After the Meeting
On Thursday, first of several meetings. Today was a leadership training workshop which M was attending as English department chair. She sat at the table with her colleagues taking in the smell of fresh paint from the walls. She observed that the clock had stopped, had been unplugged, that the temperature in the room was considerably cooler than the air outside. It was hot out there. Sunny. It was the beginning of Labor Day weekend, the first anniversary of her husband’s death. A year ago it had rained, had thundered unexpectedly, then rained a little at first light, not long after Forest Lawn had taken his body away. He’s broken the barrier, she remembered thinking, looking up into the overcast sky, sniffing basil and thyme and too sweet jasmine, perfect raindrops on waxen leaves outside the kitchen window. E was sending her a sign as he had promised.
She determined not to pursue this, to return instead to the newly painted room, to her dear colleagues. A form of address she had never used. What had she written, Dear Faculty? Dear Friends? It was only a year ago, but she couldn’t remember, though she had labored over it long enough, seeing in her mind’s eye her thank you note for the flowers pinned to the bulletin board next to the mailboxes. A few of her colleagues were dear to her, one or two women she had taught with for close to thirty years. One of them was in the room. V, seated at a distance down the long table, wearing a white shirt, looking glum.
“A group,” the workshop leader was saying, “to call you a team would be presumptuous.”
Tentative, portentous smiles were exchanged around the room. M caught V’s eye. V was part of the administration, believed in teams, perhaps because of her East European upbringing. While M was in rebellion. Not one of the union organizers, simply counter, easily identified as a blocker, a bringer of negativity because she had nothing left to bring. A danger to herself and others, known for making faces. Thus did she frame the issue. Though she didn’t despise the workshop leader, a woman in a green pantsuit. Blond, overweight perhaps, though M wouldn’t have noticed if the woman hadn’t mentioned it. She had begun by telling them about herself. She was 47 with two children, a boy and a girl, seven and ten, separated from her husband, getting a divorce. “I refuse,” thought M, “I will never.” Not even to herself, except once, practicing, in Italian. “Sono vedova,” I am a widow. But in the end she hadn’t been called on for that part of the lesson.
She had escaped and did again here in the room where they were foundering on another point. According to dear G, curly gray hair and little boy looks, it was a question of safety. Minutes before the meeting started, M overheard him explain to B, the union president, that things were so tight he couldn’t pay his dues. Now he was saying he didn’t feel safe here. “These are my employers, for God’s sake, there’s no way.” A bit of back and forth ensued between G and the blond leader, who was becoming passionate, as she called it. She was passionate about her work, about forming teams, about conflict resolution, about helping people in this room conduct better meetings.
Though M still did not despise the leader, she began to hold out against her, to forbid her to use a word like passionate in such a room. Passionate should be reserved for grief, for suffering, as in the passion of Christ, or in the emotions of pity and terror called up in a tragedy. And to refer to sex she would allow it. How many times had E taken her in passion? She wanted to remember the last time. When was it? When was the last time they had been passionate and safe together in bed? She worked on this for a few minutes, but could not retrieve it. The trouble was E couldn’t sustain an erection. He was sweaty, spent, finished. It was over for good that part of life.
“Come back, come back, “ the leader was saying. “Call me R, she insisted. As though first names would quell the not quite suppressed commotion in the room. Agitation, rolling eyes, threat of shambles. In a passionate leap, R reached out to G. “Okay,” she said, “okay, maybe you can teach science in this institution without feeling safe. Now what about these?” Pointing to a list of conditions they needed to agree on before the meeting could go forward. “Look, we’ve got no retaliation, nothing beyond this room, and still you don’t feel safe? “That’s right,” G. answered, “but how about if I participate anyway, throw caution to the winds?” “O, thank you G.” R was beaming, perspiring, in spite of the air-conditioning in the room. “Thank you for that, G, thank you for that. You’ve made a big contribution, I hope everyone realizes that.” Thus ended the first of many tussles in the unsafe space of the long gray room.
M declared a breakdown. An interruption in created commitment to think for a while about Hamlet which she would be teaching next week in another room. A strange little room assigned to her in the new building, dark, below stairs. It contained a small stained glass window. There she would introduce her students to a brooding young man in an inky black suit. The play was perfect for seniors, so easy to get them to imagine the phone call a year from now which would snatch them away from the exciting new lives to which they had so recently fled. And on top of this, his girlfriend dumps him. No wonder this young man is so depressed he wants to kill himself.
M foolishly looked at the clock before turning to her watch which she thought was about five minutes fast. It had taken two hours to lay the ground rules. They were going on now to the purpose and intended results of the meeting. These were going up on sheets of butcher block paper affixed to an easel at the front of the room. R filled these sheets with shorthand and jargon: generative listening, supportive confrontation. And don’t forget to have fun at your meetings! More than ten commandments were already taped unsteadily to the walls. Most of it was illegible, M thought, though perhaps it was her failing eyes. She forced herself to stay with the discussion for a while, drinking bottles of sparkling water provided, shivering. When asked about the temperature in the room, she said she was cold, but it didn’t seem to count. Others were comfortable. It was important to stop all action and reaction. No blame, no minefields. There was nothing wrong. She should have taken responsibility, simple as that, worn a jacket.
This realization turned out to be a signal, a doggie bag of sorts, something like E’s breakthrough the morning after, recalled earlier, back now in a different form. It was her turn. “Get the doctors for me,” he said. “You get them for me, and I’ll do the same for you. Get 7Up.” She would never have thought of it, but it was what he wanted even when he couldn’t say the name. Conspiratorial. Warm and loving. The children were a good idea, he said. They really were.
After the meeting she hurried home, bolted down a salad, gulped white wine, thinking it odd that hunger and thirst persisted, but there was no fuss, no bother, everything went straight into the dish washer. Now memories, often faulty, were crowding in, filling up space, taking up time. But the interim is mine, she told herself, seeing his too-white legs with their light brown birthmark patches, the blue and white striped sheets, always sliding down, always needing to be pulled up. Which pajamas unbuttoned over his bloated belly was he wearing? What was going on inside? She heard his voice, which sounded as though he’d been calling and calling. Her name was Maude. But only once she had been certain on the night he died; now could she acknowledge that she might have drifted off, but for how long? She would never know.
Still, she held herself accountable. How useful these terms had become. She wished she could let the passionate sweaty woman in the green pantsuit, divorced at 47, deserted with two children to raise, know. Not that M had achieved a religious conversion, or believed she would be reunited with E in heaven. Not a case of husband, I come, as in Antony and Cleopatra. No. To decay buried deep in earth was E’s fate as a Jew, while M, cremated, would swirl in atmosphere. To such base uses they would return. She pictured her mother’s ashes sliding out of the cannister into San Francisco Bay, remembered their salty taste. Let them scatter her where they would, those children who had been such a good idea. She was after something more pro-active. Never again to see his smile, happy and peaceful at first, turn ghoulish in rigor mortis. She swallowed the pills in the requisite mood. Present to her commitments. Energized, empowered. Entrepreneurial.