Floaters

by Midge Raymond, Finalist for the 2006 Waasmode Short Fiction Prize

One night in group, Sara asks us to use I-statements. This will allow us, she says, to express ourselves without sounding accusatory. I feel sad when you shut me out, she explains. I feel upset when you yell at me. I feel frustrated when you don’t listen.

Shortly afterward, Alyssa gets angry at Phil, who interrupts her to say that she doesn’t have a monopoly on grief and that she needs to step outside herself for a change. Sara gently breaks in, asking them to use I-statements, and Alyssa says to Phil, “I feel bad that you’re an asshole.”

It’s a codependency group, which, ironically, often gets in the way of any serious progress happening. By definition, most of us prefer enabling others to helping ourselves.

I picture myself at work, saying to my assistant: I feel angry when you come to work late. I feel helpless when you don’t do your job. I feel as though I’m not your boss.

I bring this up later, after Alyssa and Phil’s spat. It’s a familiar topic, and the conversation takes on its own life, a heartbeat pumping advice and opinions around the room. All I have to do is breathe.

“Zoe’s the boss. She shouldn’t have to put up with that crap.”

“Jordan wants to be bossed. That’s why she acts the way she does. That’s just what my son does when he wants my attention.”

“Why is it suddenly about you? We’re talking about Zoe’s assistant, not your kid.”

I suck on a cigarette. I think, I feel bad when you talk about me as if I’m not here.

* * *
As I flip my big desk calendar, I realize that my former assistant’s going-away party was only a month ago. It’s hard to believe that Jordan has been here only four weeks, that I’ve lost control so quickly.

I wouldn’t have replaced Harriet at all, but it’s expected of a senior editor. I didn’t mind being without an assistant—in fact, except for the low pay, I never minded being an assistant. I found it far easier to be managed than to manage—and if it weren’t for a series of fluke resignations that promoted me three times in rapid succession, I might still be in that more comfortable role.

Harriet made me grateful for the itinerancy within the publishing industry. Editorial assistants move on quickly because promotions come slowly, and it isn’t long before the waiting gets to them.

A job interview, I’ve realized, is much like a first date: you meet someone, you talk, you learn a little bit. If it goes well, as I thought it did with Harriet, you decide you want to see the person again. You schedule a second date, then check references. For an employee, the third date is usually the first day on the new job. And for an employer, if by the end of the day you realize you’ve made a mistake, your date is already on the payroll and there’s not much you can do about it.

Harriet had a penchant for typing her Post-It notes; she apparently rolled the little yellow slips of paper into a typewriter, and the letters on the right always got cropped off edge of the paper. One day, I caught her taking a bite of my sandwich when I left lunch on my desk. I remember standing outside my door, stunned, and by the time I re-entered my office she’d already finished chewing. My assistant before her, Monica—who’d left me to work down the hall with another editor—was anorexic, and at that moment I couldn’t decide which was worse.

Harriet was also a hugger. Whenever we got copies of a new book, she threw her arms around me. She also wanted to hug if she thought I “looked a little low” or might have had a “wicked tough day.”

Six weeks ago, she’d gotten a job at a medical publisher in New Jersey, near where she lived. Shortly afterward, personnel sent me Jordan’s résumé, and I decided to interview her. She was businesslike and laconic, and I hired her because I got the feeling she didn’t hug anyone on a regular basis.

* * *
I arrive late to group, and the room is already filled with smoke. We begin each session by going around the room, each of us mentioning one good thing that happened in the past week and one challenge. Challenge is always the way Sara puts it, as if nothing bad actually ever happens, as if cheating spouses or greedy siblings or recalcitrant assistants are not obstacles or crises but goals to achieve, like finishing a marathon. I feel offended when you trivialize our issues this way.

“One of my authors made the bestseller’s list,” I say, for my good thing. “And Jordan has floaters.”

“Floaters? What the hell’s that?” This from Phil, in his usual derisive tone.

“It’s when you see black spots before your eyes. They’re caused by eyestrain.”

