Whether he wanted to or not, Ross was learning about my past as well, discovery running both ways. Natalie came in one day with an old People magazine, looking very pleased with herself. She had unearthed an old photo of Michael and me at some awards dinner. She was very intrigued by my former marginal celebrity girlfriend status; it raised my stock with her tremendously when she had put two and two together and figured out why she thought she’d met me before. I often felt she was studying me, trying to discern what defect had caused me to slip from such a position, to figure out what was wrong with me that I didn’t work it. As soon as Ross appeared in the outer office, she went up to him and presented him with the magazine, demanding, “Guess who this is!”
“Who who is?” Ross asked, looking like he didn’t like surprises.
“Here.” Natalie pointed at the small black and white photo at the bottom of the page. I was wearing an off-the-shoulder black dress (I loved that dress) in the People shot, sitting at a table with Michael and Jim and Pam Meyer. It looked very glamorous and exciting; it had actually been very mind-numbing and meaningless. The table is littered with water and wine bottles; the Meyers’ glazed eyes are fixed in the direction of the podium, while Michael stares off into space and I look at him with a perplexed expression as if trying to figure out why we’re all here. Much later that evening in the hall outside our room, I remember, Michael wordlessly tossed the room key at me and headed off to the hotel bar. Catching it, I realized I was relieved. The earrings I had on that night, sparkling in the photo, were a gift from him, and I had later sold them.
“This is you?” Ross asked, turning his head toward me, his eyes staying on the image.
“Yes, doesn’t it look like me?” I asked, amused at Ross’ expression. It was true, I didn’t come up to model/actress standards. I wasn’t extreme in any sense. He stood holding the magazine, studying the photo. He seemed temporarily lost in some internal debate—I would’ve given a lot of whatever requested tender to know what he was thinking.
“Wow,” he said finally, raising his eyebrow, handing the magazine back to me–his only pronouncement on the subject.
* * *
Our accountant, Robert Eric Deardorff: he thought the rest of us were nuts. ‘Hey, get a paying job,’ he would always say. The oldest of the staff, father of three, out of shape and a tad overweight. He occupied the other small office next door to Ross. Bob spoke sports. He and Ross would barter baseball minutia in the hallway outside Bob’s door ad nauseam, blocking the way to the computer and the restroom and disinclined to move, which meant everyone had to duck between them constantly.
“The hardest thing to do in all of sport is hit a major league curve ball,” Bob declared from his post one day. Arms crossed, one leg bent back, foot up on the wall, his partner in obstruction silently nodded his agreement.
“No,” I said, squeezing between them. “Olympic balance beam.”
This remark wasn’t credited with the slightest acknowledgment from either one of them. I never heard Bob say a single word about HRI’s work either, or why he was there, but his convictions never wavered; he was steady and true.
* * *
Gradually but undeniably and without resistance, as with the kind blessing of fate, Ross and I began to fall in together. We amused each another, snorting at our supposed wit, and we indulged ourselves in this. I’d purposely egg Ross on, winding him up into laughter that could border at times on the hysterical. I did it because the abandon exhibited during these fits in one so otherwise tightly self-policed was addictively provocative. Because Tyler’s tattletale diagnosis was essentially correct. Ross maintained an invisible but impenetrable barrier around himself. Ever vigilant, he was adroit at this, using words as rails to construct sentence fences, setting up a perimeter through which people could not pass. He leaned heavily on logic and rationality and was generally secure because people were intimidated by this and did not challenge him; they only got what he wanted to give out; he kept the rest. He rode his range, a lonely cowboy, checking, mending broken fences. But as I got to know him, I began to understand when things were not to be touched and when he was being merely knee-jerk, and by taking the risk and addressing the real feelings could open the gate from time to time and find myself on the inside. I was gently determined to do this. Mental stubbornness was the one area where I felt I could match him. And he could do with a little genuine attention, a little more affirmation. At first this startled him and he raised the rails, but later as he got to know me and began to trust that I was not a tourist or a thief, I was allowed open access and felt incredibly smug about it.
For his part, this guarded man’s unaffected confidence in me was balm for years of mental self-abuse and floundering. It was not in my nature to think I could succeed at things. Ross apparently thought I could if I just tried a little. This was a revelation to me. We had several serious discussions about this, talking in our own little space and time after everyone else had left the office for the day, Ross questioning why I habitually put myself down—it was not an attractive trait. Did I want him to start believing my own press? He was brought up to think he could conquer the world. He didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t take a shot at it as well. The help he gave me during those after hours was enormous, beyond measurement. I initially fell in love with him because he was sexy and smart and had charming plans to see out his dreams, but over time this attraction became an unbreachable love for a man big enough not to stomp down someone more vulnerable in order to redress his own wounds, which were considerable. I grew more self-possessed. When I met people, I looked them in the eye without the need for clarification. I stood up naturally to my full height; it was good enough. This was the best gift I was ever given, and the lesson lasted, with occasional lapses, for the rest of my life. Ross and Amy. As by magnetic pull we started standing closer and closer, touching unselfconsciously, without forethought: a playful grip on the shoulders, a hand on the thigh. We felt safe, sanctioned with each other. The boundaries of our personal space blurred and opened up into each other’s as we began to build up mutual cover.
