Excerpt: Chapter One

March 7, 2000

Morning sunlight sliced through the dark canopy of clouds, but the rain continued to pummel the pavement, and I was on a tear. Stacks of manila envelopes, stamped Confidential in blood-red ink, covered every surface in my office. My company had recently completed a major acquisition, and as Vice President of Human Resources, my job was to prepare separation packages for the 113 employees targeted to be laid off.

My black suit jacket hung over the back of a chair. I had shed my pumps so I could move about more quickly. Company dress code was casual. But that day my attire looked as if I were going to a funeral.

I was sealing the last envelope when I heard a knock. I slipped on my shoes and went to the door, a bloom of dread in my stomach. Over the next three hours, I would be meeting with each manager whose department was affected by the downsizing. In my mind, I could hear my best friend, Karen, saying, “Downsizing is just a nice way of saying you’re firing people.”

“Am I late?” Kim Webster asked, cheeks flushed and panting. I glanced at my watch. 9:05.

“Not at all,” I said. “Please come in.”

Kim had been with Tekflex longer than anyone I knew. A former Accounts Payable Clerk, she had started right out of high school and worked her way up to Director of Accounting, responsible for a staff of twenty-three (seventeen after tomorrow).

“Coffee?” I signaled toward the pot.

“No, thanks. I’ve had my limit for today.”

I could tell by the way Kim was fidgeting that she wanted me to get to the point. I sat down behind my desk. Kim sat across from me.

“We’ve chosen tomorrow to do the layoffs.”

“So soon?” she said, her voice on tiptoes.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I’ve never done a layoff before.” The skin around her eyes wrinkled.

“There’s a script in here that will tell you exactly what to say.” I patted the top envelope on the stack marked Accounting. “Look it over. If you have any questions, give me a call.” I managed a weak smile.

God, how I hated this part of my job. Although I had nothing to do with the decision to reduce staff, I felt responsible. My signature graced every letter.

“I assume the list is the same as the one you emailed me?” she said.

“Yes, there were no changes.”

Kim sniffed and pulled a tissue from the pocket of her jacket. She waited a long time before speaking. “I’ve worked with some of those people for more than ten years,” she finally said. “It’s just not fair.”

I leaned back in my chair. My eyes wandered over to a snapshot of Sam and me that I kept on my desk. Taken years earlier, it showed us in bathing suits, laughing, and sharing a beer in a beach bar in Cabo San Lucas. How I wished I were there right now.

I turned my attention back to Kim and tried to resettle the composure that I knew my face had lost. “I wish there was another alternative, but with so many duplicate positions…”

“I know, I know,” Kim said. She raised her eyes heavenward. “Lord, I just hope I can do this.”

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine, Kim. You have an excellent relationship with your staff, and they respect you. That counts for a lot.” My pep talk seemed to work. Kim gave me an appreciative half-smile.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything more to say.

Kim heaved herself out of her chair and picked up her stack of envelopes. She hovered for a moment before turning to go, then straightened her back and marched out the door.

Each of the other eight managers reacted as Kim had. “So soon?” “So many?” “But he is one of my best employees.”

My response: “I’m so sorry.”

Drained, but also relieved to have finished my last meeting, I sat in the blue gray glow of my computer, scrolling through my daily deluge of emails. My assistant Rita rapped on the open door.

“I’m going to lunch,” she said. “Would you like me to bring you something?” Dear Rita. She knew I often worked through lunch and worried about my health.

“No, thanks. I’ve got some yogurt in the fridge.”

“Okay,” Rita said. “Sam wants you to call him.” She tapped the door jam twice, and left.

I reached for the phone. He answered on the first ring. The sound of his voice was as consoling as my morning coffee.

“So, how did it go?” he asked.

“Worse than I expected,” I said, toying with my cup.

“In what way?”

“It’s one thing to put together packets with people’s names on them, and a whole other thing to learn who they really are. This one is a single parent, that one has a wife who’s three-month’s pregnant. Everyone’s got a story.”

“I’m sure they have,” Sam said. “But you can’t take this personally.”

“I know.” I breathed out a weary sigh. “I wish you didn’t have to leave tomorrow.”

“I wish you were coming with me.”

“Me too,” I said, picturing myself in Geneva strolling down Mont-Blanc Avenue, stopping for a coffee, or nipping in for a Swiss chocolate treat, while Sam attended his conference. On the weekend, we could take a train trip to St. Moritz; maybe go skiing or submerge ourselves in the healing waters of the mineral springs I’d read about.

“Sure would beat stripping employees of their livelihood,” I said.

“There’s still time to change your mind, you know,” Sam said in a buttery baritone meant to persuade me. “It would do you good to get away, reenergize, get a clear perspective.”

“No. No. I couldn’t possibly.”

“I know,” Sam said, as if he’d like me to understand that this wasn’t all he knew. “I’ll see you tonight.”

One of the nice things about our tenured relationship is that Sam and I no longer have to argue everything through. We each know what the other will say.

