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Walk Away

2005: My friend, my boss, my pain in the ass


By Heather Harris | Posted 12/23/2009

If she had told me what was going on, instead of letting me discover it for myself, I wouldn't have felt betrayed. I would have supported her, taken her side even. It's not like I've never been in a morally questionable situation and in need of feedback from people who believe I'm basically a decent person, whether I am or not. Sometimes having someone around who believes that of you is all you need to start living up to that standard.

But Pat never told me anything. She showed me, in myriad ways, and then dared me to act like I knew. She cast both Melani and me in the role of voyeur, which everyone resented.

Except, maybe, Rob. At the end of our small impromptu dinner party, he leaned over behind Pat, his--our--married, old-enough-to-be-his-mother boss. He was spooning her, his left arm loosely flung over her body, his left hand vaguely cupping her left breast. Both of them smiled like nothing was out of the ordinary.

Pat's disloyalty as a wife was less a concern than her disloyalty as a friend and boss. I had rearranged my life to take a job with her. I had paid a real-estate agent $1,200 to help me find a tiny New York apartment in 2005, the height of the New York housing psychosis, and our department was entirely too small to continue to function while our leader slept illicitly with one of us and hid it badly.

I looked at my watch. Melani was staying with Pat, whose husband was out of town and whose sons lived down the street in an apartment of their own, but I had to get back to the other end of Brooklyn, and Rob lived in Queens.

"It's getting late," I said. "Rob, if you want to walk with me to the subway station, I need to leave in a few minutes."

"Yeah, I'm coming," he said. He got up and took his wine glass into the kitchen. Pat followed him.

I waited. "Rob?"


More waiting. "Rob? I'm leaving. See you tomorrow."

Pat followed me out the door with her dog, Speedy. "I'll walk you down," she said.

Pat, Melani, and I had gone to grad school together. Pat was 50, but she told people she was 43. Once again, she hadn't admitted this to me; she had let me catch her in that lie, too. Something about the way she had aged--gray/blond hair and a distinct gray line along her top gums where they met her teeth--did look premature to me, but it could have just been the short skirts and tight blouses that made me buy her story. I was in my mid-30s and Melani was still in her 20s, which explains something about how Pat was able to handle us so easily.

We'd known each other for years, and because we'd been each other's readers in a nonfiction-writing program, we knew where the others' bodies were buried. Melani and I had helped Pat craft stories about near affairs that had sent her home, hoping in vain to reconnect with her distant husband. Pat had helped us write about our fathers, stories also rooted in infidelity, albeit of a different sort.

When Pat and I graduated, she was offered a director of publications position at one of the City University of New York branches. Soon after, she hired me as her senior writer. Melani had taken a semester off to have her daughter, so she was still finishing her degree. She had come to New York, just for the week, to help us out and put in the remaining hours she needed toward her internship credits.

Rob was the junior designer in our small department. He was 26 and, as a rule, painfully shy. Our senior designer, an outgoing thirty-something, said he'd worked with Rob for years, even shared an office with him, and still knew almost nothing about him. It wasn't until Pat took over the department that Rob started lingering over coffee in the morning, sharing stories from the weekend or the previous evening, and going out to lunch with the group.

The morning after the dinner party, Melani, Pat, and Rob came in to work together. Melani gave me a desperate look and suggested we go grab a coffee. Downstairs in the school cafeteria, Melani started crying the tears of a woman whose nerves were shot. "I got two hours of sleep," she said. "They had sex all night, so loud that I actually called my husband just so I could stop listening to them for a minute. I asked him what I should do. He said, 'Just try to block it out and get some sleep.' But they were in the room next to me. And they were so loud. Then, when things quieted down, I tried to use the bathroom, but I ran into Rob."

I wasn't sure what to say until Melani came to the point of her story. "I can't stay there this week," she said. "You have to let me come stay with you."

My apartment in Brooklyn Heights was 400 square feet. I had one full-size bed and an uncomfortable couch. If Melani stayed with me, she, a full-figured Chicana woman, and I, a 5'8" bathroom and cover hog, would be eating, sleeping, and getting ready for work on top of each other.

"Of course," I said.

Pat, Melani, and I were having dinner with another friend that evening after work. "After dinner I'm going to tell Pat that I got in touch with an old friend in the city and I'm going to stay with him for the rest of the week," Melani said. "Then I'll train back to your place."

And for the rest of that week, Melani and I acted, badly, like we weren't coming to and leaving work together. We took the scenic route to work, walking along the Brooklyn promenade that looks out to Lower Manhattan. In the evening we got carry-out sushi from Iron Chef House on Clark Street and propped ourselves up in my little bed watching the The Daily Show, Chappelle's Show, and My Fair Brady.

I also quit that week. It wasn't just the unfair disruption of Pat and Rob; this was actually the third time I'd quit in six months, which was a source of aggravation for Pat. We drank too much at work, something Pat characterized as the culture of publishing in New York (although we were only in that field in the most technical sense), but which, in retrospect, was how she coped with the affair. It sounds fun until you remember that a writer is only as good as her clips, particularly a writer fresh out of school.

I had also left my live-in boyfriend of five years in Baltimore when I took the job in New York. He was finishing up a degree in Washington, and the plan was for him to move up to New York with me in the next 18 months. But we had eloped two months earlier, getting married in Manhattan's City Hall on a Friday afternoon. And while I was surprised at how much I liked the fact that we were married, the strain of the long-distance relationship was wearing on us emotionally and financially. So when Urbanite magazine offered me their executive editor position just days before Pat's sloppy revelation, $1,200 notwithstanding, there wasn't any reason to stay in New York.

Plus, there was Pat's ultimatum. A month earlier, Pat and I had sat in the Gee Whiz Diner across the street from school one Monday morning. "You need to stop bringing the drama," she had said to me. I was stunned. The Friday before, she had gotten drunk on shots of Irish whiskey at lunch. When the president's office paged her, she went, even though she couldn't walk or write. When she came back to our office, she sat down on the floor and started to cry. I assumed she'd been fired on the spot. Instead, she said, "I'm so old." When I asked her what she meant, she looked up at me and said, "Do you still want to be my friend?" I ignored the question and put her on the train back to Brooklyn. At the diner the following Monday, I assumed she'd explain, maybe even apologize. "How am I bringing the drama?" I had asked. "You keep quitting," she replied. "It's destabilizing the department. You need to decide whether you're staying or going."

So I decided: I was going. On my last day of work, Pat brought in some Prosecco for my send off. Someone asked me if I'd miss New York. I said yes, but that I expected to come back some day. Pat snorted, and that was my cue. I smiled, picked up my handbag, bowed to my colleagues, and walked out the door. I'm sure everyone expected me to come back, to say a proper goodbye. But I didn't. I took the elevator down seven stories, walked out onto Greenwich Street, hit the nearest bodega for a pack of cigarettes, smoked a few on the street, and headed home to pack.

A few months later, the woman hired to replace me called me in Baltimore. "Pat is trying to drive me out," she said. "And I think she and Rob are having an affair."

I laughed. "She doesn't want you to quit, just to feel incompetent so you don't notice how incompetent she is. And of course they're having an affair."

The woman hung up with me and headed straight for HR. It became an ugly she-said-she-said and they were both asked to resign. But Rob still works there. And when Pat got an interview for a new job, she put me down as a reference.

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