I have always been a planner. There are people who plan and people for whom the universe rearranges itself into a path of their spontaneous choosing. Jones was not merely in the latter category. He was their gilded, bejeweled, effortfully coiffed ruler. Like a celestial event, people could see or sense his sovereignty from a distance. You couldn’t articulate it, maybe, but on a primal level your body understood. The distance was impenetrable no matter how close you got.
I got as close as anyone. That affinity for planning afforded me the opportunity to rotate in his orbit for, I think, eighteen months? Twenty? At first I was the object of passing fancy, then a flatly reliable assistant, then so flat that directing attention toward me again became the fanciful thing to do, and then I was fired.
Somewhere between my hiring and firing, I found myself on the receiving end—on Jones’s behalf—of a series of uniquely deranged emails. The emails came from an address consisting mainly of numbers and symbols, each one signed by the presumably pseudonymous Chaucer. The Canterbury Emails, as I began to call them in my head, came in two or three times a week, at all hours of the day and night. I read every one. Cara caught me once and made a big show of exaggeratedly rolling her eyes. It’s called auto-delete, she said, and I nodded, but in truth I came to feel strangely protective over these bizarre, sequestered missives. Their hysteria felt very authentic to me.
Jones attracted earnest frenzy. In recent years efforts had been made to demystify and universalize the work emerging from academic fields concerning the vagaries of human brain chemistry and the affective implications thereof. Results were mixed.
At the first conference to which I accompanied him, in Chicago, we were accosted by an older woman in an expensive-looking plum skirt suit.
The woman pointed at me, wide-eyed. “She’s not who you think she is!”
I was startled, but Jones had no patience at all for her. He muttered, “Okay, lady,” and pushed his way past her. I was frozen in place for a moment—wondering who he thought I was—and then I followed after him.
“She thought you were Cara,” he said, laughing. Who isn’t Cara, then? I didn’t have time to ask, as he was already disappearing into a room down the hall.
By the time Cara noticed me reading them, the emails had been coming in for months. I had pored over so many of this person’s private thoughts. I had no way of knowing, but I pictured a woman screaming into the void. I aimed for prestige and got these wacky emails. She aimed for Jones and got me. Perhaps she was lucky enough not to know it.
The last of these emails I received, just eighteen hours before I was summarily fired, not reluctantly dismissed, but fired, closed with this memorable line: “I always get what I want.” You can feel the wink. I always get what I want: This statement is, universally, patently untrue the moment it is uttered aloud, or typed, as the case may be. Those who always get what they want are never aware of it. They don’t process the world in such terms.
It never would have occurred to Jones that he got everything he wanted. Prizes and accolades rolled in, as expected. His charisma was best observed obliquely, through effects, like gravity. And marital bliss comes easily when your spontaneity is bought and paid for.
I looked up to him when I started. He had accomplished so much and was still only in his thirties. That was the caveat on the end of everything anyone did, in my mind. I cared so much about time, not wasting time, automating where possible, freeing up hours for higher-order concerns. What if my mother had had the help she needed? I thought about all of the time she had devoted to bringing me up, subsuming herself in my care.
Cara had conducted my job interview over the course of three separate phone calls because, in the middle of the first, Jones had called her from Atlanta to ask which gate he was meant to be heading toward, and then a second time to tell her, with what I can only imagine was a great sense of urgency, that when it came to dining options Concourse E was gravely inferior to B. In between calls I peeled chipping purple nail polish off my nails and resolved to buy more neutral shades.
Cara had been the one to train me, if you can call it that. She spent more time in Jones’s office than he did. Where his allure was wrapped up in the illusive pretense of innate refinement, her appearance reflected effort. She wore thoughtful, intentional outfits made cohesive with a rotating menagerie of eye-catching beaded necklaces, clunky rings, colorful floral scarves looped around themselves.
My training was, at first, very standard. It felt like being immersed in the field, more of an educational experience than a job for which one would expect to collect a paycheck, and then, week by week, there was more work, a broader scope of work, and my education and development were less and less of a concern. It happened by degrees, just unnoticeable at every shift.
I had been in my role for two months or maybe three when the first Canterbury Email came rolling in. We were in Albany that week, allegedly the seat of political power in my own home state, and the site of an innovative new statewide mental health initiative that was attracting national attention. I stood at the window watching the streetsweeper run its course down a series of nondescript side streets. A few flags waved tepidly in the courtyard: federal, state, local. I drank watery coffee out of a paper cup.