In the sixth week of the pandemic shutdown, I was still going to our offices in the near Boston suburbs, biking in on the trail from Cambridge, showering, and then digging into work, with phone calls, obsessive news watching, and writing for and getting on Zoom calls with the CEO and head of manufacturing and head of HR and the CFO and the corporate counsel and sometimes the three division presidents. There was one pesky board member as well, Phobe S., who called constantly, and whose husband was an ambassador in Europe, somewhat controversial. She was in New York, mostly.
I could have done all of this from home, but liked going in, liked the bike ride, liked the solitude and emptiness and sense of place. I took over the boardroom with its large screens and white boards and massive table. Essential business; well, maybe. We made things to help people do research. A step behind, but, essential, at some level, two or ten years out.
The first week of the shutdown there were several dozen cars, and a few bikes, and one electric vehicle plugged in. Now, maybe one car. No bikes. No electrics. The one parked car, could be that of a person anywhere in the sprawling complex, with its misshapen buildings and long connecting corridors, an addition here and then there, over the years. Corporate, taller and more sprawling, was in one of the newer buildings.
There was, in the dead center of three co-joined buildings, including Corporate, a garden with a glass roof, filled with exotic plants and small animals, an affectation of a distant former CEO, who’d had it built and dedicated to his deceased wife. His new wife, a woman who had worked with him in research at the Company, had wept at the dedication ceremony. Subsequent regimes had kept the garden going, which was astounding, really. It was expensive to keep up and every CEO always had their own special, off-budget pet projects. But it was a good place to meditate and have lunch in the middle of the pandemic. Access was restricted.
On this particular day, on the bench under the broad leaves of a rubber plant, I drank coffee slowly. I went over the list of things I had to do in my head. I resisted looking at my phone. I heard one of the doors behind me open and I turned. Randall, the custodian.
“Ah, scared me!” I said. I’d seen Randall around the buildings most days, but not in the garden.
“Can’t let these plants die,” Randall said. He looked around the garden. “You know. And we have new plants coming in, still, every week; never stopped. FedEx keeps delivering!” He stared at me. “You should be home with your family, Bobby boy!”
“My wife left this week with the twins to go to her parents in Connecticut. I’ll see them this weekend.”
“They’re stopping people at the state border now. You might be stopped! They’ll take the address where you’re heading and tell you have to stay put for two weeks.”
“Then I’ll turn around and come back and come into work.”
Randall in his oversized jeans and loose t-shirt and with his swept back gray hair sat on the bench opposite me. He put his right hand on the arm of the chair. There was no hair on his arms, oddly enough. His face was flushed and red, always. He had large ears. He had a thumb missing. He’d told me that story a year ago, about the thumb, a childhood accident with a chain saw.
“That Finance woman. You know her, yes? Ms. Y?”
I nodded my head. Yes. Of course. Our Controller. Her name was Xiu Ying Li. Randall always got it wrong. It had taken me a while to learn how to pronounce it: Shun-ying. I wanted to get it right.
“Finance! You two could take over the company. Money and brains. I’ll just be here keeping the garden going for you both.”
“Ha! So who’s the boss, she or me?”
“She’s very smart, that Ms. Y,” Randall said. “Watch out.” He folded both his hands on his lap and looked at me. “They cut your salary, too?” he said. He shook his head. “I’m only a fifteen percenter,” he said. “You, a twenty-fiver, yeah?”
“I sent the notifications out,” I said. “The CEO and Corporate Counsel gave up their whole salaries.”
“They have so, so much money,” Randall said. He looked around the garden. “Fine with me.”
After a particularly disturbing video conference about contingency layoffs, I took a walk through the maze of buildings, telling myself someone might be in MIS, someone must be, some network guy, there were always network issues. I could thank them for their service, be the big man. To get to MIS you had to get through finance and I did see Xiu Ying in a well-lit corner office. The sun just piled in that room. I pulled my mask up, as did she.
“Busy?” I asked the obvious. I glanced at her perfectly ironed jeans and sandaled feet. She crossed her legs.
“We are so far behind, I could be here day and night.”
“I talked to your boss this morning.”
“Me too. I talk to him five times a day. I’m Zoomed out.” She shook her head.
“You have to come in?”