“So?”

“So she says she has to lay off the editorial stuff for a while.”

“Editorial stuff? Isn’t that her whole job?”

I nod.

“So, what, she’s not doing her work now?”

I picture Jordan sitting at her desk, leaning back in her chair with a large, gelatin-filled eye mask over her face.

“Sounds like a phony condition,” Phil says, “something she made up just to get out of work.”

“How do you feel about that, Zoe?” Sara asks.

And so it begins.

* * *
I am capable in many situations. I know literature, I know pulp fiction, and I seem to know what people want to read. My authors—most of them—sell books, and this has been what’s enabled me to fill the large empty shoes of those before me. I’m realistic about the degree of chance involved: the gamble of a first-time novelist, the jackpot of being chosen for a book club. People think I’m modest when I give away the credit for my achievements. To me, it only feels like telling the truth.

Words I’ve always loved; books give me a place to disappear, pulling me deep into forests of bleached paper and ink. I’m most comfortable with people in this form—characters on pages, whose lives touch you without your touching them—and the only virtue I see in having an assistant is to help me deal with colleagues and clients, the humans behind the characters. Of course, assistants want more than that; they want to learn about the industry, to acquire and edit their own books. Jordan appears to be an exception. She doesn’t seem to want to do anything at all.

Her floaters give her a handy excuse. She does answer the phone, at least; she scrawls messages in huge letters and hands them off to me before returning to her desk and donning her eye mask. But e-mails go unanswered, irritated authors call me about unfinished projects, and the slush pile grows past the top of her desk. It wavers slightly as I walk past on my way out of the office.

As on most recent nights, I arrive home weary. I summon the energy to pour a glass of wine and take it outside. I have a garden-level studio in the East 50s, giving me a short commute and an illusion of space. I remember when I first mentioned the apartment in group—it was about a year ago, just after Alan left. I found a great new apartment, I’d said, for my good thing. I had to move because my boyfriend dumped me was my challenge.

Of course, it was for the best, they assured me. Alan drank, like my father had, and I was an enabler, as I’d always been. I should’ve been the one to leave, I was told. Night after night, Alan went to bars after work, networking as he called it, and whenever I implied he might have gone overboard he’d come back at me with At least I’m not at home drinking alone, like you. So I gave up drinking, to prove to him that I could. He’d hardly noticed, so I took it up again, quietly.

I wouldn’t say I have a problem, but it’s not something I talk about, since most people in group are substance-free, if you don’t count tobacco. Though codependents are better known for taking care of alcoholics than being alcoholics, we do have several recovering drinkers. We also have a recovering drug dependent—Sara doesn’t care for the word addict—a tall, sweet-faced woman named Bonnie who wears her strawberry-blond hair in a braid down her back. In the summer, you can see the needle tracks on her arms. She’s the only one of us who doesn’t smoke—she quit six months ago—but she looks longingly at every cigarette that touches our lips. Phil no longer drinks, but sometimes I wish he still did. When he is at his most acerbic, I want to grasp his thinning hair and pour vodka down his throat. Why quit? I sometimes want to ask him. How are you or the people around you better off this way?

But perhaps I’m just looking for an excuse not to quit myself. I hold myself to one glass of wine, when I indulge. This is one thing, at least, I can control.

It’s fully dark outside now, and cool. Inside, the kitchen clock reads nine-thirty. I wash my wineglass and crawl into bed, television on, a manuscript in my lap, trying not to think about what the next day might bring. After reading awhile, my head begins to ache, and I think of Jordan. I close my eyes, and I see spots and swirls in the dark—tiny, distant planets and shooting stars so familiar by now I should have named them. When I open my eyes again, the images are still there, now black against the white pages of the manuscript. I have always had floaters, I realize, yet they’re so much a part of me that it never occurred to me to do anything about them.

* * *
Within her first three months, Jordan uses up all her sick time for the year: six days. Personnel finally calls; they want to see Jordan to discuss the problem.

