut away toward “Candice is a lost cause–unreadable.” Though her boss was a puzzle, Ilsa genuinely cared about figuring her out, the way one cares about all lost causes like hunger or bigotry: you hate that they exist, but they exist. And they always will.
Ilsa tried mightily to understand Candice. In one of our first sessions, she revealed the details of her initial meeting with her new boss. She described what she wore, a dark navy suit (pinstriped, with the smallest bit of lace froth peeking out at her breast), and how she answered Candice’s questions, and how she tried to do the usual thing that she does, stepping outside of herself to watch, a piece of her becoming the third person in the room, making assessments. This other her, the ghost-her, stood leaning against the wall, amused and nervous as Candice posed her questions. Candice was happy with her answers, and Ilsa was pleased to have pleased her. Candice offered her a hefty salary, higher really than what even Ilsa had imagined would be possible, and she took it, unaware of what was going to be coming toward her soon: John. John and everything he would become.
I want to take a brief time-out here, because I’m worried that perhaps bringing up Ilsa’s financial status, coupled with the information I shared earlier about her appearance, may have put you off. I do not mean to paint a picture of her as somehow more worldy or having advantages anyone should envy. Indeed, I wonder if the pain and heartbreak brought to Ilsa’s doorstep were not the result of the better-than-healthy sense of self that she began to rely on–these things that were the outside indicators of her success and image, and that spoke of a confidence she didn’t really feel down to her bones. For you see, not too much longer after she began working for Candice, Ilsa became entangled in a terrible sequence of affairs and shortly after that, was brought utterly, terribly, and irrevocably down, brought painfully to her knees. She was brought smack-faced to a place in her soul were she was crippled so thoroughly that she has yet, even with my very focused attention, been able to recover. The truth is, Ilsa is like a beautiful insect whose wings have been singed: unable to fly, unable to be still.
This brings me squarely back to the matter of John. I suppose I need to talk a little about how these two met. Ilsa is able to take responsibility where it’s warranted, but she is quick to point out that he was the one who instigated their affair. She has said, in session, many times, “He came after me. He pursued me.”
Let me just get down to it.
Candice had positioned Ilsa at her literal right side at their first meeting together with the City’s department heads. They were scheduled to present a plan to integrate the City’s employee benefits into a new computer system. Of course, this doesn’t sound especially interesting or as though it’d be fraught with any real opposition, but Ilsa assures me there is room for drama anywhere within municipal government, and by God, City employees would not allow any tweaking to their benefits without a full and painstaking vetting by themselves and their Union representatives. And so Ilsa was there to help Candice confer with the Department heads and explain in cursory terms the benefits and drawbacks of finally moving an archaic filing system into the New World Order via a digital database. Ilsa described one manager, a hulking man with large hands flexing in the air as he posed his question, leaned forward to ask Candice, “But what about confidentiality? Who specifically will be entering the data into the database?” Ilsa can’t help but relate to me insignificant details, things like Candice wearing an unfortunate coral-pink that didn’t begin to suit her olive skin. I believe she relates these small details in order to put off sharing what really matters. Finally, after exhausting the topic of the computer system, she tells me about the moment that the door at the side of the conference room opened. She describes how the door opened ever-so-slowly, and at first, no one appeared to have opened it. Several seconds evidently went by before a face came around the door, inquisitive and searching. And then the entire body emerged: a body, Ilsa tells me in great detail, that emerged fully decked out in Brooks’ Brothers’ finest, crowned with a large leonine head nodding at the group, a polished mahogany shoe stepping inside the interior of the room.
Candice had been quick to respond to John’s arrival. She had sprung up to accommodate this man, and her response and her directions to Ilsa made it clear he was a person of importance. Ilsa re-inacted Candice’s demeanor in my office, fluttering her hands and saying in a high, urgent pitch, “Ilsa! Please, find John a chair?” and then, as if he could not hear, Candice had apparently turned to John and said, “John, Ilsa will find you a chair!”
Ilsa tells me it happened thus: She found him a chair, pushing over a conference room chair on wheels, swaying in her heels as she tried to simultaneously hand him the packet of papers she had distributed at the beginning of the meeting. Ilsa says this is when he first made eye contact. He met her eyes and she looked away quickly, a feeling of unease emerging in her stomach, and then–quick–it was gone. She reports that she did not look at him for long, and all she first had were impressions: “the most green eyes, tumbling and dark hair, ruddy skin.”
Yes, you will learn that it is true that he pursued her, but we have worked through many sessions to move the truth out in front. When she is honest, Ilsa cannot deny that she knew it would be just as it was within those first few moments. What she did not know, what she still does not understand, was that it would move so quickly out of her control. And, moreover, she did not understand at the time that everything demands its price. Everything.