She planted both feet on the floor. “I live close by. I can walk. It’s easier working here. Ugh, and my neighbors! I got a half-house condo, and they disturb me. The man plays guitar too loud. He thinks he’s Bruce fucking Springsteen.” Xiu Ying laughed and leaned forward. “And you?”
“Well, it’s just easier for me here and I get some exercise biking in, and my family is away, so it’s better, really. I live in Cambridge. I don’t like working at home.”
“I’m two streets away from here.”
“My routine: I bike in, shower, and get to work. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Then I write something, then they all change it. Then I do it again. There’s a lot to communicate, you know? How do you nicely tell someone you’re going to take part of their salary away?”
“At least no layoffs or furloughs,” she said
I raised my eyebrows. “At least that.”
She glanced at her piles of work and her computer screen and I backed away.
“When you need a break you can come over and see me,” I said.
She smiled, I think.
“You can take a break in the garden. Randall was there with me earlier. Said we both could take over the company. He thinks you are brilliant.”
She laughed. “He’s a fucking gossip,” Xiu Ying said.
Back in the conference room I pulled the contingency layoff list up on the big screen. Xiu Ying wasn’t on it. Randall wasn’t on it. I didn’t see my name either, but, of course, they could always have another list. I knew you couldn’t trust the HR head. No layoffs in Europe, too many rules. In Hong Kong, yes, the same. In Shanghai, yes. In Australia, yes. Rules here, too, but no teeth, you could do what you wanted inside a company.
The pesky board member, Phoebe, called. My friend. Her face filled the large screen in the boardroom. Her backdrop, perfect. Her Manhattan apartment. Artwork was hung behind her and, to the side, intricate and much too complex metal sculptures.
“We should have never closed that lobbying office in Washington!” she said. “We could use some help now. My husband’s made some calls, and he’s not getting compensated for that.”
“Good of him to do that,” I said. “And help.”
“We could get some federal money if we had our act together.”
I had to support the team, and my boss. “Richard’s doing a terrific job. Amazing. I know the communications people at five other big companies, and we’re doing so much better, internally and externally. Much better. And positive local press. They even still like us in Italy and France.”
“And Bobby, why are you in the office?”
“Someone needs to be here,” I said. “The Command Center. The War Room. It is easier, really. And I’m here alone, so it’s not risky. Pretty much alone. One or two or three other people.”
“You should be home with your babies,” Phoebe said.
“Babies are in Connecticut with their mother and my in-laws.”
“You shouldn’t be alone in a pandemic!” she said.
I buckled down. I worked. I wrote. The CEO wanted to do a video on his iPhone for our twenty-six thousand employees, so I wrote something, ordered the tripod and lights and microphone, and sorted that all out. He could film himself this weekend. The large boardroom table: when I looked up I’d see the prior regimes and CEOs, sitting around, different crises. Nothing like a pandemic. Financial trouble, once. A bad harassment case in San Francisco, that resulted in a settlement for eight-hundred women in one of the division’s sales forces. There was a very weird sex scandal in the Paris office. The head of research died doing volunteer work in Cambodia, crushed in a freak accident. There were cyclic acquisitions and divestitures and layoffs. We did have a crisis playbook, like some pretend White House. The addenda in the playbook did have war, civil unrest, and pandemics, all highly unlikely, and all the responses and action steps were vague and circuitous. Unimaginable. I think Phoebe, the one female board member, had something to do with the playbook, which was dated now, five years old. It was bound, with five copies, all sitting on a high shelf.
I could imagine myself, forty years hence, seventy-eight, in the same room and same chair, with how many CEOs in that same period? I’d say twelve or fifteen. They didn’t last long. How many crises? How many pandemics? There’d be purges, yes, and chances are I wouldn’t survive all of them, so I wouldn’t really have to worry about it.
Xiu Ying, would she come over to see me? Would I walk way over there again?
The head of HR called, upset about the plan to fire all the C players, no matter age, sex, race. She swore as much as Xiu Ying. The corporate counsel had weighed in on that plan, saying we’d get our ass sued. The whole partitioning of the employees into A, B and C was a twenty-year vestige, three CEOs back, one who was in thrall to the current business fad at the time. But we were still there, living it, partitioning, in the fumes of an exhausted idea. I was once a B, and got really pissed, and my VP boss at the time was shocked at my anger, said she’d never given anyone an A rating in her whole career of five years at the firm. Everyone could improve. Of course.
