It was seven o’clock on a Tuesday evening, and I was stuck at the office. I had been working ten hours a day since my last vacation, four months ago. This was just as pathetic as it sounds. I could have been having a nice dinner with friends, or using my long-neglected gym membership, or even sitting on my couch in my pajamas watching real estate shows. But I wasn’t. I was at my desk, staring at a computer screen, engaged in the necessary but mind-draining and butt-numbing chore of proofreading legal documents. Just another fun-filled day in the life of Wendy Jarrett, Attorney at Law.
The advantage of working this late was that it minimized distractions. But after three straight hours reading page after page of legal boilerplate, I found myself glancing at my phone, hoping that it might generate a distraction or two. Maybe an old friend from college was in town for the evening and wanted to hang out. Maybe a cute guy had seen me walking across the courthouse square this afternoon and was about to text me and to take me out for drinks and conversation and maybe a little romance. Maybe the anonymous creeper I had been dominating in Words With Friends over the last month was secretly a gorgeous billionaire who was waiting downstairs to whisk me away to a life of luxury and ease. None of these potential distractions were, shall we say, realistic, but at that particular moment anything had to be better than sitting all by myself in an empty law office in Morristown, New Jersey, and comparing two separate sixty-page wills for typos and inconsistencies.
I did get a distraction in the form of a phone call from my mother. That could only mean that something horrible had happened.
I do my best to keep in touch with my mother, but that means that I’m the one who has to call her nearly every single time. This is partly because she has a misplaced sense of old-money frugality about long-distance phone calls, but mostly it is her passive-aggressive way of getting me to communicate with her more frequently. So I call her on alternate Sunday afternoons, unless I’m on vacation, or unless I’m snowed under with work, or unless I drank so much chardonnay the night before that I lose the ability to claw my way out of bed. We have a nice little conversation, which occasionally touches on topics of parental concern such as why I drink so much chardonnay. Then I hang up, and she hangs up, and that’s it for parent-child communication for another fortnight.
The only reason my mother ever breaks this pattern and calls me is if something horrible has happened. I couldn’t imagine another reason why she would call me at work at seven in the evening on a random weekday. It meant that someone was in the hospital, or someone was dead, or aliens from Alpha Centauri had landed in central New Jersey looking for Orson Welles. And the only way to find out the nature of this particular disaster was to pick up the phone.
I looked at the phone. I looked at my computer screen. Whatever it was that had gone so badly off the rails that it had prompted Mother to call me couldn’t be that much worse than having to read another line of boring legalese. I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, not without some trepidation.
“Hi yourself,” she said. “Are you at work? I tried calling you at home, but the call went to voicemail.”
“Yes, I’m still at work. I have clients coming in tomorrow for an estate-planning meeting and I’m just proofreading the new version of their wills to make sure everything matches up.”
“So you haven’t eaten,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“I have a hot date with a frozen dinner.”
“I know you’re busy, dear daughter, but could I impose on you to take me out to dinner? Nothing on today’s menu is looking good to me.”
My mother lived in an exclusive senior community in central New Jersey, about twenty miles south of Morristown. “Senior community,” for most people, means a place where you warehouse old people and make them play shuffleboard and serve them gray institutional meals. This place was more upscale, with organized bus tours and nature walks and what I guess you could call a political action committee. And the food, at least to hear my mother talk about it, was impressive. They served healthy, nutritionally balanced meals that were accompanied by gooey cheesecakes and crispy apple strudels and large, soft mounds of ice cream. I had never, not once, heard my mother issue even the smallest complaint about the food, which was so unlike her that I suspected that the kitchen staff had developed an amazing magical cooking prowess unknown to the rest of humanity. I wished I knew their secret—not so much because I wanted to learn how to cook, but because I wanted to know how to insulate myself from maternal criticism.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked.
“Of course, dear. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just that this seems kind of an unusual time for you to call me, that’s all. I thought something might be wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said. “I just can’t bear the sight of my fellow residents here for another minute, and I don’t feel like imposing on your sister right at the moment.” When Mother retired, she’d moved to the same town where my older sister, Pacey, and her husband and twin sons lived. Pacey has many fine qualities, but she’s not much of a cook, and I could understand why Mother would rather have me take her out to a restaurant instead.
“As much as I would like to join you for dinner, I’m right in the middle of something,” I said. “If I stop now, I am going to obsess over it all night and then have to start all over in the morning from the beginning.”
“Wendy, please listen to your mother for once. Whatever these people are paying you, they are not paying you enough to sit around and proofread paperwork at seven in the evening.”
I thought about explaining, once again, the economics of law firm billing, but I kept my mouth shut. One of my mother’s less endearing qualities is the ability to filter out explanations for things that she does not want explained to her. That encompasses any excuses I might have for not going out to dinner with her when she wanted to go out to dinner with me.
“All right,” I said. “You caught me at a weak moment. Let me close up everything here and I’ll be there in half an hour or so. Think about where you want to go eat.”
“That would be lovely.”
This all sounds too easy, I thought. Something else must be going on, or there is some ulterior motive she’s not telling me about. I had no idea what it could be but at least I wouldn’t have to eat that rubbery microwave lasagna that had been hanging in the back of my freezer for months.
“OK,” I said. “See you in a few.”
Five minutes later, I pulled my Audi out of the parking garage, made my way through Morristown, and headed south on the highway. Traffic was sparse, so I shifted gears and merged into the fast lane, passing the slow-moving trucks like so many barges in the wake of a speedboat. Not that I had a speedboat. I had a ten-year-old German convertible and a studio apartment and a giant heaving mound of debt from law school.
The Audi was not my first choice. My first choice had been a MetroCard, and a small apartment in a good neighborhood in Manhattan. After graduation, I’d spent four months looking for a job with a Wall Street law firm. My plan was to work my way up to the kind of job and the kind of office that Michael Douglas had in Wall Street. I’d been in two great summer associates’ programs in 2007 and 2008, and I imagined I was well on my way up the glittering path to a rewarding career, easy money, and a cute boyfriend who looked like a young Charlie Sheen but who didn’t do drugs or sell out small regional airlines in insider trading scams. But the economy cratered during my last year in law school, and all of the smart, engaging, helpful people I’d met in Manhattan during my summer programs were too busy trying to keep themselves afloat to help me get a job. Then I made the stupid mistake of taking the New York and New Jersey bar exams at the same time—and when I passed New Jersey but failed New York, I ended up stuck looking for work on the wrong side of the Hudson.
The best job I could find was with a boutique firm in Morristown, doing wills and estate planning. I was lucky to get the job in the first place, and I was lucky to still have it five years later. I gave up on Manhattan and the small apartment in the good neighborhood and the MetroCard. I found an apartment five minutes from my office, and a used convertible with a hairline crack in the windshield and a big chip of paint missing on the trunk lid.
I didn’t need the car and I didn’t need the additional debt that went along with it. But if I couldn’t live in Manhattan, I at least wanted to be able to cruise down Seventh Avenue or the Jersey Shore or a narrow country road in the Poconos. I wanted the freedom to drive away as far and as fast as I could go anytime the mood struck. For the first couple of years, it worked out all right. But lately, I spent more and more of my weekends stretched out on my couch, catching up on sleep or work or whatever else was more important than getting in my car and driving somewhere and having fun. Worse, even if I did find the energy to drive somewhere and have fun, I didn’t have anyone to have fun with.
I kept the Audi in high gear until it was time to decide whether to exit off the highway and keep driving somewhere else. I wanted to keep dodging traffic until I had outrun all my problems. But I knew it wouldn’t work, and anyway, I was hungry. I pulled off the highway and made my way south.