“She wanted me to cover for her,” I tell everyone in group. “She wanted me to say that she was in the office for some of the days she wasn’t.”

“So what did you do?”

“I told Personnel I made a mistake.” I see Phil across the room, shaking his head.

“She said it was the floaters,” I add. “She said they gave her migraines.”

“Why do you think you felt obligated to cover for her, Zoe?” asks Sara.

I light a cigarette. If I hesitate just long enough, someone will jump in, and this time it’s Bonnie.

“I think it’s easier for Zoe to go along with her than to confront her,” she says softly. And the conversation lifts off, levitating around me. I’m left on the ground, looking up, watching the smoke swirl above my head, relentless circles that don’t go anywhere but slowly dissolve in the stale air.

* * *
As trying as it can be, having group makes at least one evening a week go by more quickly. By the time I finish my wine and pay my bills and pick up around the apartment, the hour is late enough to feel like a normal bedtime. I peel off my clothes, still smelling of smoke, a reminder of where I’ve been.

It has been lonely since Alan left—a feeling that goes beyond missing the feel of a warm body next to you, of having someone whose snores wake you or whose face is the first thing you see in the morning. I feel a much wider sense of detachment. We had so many common friends that without them my social life has ground to a halt. After the breakup, I did keep in touch with a few friends—yet finding things to talk about that didn’t include him proved too difficult. A challenge, as Sara would say. It was a challenge I didn’t want to overcome, a goal I didn’t want to meet. When I thought about it, about how I was going through the motions without getting anywhere, I recalled the story of Rosie Ruiz—the woman who took the T during the Boston marathon, hopping off the train to join the front runners, crossing the finish line ahead of them all. In group, I let everyone believe I’d given it an honest try, when in fact I simply let these old friends disappear.

And now, without Alan, the complexities of my life focus on work. My social life is now a series of first dates with new assistants, good first dates that evolve overnight into full-blown relationships that don’t ever work out.

* * *
Jordan and I can work for days at a time without saying more than a few words to each other. She arrives later than I do and leaves earlier. Her lunches are longer; she doesn’t attend my meetings. Our primary contact has become notes and e-mails, and this works for me. I feel glad that we understand each other.

One day she comes to work waving her hand around, a glittering, almond-sized diamond on her ring finger. I congratulate her, tell her I’m thrilled about her good news. Then Monica trots over on her pencil-thin legs, squealing over the ring, and I back away, into my office. I don’t mention that Alan and I used to wander through the Jewelry District together, back when things were good, that we’d looked at a ring much like hers, that I’d slipped it on my finger.

Love is never easy for a codependent. Others in group have more dramatic tales than I do: their spouses had affairs on their honeymoons, or they were violent when drunk, or there were children involved. Alan and I—we had fun; we drank together in the beginning, suffused with a reckless invincibility, not only surrounding our habits but our relationship. Then he started to leave me out of what had been our shared adventures. He grew distant, then indifferent. I still remember nights when he’d come home drunk, only to pass out later—and for the first time in twenty years I recalled the nights I’d heard my mother sobbing alone in the bathroom, my father asleep in bed, or so I’d thought. It wasn’t until I’d found myself sitting on the edge of the bathtub crying that I realized that this had been my mother’s fate, too.

She never got angry, my mother, and neither did I; it wasn’t an acceptable behavior in our house, especially when my father had been drinking. Sara wasn’t surprised to hear about the times I’d accidentally locked Alan out of the apartment, the phone messages I’d forgotten to give him, the half-full liquor bottles I’d mistakenly thrown away. Are these really accidents, Zoe? she asked.

Alan finally went to AA, but the accidents and misunderstandings continued to happen. That’s why I’m here, I told the group on my first night. And I think, eventually, that’s why he left.

I can hear Jordan on the phone outside my office. She is calling bridal shops, florists, caterers. She has never put this much effort into the projects I’ve given her, has never been so prompt in returning phone calls. She wants to get married at the New York Botanical Garden. She wants a triple-layer, chocolate wedding cake. I listen, my pen poised above the manuscript on my desk. Her voice has the self-assured pitch of someone who has never considered that her dreams and her reality could be mutually exclusive.