The custodian poked his head in the door. “I’m locking up the Garden,” he said. “Your card won’t even work.”
I looked at him. What?
“I don’t want you and Ms. Y getting any ideas,” he said. “Alone, a steamy garden? All that hard work? All that stress?” He laughed.
I just shook my head.
“She’s not married,” he said. He raised his eyebrows. “She lives alone.”
“Oh, my god, come on,” I said.
“And she works so hard, you know? Like you? You could be brother and sister. So just forget sleeping with her. She’s here all the time now. And pre-pandemic, she was here, all the time. Can’t get enough of the place. You’d think she could move in. Like you. You know how she got to the States,” he said.
I nodded my head yes. I’d heard the stories.
Xiu Ying did come over to the boardroom, masked. She stood in the doorway. My boss Richard was on the big screen. I waved her in.
“Xiu Ying’s here,” I said. Obviously.
“Well, your finance team will be the last to come in,” my boss said. “You think that will work? You can all do it at home, right? The scientists first?”
“Yes, yes.” Xiu Ying said.
“But Bobby and you can come in. Manage things. Senior management.”
“I live close. It’s so easy for me,” she said.
“You both should go home now,” Richard said. “Getting late, you know.” His dog put her paws up on his table.
“Randall’s here, too, somewhere.” I said.
“Randall’s always there,” Richard said. “I think he sleeps in the garden.” He pet his dog’s head. “Bike carefully!”
We left the building together, Xiu Ying and I, both with our masks on. I walked my bike and she walked on the other side of the bike. She was thin and tall, and hair and face striking, and it was sad, I thought, her just squirreled away in a building, pushing numbers.
“You live alone?” I asked.
“Yes. I started dating a doctor in February, from MGH, a vascular surgeon, but then all this crap. We video chat, at times.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said. I imagined the video chats. We were nearing the bike path, and we both slowed down.
She shrugged. “I don’t think it would have worked out.”
“My wife’s in Connecticut. With our two-year old twins. And her parents, who hate me, so that makes it difficult.”
“It must be hard being away from them, I mean your wife and children.”
I laughed, defensively. “It is easier for my wife, she gets a lot of help. The boys are a handful.”
“You need to show me photos!”
“Well, visit tomorrow!” I got up on my bike and pulled my mask down. I smiled underneath it. “Have a good night!”
She waved. I took off. There were a few other bikers on the path, coming towards me, and there were a few people walking. Broad lawns backed up to the path, at the beginning, and there were pools and swing sets, and sheds, and cut, smooth grass. I counted seven houses in a row with a built-in pool. On one stretch, leaves were piled up just over the fence, on the bike path side, so rude, I thought, but obviously infectious, one sloppy neighbor and then another. There were a few people on decks, and a few that just stared at me. There were no waves, no greetings. All the homes were filled, presumably, with people quarantining. I thought of what I might cook for dinner. I thought of Xiu Ying. I thought we might eat together. She was a hard worker, I admired that. I’d actually met her, years ago, in Shanghai, at the formal opening of our facility there. She was doing something in finance. I remember she was standing close to the Chief Technology Officer, not ashamed, and not hiding or covering up their relationship. I think he was there, in China, every other month, for her, for two years. He was American and had a big house in Lexington, Massachusetts, and two boys, and a stately, elegant wife, queen-like, shoulders back. He had an obsession with the Roman Empire. There was a big age difference, Xiu Ying and him. And it wasn’t permitted, really. Corporate policy. He did somehow arrange for Xiu Ying to get promoted and be moved to the States, which precipitated his dismissal but not hers for some reason. Everyone knew. And his wife found out, and she divorced him, and now he’s in New Jersey, near Princeton, at a tech start-up. He’s too old for that too, I thought. Too formal. Too corporate. Too Roman.