That doesn’t mean we don’t communicate. One of the reasons I fell for Sam was that he was nothing like my ex-husband, Ricky, who could sit in front of the television for hours without saying a word. Sam always has something to say.

Moments later, I was making half-hearted progress on a turnover report when the phone rang.

“Hey, Liz, it’s Taco Tuesday at the Cantina,” Karen said with a burst of eagerness. “Two dollar margaritas and all the mystery-meat tacos you can eat.”

I smiled for the first time that day. “Sounds delightful,” I said. “But I can’t.”

“Oh come on. Jo’s meeting me, and Gidge is coming by after work. It’ll be fun. A night out with the girls.” The girls. No matter how old we get, we’ll always be “the girls”—Karen, me, JoAnn, Gidge, Rosie and Arlene—six women who have been friends since high school.

“I’d really love to, but I’m meeting Sam for dinner,” I said. “He leaves tomorrow for the International Sales Conference in Switzerland.”

“Oh shoot, I forgot. Well, give him a big smack for me.” Karen had long been a fan of Sam’s, always eager to point out what an overall good guy he was, unlike the parade of disappointing husbands she’d had.

“I will. Tell everyone hi, and don’t wreak too much havoc over there.”

“Who, us?”
The rain had stopped by the time I left the office, and the air was so fresh and sweet, I started to feel cleansed of doing the company’s dirty work. I hurried across the parking lot as if dismissed from detention, hesitating briefly to admire my Porsche—a gift I had given myself upon my promotion—before clicking the door open. It wasn’t worth feeling bad about today. The important thing was to know I’d done my best. And to remember who I was, a woman with no college education, who began her career as a part-time Personnel Assistant, and now through years of committed hard work, wore the proud mantle of Vice President of Human Resources.

As I drove west from San Ramon toward San Francisco, the lighting on the Bay Bridge cast a golden glow over the water. I’d made this trip often to see Sam, or to go to the airport, and each time I passed through the toll plaza, I thought of my Aunt Vi. A lifelong resident of the city, she loved to tell the story of the day the bridge opened in 1936. “We were all so excited. It was the biggest traffic jam in San Francisco history,” she’d say, waving her cigarette in the air for affect. “Every auto owner tried to crowd his machine on the bridge.” Till the day she died, she referred to a car as a machine. “Be careful in your machine,” she’d warn each time I left her apartment.

Spiedini’s restaurant was located two blocks from Sam’s condo in SoMa, the area South of Market made trendy by the dot-com boom. It had become our “go-to” place, not only for its close proximity, but also for its intimate atmosphere and mouth-watering Northern Italian cuisine. By the time I parked in the underground garage of Sam’s building, I realized I was starving. My breath quickened as I headed up the street in a trot. After almost twenty years, I still looked forward to being with Sam.

I entered through the double glass doors into the marble entry paneled in rust-colored suede. The softly lit bar to my left was a sea of dark browns and black. A group of business people was gathered around two tables near the windows, clutching bottles of designer beer. As I passed by, I heard a man ask, “Did you get pre-IPO stock? What’s the lockup?” I smiled. Every twenty-something in the tech industry dreamed of cashing out with a bundle, enough to travel the world, maybe buy a little vineyard in the Napa Valley. Good luck.

Sam was seated at the far end of the bar, engrossed in conversation with young, sweet-faced Dimitri, the weeknight bartender, probably discussing the latest international soccer scores. Both were compulsive soccer watchers.

I shrugged out of my raincoat, hung it over my arm, and arranged my face in what felt like my most appealing look: a careful, pleasant smile, not too wide, just enough teeth showing.

“How are two of my favorite men,” I said, stepping up behind Sam. Dimitri flashed a welcoming smile and reached for the martini shaker.

“Hello, darling,” Sam said, turning to plant a kiss on my cheek. Even his 5-o’clock shadow couldn’t hide his finely chiseled features. As I hoisted myself up onto the barstool, my skirt hiked up to my thigh. I left it there.

“You’re early,” Sam said, a hint of surprise in his voice. He took my coat, and laid it across the stool next to him.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

“Ah,” Sam said with a nod.

“But I’ve made my peace with it,” I said, reaching for the bowl of mixed nuts. Sam shot me a look of disbelief.

“I mean it. What’s that poem about God giving you the strength to change what you can and know what you can’t?”

“You mean the Serenity Prayer?”

“Yes. That’s it. I’m making it my new mantra.” I popped a cashew in my mouth in a gesture of finality.

Sam leaned over and caressed my thigh. “Whatever it takes,” he said, reaching for his Heineken.

Dimitri served me a cold shimmering martini in a cool misshapen glass. I knew I hadn’t convinced Sam. He knew that I really meant I couldn’t do the job if I let myself care too much.

As I sipped my drink, I allowed my mind to dwell only on good things: the pleasure of Sam’s company, his voice soft and strong, the relaxing warmth of the alcohol, the promising smells of roasted garlic and simmering marinara sauce. We talked easily, Sam and I, about his upcoming business trip, and my plans to catch up with my children and my friends while he was gone. And in the last pale light of what had been a stressful day, things didn’t seem so bad.