THE GALLERY IS the size of a high school gym. Vaulted ceiling, white walls, movie screens on two of them. A dozen visitors line the perimeter of the dim room. Shoulder blades tap the walls. A low buzz fills the space while the spectators wait.
In the middle of the room is a chair and table. On the table is a medical tray: gloves, gauze, gardening shears. A spotlight illuminates the empty chair.
Waiting with a briefcase-sized camcorder on his shoulder is a crooked-nosed cameraman.
A door opens. When the artist enters, a hush falls. She glides to the center of the room. The cameraman focuses his lens on her. The movie screens fill with her image: thick lashes, long neck, steely gaze. This is not her first stunt, will be far from the last.
She puts on the gloves and stares straight into the camera. “Fear is not real,” she says, “unless we make it so.”
She sits down.
Picks up the shears.
Extends her tongue.
Gasps but does not cry.
The camera catches it all. On the screens the audience watches a tongue split in half. Someone faints. Others wail. Not the artist. She remains steady.
Blood pours from her mouth.
The world’s gone mad. People always say that.
On the contrary, we’re much too sane. We’re going to die someday, every single one of us. Never again the touch of a soft breeze. Never again the pinks of a setting sun. Yet we still rake the leaves come fall. We mow the grass and plow the snow. We spend all our time on all the wrong things. We act like we’ll live forever.
Then again, what should a time bomb do? It has only two options.
Tick or explode.
January 6, 2020
I stand at the head of the conference table. The chairs around me are filled with men: short, tall, fat, bald, polite, skeptical. I direct the close of my pitch to the CEO, who has spent fifty minutes of my sixty-minute presentation playing with his phone and the other ten frowning at me. He is past his prime, trying to disguise the fact with hair plugs and a bottled tan.
“Using this new strategy,” I say, “we’re confident we will make your brand the number one beer with men twenty-one to thirty-four years old.”
The CEO leans forward, mouth slightly ajar as if a cigar is usually perched there. He oversees a household-name beer that’s been losing market share to craft breweries for years. As sales have slipped, my new agency has found itself on thinner and thinner ice with these clients.
He looks me up and down, sneers a little. “With all due respect, what makes you think you”—he spits the word like it’s a shit sandwich—“can get inside the mind of our man?”
I glance out the conference room window, squint at the Charles River in the distance, and count to three. My team warned me about this guy, a dinosaur of corporate America who still believes business belongs on the golf course.
What I want to say: Yes, however will I peel back the layers of such complicated minds? Can a simpleton ever truly understand the genius of the noble frat star? For now they crush empties against their foreheads, but someday they will command boardrooms. Someday they will be you and insist they got to where they are through nothing but sheer hard work. By then they’ll have traded the watery swill you call beer for three-hundred-dollar bottles of pinot noir. They’ll still spend their weekends falling down and throwing up, only now they’ll do it in hotel rooms with their best friends’ wives. When Monday rolls around, they’ll slump at this table and wonder why I don’t smile more often. They will root for me to break the glass ceiling as long as none of the shards nick them. They will lament the fact they can no longer say these things aloud, except on golf courses.
What I actually say: “To get up to speed on your business, I’ve spent the past two months conducting focus groups with six hundred men who fit your target demo.” I scroll to the appendix of my PowerPoint deck, containing forty slides of detailed tables and graphs. “I’ve spent my weeknights collating the data and my weekends analyzing what all of it means. I know these men’s occupations and income. I know their levels of education, their religion, their race. I know where your guys live, their lifestyles and personal values, their attitudes toward your brand as well as toward all of your competitors’ brands. I know their usage frequency, their buyer readiness, and the occasions when they buy your beer. I know their degree of loyalty to you. When I get on the train to go to work or am lying in bed at night, I relisten to my interviews, searching for any insight I might’ve missed. I can say with confidence I know your guy as well as I know my own father.” I wince involuntarily. “Which means I know them as well as you do. I don’t think I can get inside the mind of your customer. I know I can. Because I already have. With all due respect.” I grin so the jab sounds playful instead of aggressive.
Everyone else in the room appears impressed. My assistant, Tyler, forgets himself and claps. I shift my eyes in his direction, and that’s enough to make him stop, but by then the others have joined in, both the clients and my account team. The CEO watches me, amused but undecided. It was a risk, publicly challenging him in order to galvanize the rest, but I’ll rarely interact with him; I’m told he shows up to advertising meetings only when he has no one else to antagonize. The marketing team are the ones I need on my side. The CEO sits back and lets his underlings finish the session. He leaves halfway through the Q&A.
Five minutes later the clients have signed off on our strategy brief for the year. Handshakes and back pats are exchanged. Invitations to lunch are extended for the first time in months. The account team stays with the clients but I bow out. My lunch hour is for catching up on e-mail. If my inbox is empty, I spend the hour at the gym.
