All of us can think of a co-worker who at some point in our professional lives has driven us crazy. Sometimes it’s a boss, sometimes it’s a desk-mate. But everyone can think of someone who made going to work more of an ordeal than a pleasure. (How are you these days, Myron?)
When we move on, we breathe a sigh of relief as we skip towards our future. At least we’ll never have to see him again, we laugh as we celebrate that night. Goodbye to her forever! And usually it is goodbye forever. But Carol Paik sent in a piece this week describing a situation in which forever recently came to an abrupt end. I’d like to know how her story develops in the months to come. Meanwhile, if anyone else has a tale of the co-worker from hell, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
The last time I saw this person was 14 years ago. I was an associate at a small (now-defunct) law firm, and he was a partner. I disliked him immediately, but dislike rounded the bend into a powerful detestation one day when I was eight months pregnant with the son for whose sake I am now sitting in a history classroom. That day, I was wearing a green plaid poly-blend maternity jumper, and he and I were shouting at each other in the hallway, more or less as follows:
“No, you grow up!”
“No, YOU grow up!”
“No, YOU grow up!”
“I’m telling!”-and he turned and rushed up the stairs. As I stood there shaking and almost in tears, the only female partner hurried over. I had told her before that I could not work for this person. That it would not end well. She told me it would all blow over. Apparently, he was told the same thing, for from then on, when I would pass him in a corridor, he would offer a cordial hello. I would just stare at him.
Then I went on maternity leave and never came back.
These are the reasons I became a lawyer:
1) Desire to make use of my expensive education, large brain, and the open doors made available to me by the toil of the previous generation of women, not to mention my parents and my own years of study and work.
2) Desire to make a decent living.
3) Lack of better ideas on how to achieve No.1 and No. 2 above.
There are worse reasons. But wearing pantyhose and high heels made me want to die. I have a hard time sitting up straight in chairs, and a terrible habit of bouncing. At meetings, in depositions, in court, I struggled just to sit still. It has only recently occurred to me that these things said something about me that perhaps I should have heeded. I became a lawyer only by ignoring every possible sign post (a tendency to jiggle being only a minor example) and by shunning the things that came naturally to me, and if I had simply paid attention to the obvious I wouldn’t have ended up screaming at my boss while wearing a humiliating outfit.
I moved to the now-defunct firm because it claimed to offer reasonable hours, friendly colleagues, and a better chance at partnership than at the larger, more prestigious firm where I had started my career. But they had lied, and I hated it, and the worst part was this person: vague, argumentative, rude, irresponsible, and often unreachable. He would tell me I was wrong, even after I checked and rechecked my research. He left me in sole charge of a bankruptcy filing, although I had never even seen one before: “Ah, it’s just a couple of forms,” he said before vanishing for several days. I came to assume that he never knew what he was talking about. So when he told me to find a statute regarding something or other, instead of figuring out what he actually meant or wanted, as a good associate would, I told him I couldn’t find it.
The next day he called me in to his office to show me the statute.
“Have you ever thought of quitting?” he said. “Because you’re no good.”
“Neither are you,” I said.
I walked out of his office, and he followed me, and the shouting commenced.
So I loathe him for the following reasons.
1. ) He was an asshole.
2. ) He was right.
When my son was three months old I needed to make a decision about whether or not I was going to return to work. Here are the reasons I decided to stay home:
1.) I hated my job.
2.) I adored my baby and did not want anyone else to care for him.
3.) I was fortunate enough to have a husband willing to support me.
It was a straightforward decision, but the transition was not and has not been easy. It has been hard to give up the business card, work phone number, status, identity. It has been hard to know that I did not succeed, did not rise to the occasion. Yet every morning I wake up and think, “I don’t have to be a lawyer,” and that thought alone makes me feel happy and lucky for the rest of the day. I feel as if I have come to terms with the decision I made-but then, there are these chance encounters.
This person has given no indication that he recognizes me. It’s funny how it is possible to not look at someone who is sitting right next to you. Just don’t turn your head. The history teacher tells how she will be teaching internal histories and external interactions. The class will analyze issues from multiple perspectives, and will consider the validity of social, economic, political, and cultural factors in shaping the path of historical development. She offers a quote: “The justification of all historical study must ultimately be that it enhances our self-consciousness, enables us to see ourselves in perspective, and helps us towards that greater freedom that comes from self-knowledge.”
Class is over and we stand up and file out. I have managed to avoid an encounter. But this is only freshman year-at some point, I will have to acknowledge this person. When that happens, I hope I will be able to say: My son’s name is Jonathan. What’s your son’s name?
Carol Paik is a Manhattan-based writer whose work has appeared in Tin House , The Gettysburg Review , Newsweek , Fourth Genre , and other publications. You can read more of her work at www.carolpaik.com