Xiu Ying Li. She still moved to headquarters. She had a green card. My overriding image: competence but more than that. Savvy. I’d assumed she was in a relationship, or married. I’d assumed she was living with someone. I’d seen her at leadership meetings, energized, outspoken. Her and the Chief Technology Officer, fine with me, they seemed honest about it, way back. He might have gotten a divorce, however, sooner, at his initiation. Better for all? Maybe. Was his former wife still at their estate with the interminable lawns? Was he still crazy about Rome? I’d bike to her home, I imagined. We’d both shower. Or she’d bike with me to Cambridge, and both shower there. We’d both be fired, if anyone found out. Policy. One of us would have to leave the company first, then it would be fine, celebrated even, true love. He left his wife and twins for her. She’s happy now after all the crap she’s been through.
Distracted, fantasizing, I hit a hole in the bike path, and flipped forward, head over heels. I lay there, on the ground, dazed, my arms out, like a cross. Thank god for the helmet.
Another biker stopped. “You okay?”
I biked in the next day, very slowly, but biked. My arm was bruised, and painful. Nothing broken. Neck was sore. I’d almost gone to the ER. I road the bike in that morning sitting up straight. I showered for a long time at the office, and looked at my bruises in the floor to ceiling mirror on the back of the shower door. No one had cleaned the shower in a few weeks, and it was getting funky.
There was a morning Zoom meeting with the entire Executive Committee. Ten men, two women. Business, remarkably, was booming. And expenses were down. They were debating when to open, fully, and revisiting decisions they’d already made. And making points, of course. Interrupting each other, talking louder and louder. I had them all on the big screen in little squares.
Xiu Ying poked her head in the door, looked at the faces on the screen, and smiled. She left. I followed her in my mind, first down this long corridor, then into the second building, then the third, then her wave to MIS, then back into her own building and then her sitting, legs apart, peering at a screen. I wanted the meeting over. I wanted to walk over to see her. I wanted lunch in the garden. I wanted to walk her home.
We could leave early. Who’d know? Time blended: weekends, weekdays. We could make it up at night.
I blurted on the camera. “Survey, yes. The employee survey’s coming.”
I could talk business on one channel, and have this flourishing fantasy on another. Bizarre. I had to get my work list done; I had to make it to Connecticut. I was in a waking dream. I ran through the preliminary results of the survey with the Committee, and was factual and funny. I read the employee comments, and many employees noted they were happy we cut salaries instead of people. At the same time I was with Xiu Ying, in the garden. I was with Xiu Ying, in her condo. I was aroused at the same time I was precise and passionate speaking on camera. I could see myself on one of the panel screens. Looked good. Biking helped.
There was this business tip and all the personal iceberg under. Massive. An emotional tangle underneath, with thin cracks and vast caves and water trickling and streaming in. And cold as hell. Was a wonder how anything might work, given what we’re made of. Me, the Titanic, propelled forward. Xiu Ying and all of her I couldn’t see. My babies in the lifeboats.
“We’ll have the full report next week,” I said. “Worldwide.”
Surveys, easy. Data, easy. A refuge, a sanctuary.
“We have to act on the results,” my boss concluded, sonorously.
After the meeting I got a coffee and sat in the garden. I had let them know, during the meeting, how many times Phoebe, the board member, had called me. They had all laughed, some more than others.
“She’s in love with you, Bobby,” the HR head had said. I thought she said, “fuck” as a period, but she said it low.
It was unkind of me to bring it up. Why not just let Phoebe talk? Keep it private? She hadn’t acted on any affection, even when I had visited her rich apartment alone in Manhattan after some IR event. I remembered the butler. I remembered the weak iced tea. I remembered the floor to ceiling paintings.
I saw two chipmunks dart across the path in the garden. I saw Randall come in the other side of the garden with a pitchfork.
“Ms. Y’s in,” he said.
“Such a beauty, yes? Smart as hell.”
I nodded. “She is attractive.”
Could he report me for that? Sure. He wouldn’t, but could. Another chipmunk darted.
“Animals are moving! Good for the plants!” he said.
“I don’t like the snake idea. I haven’t seen them, but you told me. A family of snakes.”
“Garden snakes. Nothing.” He shook his head. “Nothing.” He looked around. “We need bees.”
He went off with his pitchfork to the far side of the Garden.