Tyler and I take the elevator forty floors down to the lobby of the Prudential Tower. I smirk while he raves about how awesome the presentation was. I didn’t choose him as my assistant; he was assigned to me. What he lacks in ambition (or any set of demonstrable skills, really) he tries to make up for with personality.
On Boylston Street I shiver in the cold while Tyler calls an Uber. Once we’re nestled in the car, I turn toward him. “I want you to buy a box of Cohibas from the cigar parlor on Hanover. Wrap the box in navy blue paper. Send it with a note on the back of one of my business cards. Not the shitty agency-issued ones but the thick card stock I had made with the nice embossing. Do you have a pen? Then get your phone out. I want the note to say this exactly: ‘To a productive partnership.’ End that sentence with a period, not an exclamation point. Then under that line, a dash followed by ‘Natalie.’ Got it? No ‘Yours truly’ or ‘All my best’ or ‘Cheers.’ Just a dash with my name. Send it to the CEO.”
Tyler gapes at me. “But he was so rude to you. In front of all those people.”
I tap a list of post-meeting to-dos on my phone. Without glancing up, I say, “When I was coming up in this industry, you know what I spent most of my time doing? Listening. And taking notes.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see his expression sour slightly. He’s only three years younger than I am.
“I want the minutes of today’s meeting on my desk within the hour. Please.”
“In my two years at DCV no one has ever done meeting minutes,” he mumbles.
“Maybe that’s why you almost lost the client that pays all of our salaries.” I wait for a snappy comeback. When I don’t get one, I pull a folder from my bag. “I glanced through your Starburst brief. It’s riddled with typos.” I find the marked-up pages and hand them to him. “It reflects poorly on both of us when the work is subpar. More careful proofreading next time, okay?” His jaw tightens. “And I told you: section headings in all caps and bolded. Not one or the other. Both. You’d be surprised how far attention to detail will take you.”
The car pulls up to our office building. We ride another elevator together, this time in silence. On the sixth floor we get off. As we’re about to part ways, Tyler sniffs. “If you’ve never met the CEO before today, how can we be sure he smokes cigars?”
“I know my target.” I head into the women’s bathroom.
A minute later I walk down the hallway, scrolling through my calendar (three more meetings this afternoon). I’m about to round the corner to my office when hushed voices in a nearby cubicle catch my ear. I recognize the first as one of the assistants, a woman who doesn’t know she’s being considered for a promotion. “I would love to work for her. She’s such a boss bitch.”
“Or your run-of-the-mill bitch.” That one is Tyler.
The other assistants titter.
“She treats me like a child,” he says, gaining steam from his friends’ reactions. He affects a shrill voice. “Tyler, I want you to go to the bathroom. When you wipe your ass, use four squares of toilet paper, but make sure it’s three-ply, not two. If it’s two, you’re fired.” They all giggle, these people who are almost my age but make a third of what I do.
I straighten, pull back my shoulders, and stride past the cubicle. Without slowing I say, “I don’t think my voice is that high-pitched.”
Someone gasps. The last thing I hear before closing my office door is total silence.
At my desk I remove the lid of my scratched-up Tupperware and stare at my lunch, the same one I’ve eaten every day for years: a cup of kale, two slices of bacon, toasted walnuts, chickpeas, and Parmesan cheese, tossed in a shallot vinaigrette. I eagerly await the day scientists discover kale’s worse for your health than nicotine; for now, a superfood’s a superfood. I sigh and dig in.
I had a lot of time to think through my New Year’s resolutions over Christmas break. Last year I put an additional two and a half percent of my paychecks into savings. The year before that, I started washing my bed linens twice a month instead of once. Every January (except this one) Kit tells me I should resolve to have more fun. Every January (except this one) I want to snap at her that resolutions have to be measurable or you can’t tell whether you’ve achieved them, but that would do little to disprove her point.
On New Year’s Eve, as I sat alone in my apartment, staring at the needles falling off my three-foot Fraser fir while snow pelted my window, I was loath to admit my sister might be on to something. I don’t know a soul in my new city other than my coworkers. How does a thirty-one-year-old make friends if not through her job? I’d rather be eaten by a bear than go to one of those Meetups, standing around with a bunch of strangers, trying to figure out who’s least likely to make a skin suit out of me.
I’d resolved to try harder my first day back to work, focus less on the job, more on the people. Three hours in, I veto the resolution. Why waste my time with dolts like Tyler?
I allow myself a moment to wish Kit were here, then brush the weakness away.
I check the time back home (nine a.m.) and text my best friend Jamie: Still not making any progress with work people. No response; must be busy with the baby. I stab a chickpea with my fork and jiggle my finger across my laptop’s track pad.
Once I’ve cleared my work inbox, I move on to my personal account. I scan the subject lines: a few newsletters, a grocery coupon, spam from someone named Merlin Magic Booty. Plus a message from firstname.lastname@example.org. I pause.