* * *
I arrive at the building and smoke four cigarettes before heading upstairs. There, I wait my turn. Then I say, as my good thing, “I stood up to Jordan today.”

Faces turn my way, clearly surprised.

“My challenge will be seeing her at work tomorrow.”

Sara is impressed by the breakthrough, and we devote much of our time to my story. I give them the details that they want: over the last couple weeks, Jordan has spent most of her work time planning her wedding. She has taken three more “sick” days. That afternoon, she strolled in after a two-hour lunch as I was dealing with a petulant author, and after calmly putting down the phone, I called her into my office.

“What’d you say?” Alyssa is on the edge of her seat.

“That she was taking advantage, that she had to plan her wedding on her own time, that she had no more sick days, and that she had to finish all her projects by the end of the week.”

“What did she say?”

“She just stood there at first. Then she said, fine, she understood.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, she also said she had a headache. So she went home early.”

Phil, in the corner, shakes his head. Alyssa leans back in her chair.

“I think this is remarkable progress,” Sara says. “Remarkable.”

 

I help myself to a piece of chocolate cake, which, half-eaten, now reads BES WISH JORD, and sit at the conference table next to Monica, who stares at the cake.

“I have a stomach ache,” she says, “otherwise I’d try some.”

When in the presence of food, Monica invariably has a stomachache, or a headache, or tooth pain—something that prevents her from eating. She never eats lunch but power-walks instead, and she has a note taped to her computer that reads, DIET, BITCH!

“You must be stressed about Jordan leaving so soon,” Monica says, following my eyes.

I’m watching Jordan across the room. She is showing off her ring, talking about her imminent move to Westchester, offering a photo of the new house.

“Time to start over again,” Monica adds, her gaze now following the bites of cake on their way to my mouth.

Jordan’s resignation was felicitously timed; she quit shortly after I’d told the group I’d confronted her. It made perfect sense; I felt almost as if the confrontation had really happened.

“Why’d she quit?” Phil had asked.

I shrugged. “She said wanted more time to plan her wedding.” This much was true.

“Sounds like she couldn’t handle actually having to do her work, once you laid down the law,” Alyssa said.

Then Sara said something about the negative consequences of positive actions, and my mind wandered away. I feel guilty for lying to all of you. Over the previous couple of weeks, I had to think carefully about what to say in group when they asked about Jordan. The truth was, I’d never called her into my office. The truth was, things remained exactly the same. But my years as an editor have given me a knack for fiction, a good idea of what’s believable and what’s not. And my truths often seemed so unbelievable to the group, my reality so implausible—I kept envisioning Phil’s shaking head, Alyssa’s disappointed eyes—that finally I had to do what Sara always tells us: focus on your strengths. I’ve realized that I know not only what people want to read but what they want to hear.

* * *
When I mention in group that I am still looking for a new assistant, for the first time my good thing and my challenge are one and the same. The résumés stream across my desk, a swiftly moving tide of ambitions and neuroses and expectations—paper versions of the Harriets and Jordans and Monicas who want a coveted spot in what they think is a glamorous world.

I let most of them float past. I’ve divided the résumés into files of NO and MAYBE, and occasionally, I call Personnel and ask for an interview or an editing test for someone I know I will never hire. It’s vital to keep up an illusion of progress, but that is all it is, perhaps all it has ever been. For now, I enjoy the silence outside my office door, and the way its quiet fills my mind.

Midge Raymond’s short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Originally published by Eastern Washington University Press, a new edition was released in April 2011 by Press 53. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterlyRedivider, Bellingham Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Indiana Review, and the Los Angeles Times magazine, among others, and has received three Pushcart Prize nominations as well as an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship in Literary Arts. She is an editor and co- founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press. Visit Midge online at MidgeRaymond.com.

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