The garden. Went ten feet down. One foot of topsoil, then clay, then rocks, then stones, then the real ground. Snakes, bacteria. worms, viruses. Fecund soil. There were birds, whose songs echoed up to the high glass ceiling. Tiny birds. Too many, at times, and they had bird catchers come, and trap some, and take them away. The ongoing costs: like twelve thousand a month, supplies and labor, and then a capital budget of maybe fifty-thousand, for large plant purchases, and path improvements, and garden implements. The garden was lit at night and pretty at night, the tiny white lights dangled from tree to tree and running up to the glass ceiling and then looped across the glass ceiling. Lights or stars, you couldn’t tell. There were events at night, and you could look up at the lights and stars, and have the sun powered ground lights on the sides of the paths, and you could stop at small cocktail stations or food stations. In dark corners, I assumed lovers embraced. I did, once, see a black lace bra on the ground. It was off the path, and I saw it in the daylight, and I didn’t pick it up.
It wasn’t a fully hedonistic place, the corporation, but there were a lot of young people and brilliant scientists, brilliant but less brilliant emotionally, and late to bloom, and suddenly liberated. There were those international affairs, like the CTO and Xiu Ying. The HR head supposedly screwed a sales rep twenty years her junior at a sales meeting in Puerto Rico. He’d left the company, but the story kept wafting around. You had the garden and the layers below the garden, deep and dark. Who’d call her on that story? Who knew for sure?
And what was that sales rep doing now, during the pandemic? What client would see him? Who’d talk to him? Maybe he was in love with the HR head. Maybe they were still in touch.
Xiu Ying was at the door of the Garden. I waved.
“You didn’t walk over,” she said. “Busy? Zoom, zoom?”
“I got so much done this morning.”
“I kept going in circles.”
We walked to her house for lunch. We had dumplings. We made love with our masks on. The sun streamed through her second story window and ran down her thin body. The air conditioner hummed. I recovered, quicker than usual, and we went at it again, energetically. I was alone, she was lonely. I admired her. I held on the bones in her shoulder and thrust deep. The world seemed suspended, actually, everything on hold. Cars suspended: no traffic. Work suspended: everyone at home. Morals suspended, obviously. I compartmentalized my wife. I compartmentalized my two sons. When they had asked for names at the hospital, I immediately said, “Romulus, Remus.” The nurses had looked at me. My wife had been asleep, in recovery.
Leaving Xiu Ying’s condo was a bit awkward, but I had to go back for a pre-scheduled Zoom meeting.
“Can I come back after?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” Xiu Ying said. She kissed me at her front door, still naked, and opened that door, carefully, and let me out.
I let myself in the front door of the company with my badge and walked up the stairs to the second floor and heard something, and stopped, and went down again and walked down the corridor to the garden. Randall was outside, removing fluorescent lights from the ceiling in front of the garden entrance. He was on a ladder. He asked me to hold a light for him, and I did. He wielded a new one, and snapped it in. The light in my hand was still lit.
“This is fucking weird,” I said.
“Fluorescent lights are always wacky,” Randall said. “They do that. Die and come back. Little Lazarus lights.” He climbed down the ladder. He reached out for the light in my hand and I gave it to him. He raised it up like a sword. “You’re not coming in my garden,” he said. He laughed. The fluorescent light pulsed.
“I’ve got a meeting,” I told him.
At the dedication of the garden, seven years before, the deposed CEO with his former company lover and current wife cut a green ribbon that I had tied across a path. We were streaming the event to employees worldwide. We did it in the morning. It was midnight in Australia, and it was three in the afternoon in London. He went through a list of the plants, and the layers of soil and rock and the drainage. He unveiled the webcam. He suggested people meditate with the webcam visuals, and visit if they ever came to the home office. He noted that there were plants in the garden from every country the company had had an office or manufacturing plant. The Executive Committee was there, and our favorite board members, including the then newly appointed Phoebe. There was a tinge of despair to the whole event; the CEO had been let go by the board a few days previously, and was following through on his duty.
Phoebe stood with me and my then new wife, near a dwarf Japanese maple, during the cocktail reception. She talked about Washington and New York and her husband, who wasn’t there, who back then worked at a conservative think tank.
“You two are such a delightful couple!” she had exclaimed, looking at my wife and me.
Delightful stayed in my mind.
“Your husband has such an interesting job,” she had said.
My then new wife had just stood there, and had graciously smiled.
Image: Fern foliage by Rachen Buosa, licensed under CC 2.0.