Kit went to Wisewood six months ago.
My sister didn’t tell me much before she left, just called last July to explain she’d found this self-improvement program on an island in Maine. The courses are six months. During that time you aren’t supposed to contact family or friends because inward focus is the goal, and oh, by the way, she had already signed up and was leaving for Maine the following week so she wouldn’t be able to call or text me for a while.
I had balked. She couldn’t afford to go half a year without income. What about health insurance? How was she okay with cutting off everyone she knew for such a long time?
I pictured her shrugging on the other end. If I had a dollar for every time Kit answered me with a shrug, I could pay for her to live at Wisewood forever.
“What are you thinking?” I’d asked. “You finally have a dependable job, benefits, an apartment, and you’re going to throw it all away on a whim?”
Her tone cooled. “I’m not saying Wisewood is the answer to all my problems, but at least I’m trying to figure it out.”
“Your job is the answer.” I was incredulous she didn’t get it. “How much is this program? How are you going to afford it with that student loan?”
“Why don’t you worry about yourself for once, Natalie?” She never calls me that, so I knew she was furious. “Why can’t you be happy for me?”
I couldn’t be happy for her because I knew exactly how this would end: Kit disillusioned with Wisewood and stranded on the island, begging me to save her. My sister needs rescuing more often than most people. Last year she called me sobbing over a scarf she’d misplaced. (I found it an hour later in her closet.) On the other hand, she’s known to get in hot water on occasion. She once found herself stuck in the desert after her loser guitarist boyfriend dumped her in the middle of his tour, which she had dropped out of college to follow him on. Another time a misunderstanding with her best friend ended with me picking both of them up from a police station. My sister doesn’t want me to hover until the exact moment she needs me, and then she expects me to drop everything to save her.
We ended the call still snapping at each other. I haven’t heard from her since. She doesn’t even know I moved across the country to Boston, taking a page out of her playbook that mandates when the going gets tough, the tough flee the situation. Back when I started toying with the idea of moving, I had pictured more frequent sisterly get-togethers; I would be only a train ride away now. She left New York before I got the chance. On my more honest days, I can admit her absence is a relief. The less often I talk to her, the less guilty I feel.
The e-mail has no subject line. I open it.
Would you like to come tell your sister what you did—or should we?
Hairs rise on the back of my neck. On the track pad my hand trembles. The note is unsigned but has a phone number at the bottom. Attached are two pdfs. The first lists directions to the island: various routes involving buses, trains, and planes, all leading to a harbor in Rockland, Maine. From there I’d have to take a ferry. The next one leaves Wednesday at noon.
I click on the second attachment and frown at the heading in bold letters. As I scan the typed words I start to feel sick. Halfway down the page a handwritten note in blue ink catches my eye. The blood drains from my face. I push my chair away from the computer. Who could’ve sent this? How would they know? What if they’ve already told her? I shove the heels of my palms into my eye sockets, wait for my body to still.
I’m in control. All I need is a plan.
I read the message twice, three times, then dial the number listed at the bottom of the e-mail.
A throaty, relaxed voice answers. “Wisewood Wellness & Therapy Center. Gordon speaking.”
I launch straight in. “My sister’s been at Wisewood for almost six months—”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Gordon interrupts. “We don’t connect family members with guests. Our guests are free to get in touch with loved ones once they’re ready.”
I blink, stung. Kit never told me that, nor has she reached out a single time. I force myself to focus on the task at hand. He might put me through if he thinks she made first contact. “She did get in touch. She sent an e-mail, asking me to come there.”
“Well, don’t do that. Only approved guests are allowed here.”
I keep pushing. “Her name is Kit Collins.”
He’s quiet for so long I think he’s hung up on me.
“You must be Natalie.”
I startle. “Has Kit mentioned me?”
“I know all about you.”
I swallow. Is he part of the “we” from the e-mail, this group making threats? I wait, not wanting to show my hand. He doesn’t elaborate. I lift my chin, project confidence into the receiver. “Can you put her on the phone?”
“I think you’ve done enough, don’t you?” he says pleasantly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Perhaps your sister needs less interference with her happiness. You have a maximized day, now.”
The line goes dead.
What has she told these people about me?
Gordon sounds like he knows something, but if he’s behind the e-mail, why solicit me to come to Wisewood only to discourage me over the phone? I watch my screen until it turns off, thinking. First I’ll reply to the message. If I don’t get a response, I’ll call Wisewood a second time. If I can’t get through . . .
I skim the directions in the pdf again. Kit is a hundred and ninety miles of driving plus a seventy-five-minute ferry ride away. I could complain about her until I was blue in the face, but she’s still my little sister. Besides, it’s time. Over and over I’ve sworn to tell her the truth but have been too chickenshit to confess.
I have no idea what Kit will do when she finds out.