* * *
Gretchen Riley, executive director of the Refugee Office, our liaison with headquarters: a political activist since the late 60’s, a tiny figure with horn-rimmed glasses, who had some conceit she was fashionable and always had some scarf untidily wrapped around her head or neck. Long earrings dangling down, more crosses hanging off her than the Pope, looking like she’d dumped the contents of one of her bureau drawers over her head. Edith Head meets Darth Vader. It was a wonder nobody ever strangled her with any of her accessories. She was a terror among the staff, and a visit could reduce even the most stoic, the most dedicated to tears. She took an unnatural fancy to Colleen, holding her up to the others as the good girl, the proper volunteer, but she had no intention of helping her in any way. She would scream full pitch at people if something wasn’t done properly; working under her was a contravention of one’s own personal human rights, but she was dedicated to her job, I guess that was the one positive thing you could say about her. I always felt she must have at one time been very good to be so bad now. Something must have happened to her that caused her to be flipped. Something in her past, those mod times. Twirling around in a flower-powered field, long hair flying, bare feet covered with mud, she must have screwed one too many boys or swallowed the wrong drugs. I gave her as wide a berth as possible, even Ross did, although the two of them had gotten into some pretty memorable shouting matches. She never learned that a full frontal assault was not the way to get him to budge.
* * *
One day in mid-July I came back to the office around 2:30 after running errands and was told that I’d missed most of an extraordinary event: Ross’ ex-girlfriend Donna was here. In town for the day (Ross had self-conveniently made no mention of this), she had come by on some kind of semi-official old catching up business, and they had gone out to lunch. They’d just come back and were in his office. Colleen sulkily went about her business as if it was of no concern to her, but the other women there were all atwitter. My heart began to beat quicker with unbecoming curiosity; I wanted to see, didn’t want to see—like passing a road accident. “They were at Yale together,” Paul helpfully volunteered. (‘They were madly in love . . . . She’d eat you for lunch . . .’)
The door to Ross’ office opened and Donna emerged by herself, shutting it behind her. She must have absorbed from the air the sense that Ross and I were slowly circling each other, turning an inquisitive gaze on me, saying to no one in particular, “And this must be the other volunteer.” Paul chivalrously made the introductions. She was tall and shapely and beautifully dressed, with that damn honey blonde hair, a fast rising lawyer in a prestigious New York firm. She made me feel short among other things. They must have made a striking couple, a striking couple was all I could think, a mountain of unwanted information suddenly dropping down in front of my previously clear view. Gretchen for some reason always insisted they’d been engaged. (I later asked Ross about this, and he simply said, cryptically, “Not officially.”) I had nothing to say to her, but felt it my duty to break the silence.
“Boy, Ross has been out to lunch every day this week. He better watch it or he’s gonna get fat,” I said lamely, simply to fill the air, massaging my temple with my fingertips. My comment was admittedly bizarre, but it was the only thing I was able to come up with under her intimidating stare.
She looked at me with condescending amazement, like a home run hitter pointing his bat at the mound before cocking it: ‘That’s the pitch you’re gonna throw? You throw that and it’s outta here.’ Her voice was rich, mellifluous and assured, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about Ross gaining weight. He’s too self-righteous to ever be fat.” Her venom was of a quantity and sharpness wondrous to behold. “Once he gets a whiff of someone doing something wrong, why his adrenaline just kicks in and away he goes. He’s off!” She smacked one hand against the other as she said this, the top one taking flight into the air. She looked appraisingly at me and I felt way off my battleground, outgunned—-a tiny girl next to a friggin’ Amazon. Without moving my head, I glanced around; everyone was struggling to keep their expressions indecipherable.
“Woo-eee!” A pig-calling voice from the hills issued forth from the vicinity of Tyler and Renny’s office, the large room with the computer across the hall from Ross.
“Hello, Tyler,” she called out without turning around.
“Hello, Donna,” came the reply.
Ross kept his office door shut for almost two hours after her departure, most of the staff going about their tasks with silent exaggerated significance. Except for Paul, of course, because he had no intuitive sense at all. “Man, it’s quiet in here,” he kept repeating unnecessarily.
Eventually Ross buzzed me in; we talked rather aimlessly about the upcoming symposium at Trinity College. There was a slight trace of Donna’s perfume still in the air and it bothered me, giving an air of strangeness to the familiar surroundings, scent marking her previous possession. I wondered if Ross noticed it or if he was still accustomed to it. He seemed tired, very tired and irritable. As I was going out the door, he asked, “So, you met Donna?”
There were a lot of things I could have said, but I decided to keep it simple. “I did.” I turned around, clutching the door, leaning back into the room. “You should be very frightened.”
We stared at each other for a second, then Ross let out a sound midway between a bark and a “Haa!” The tension broke–cliché or not, for the moment we were comrades-in-derision. He visibly relaxed, his shoulders dropping—reinforcements had arrived in unexpected, softer form. He fixed me with a boyish grin. “Don’t go, then.”
* * *
Ross’ reporter friend, press spokesman, Tyler Morris Sheridan: a tumbled-off white knight who had no intention of getting back up on his horse. Ross called him “Ty,” sometimes “TMS” from back in their prep days. He had worked for UPI in Boston, then squandered his talents, slowly pickling himself at The Bridgeport Post, which was family owned at the time. They used to keep the burnouts on the payroll there, giving them a desk in the back by a window and benignly ignoring them while they drank themselves into oblivion or teetered on the ledge, but a corporate chain bought the family out and he was unceremoniously kicked out. Ross must have felt sorry for him. He might have played the role of lovable rogue except he looked ten years older than his actual age, a heavy-set mix of Truman Capote and Elton John; always wore khaki suits, even in the dead of winter I was told. A big negative sponge, soaking up all skepticism and cynicism and always ready to squeeze some of it out to douse any runaway enthusiasm or optimism on the part of anyone else on the staff. Sheridan was ridiculously useless, though during one or two crises he was brilliant in flashes—a mirage, no, a glimmering of what he once used to be.