Turnabout Part 10

Lizzy Bennet, once again thank you!

Dan (now Jessa) and Jessica (now Dan) continue their trip to Palm Beach. Jessa tells Dan how she really feels. Then, they go to dinner with the boss and Jessa learns about playing the corporate game.


Wednesday night was the couples’ dinner.  As part of team building, they would pair you with another couple, not from your district (if you were sales) and not from headquarters (if you were like us).   I suppose the idea was for everyone to get to know each other.  As I said, when we were the old us, I’d end up in conversations about sports with the husband, if his wife was the Stone person.  If the husband was the Stone person, Jess would have some awkward conversation with the wife then start talking business with him.  If I was lucky, the wife worked and she and I could discuss that for a while.  If not, we’d have some conversation where I’d ask about her children, she’d give some perfunctory answers and then we’d just sit and listen to Jess and the husband.  I just hoped that she didn’t tell everyone else that I was weird.

This year was different.  It wasn’t better.  It was just different.

We were back in the room.  We had stopped for a drink in the bar after we got back.  I was drinking club soda, in the hopes that I was pregnant.  I recognized that, even if I was, it was a zygote at this point, and I had read that one drink wouldn’t condemn Emma to a life of minimum wage jobs, but better safe than sorry. Jess took off her jacket.  “You’re not going to be friends with everybody,” she said with a laugh.  “As great as you are, there are just some people you won’t click with.”  We had dinner with Steve and Gina Carlucci.  Steve was a manager in the Tulsa office.  They had two children.  She didn’t work.  I had spent the evening trying to engage her on everything, from her children to her hometown (Rochester) to the trip to whether her son was an Oklahoma City Thunder fan (he was, she didn’t know who his favorite player was).  She was perfectly nice, just absolutely boring.  Halfway through our appetizer, I debated whether it was rude for me to take out my phone.

“I tried, but she was soooo boring.  My g-d, how does he stand it?”  Steve was a perfectly nice guy.  I could tell that his skill was not charming office managers, but earnestly working hard.  He’d never have Bruce’s job – he lacked that charisma – but he’d be a serviceable lieutenant to someone.  Jess came over and rubbed my shoulders.  “Mmmm, that feels so good.  Thank you.”

She kissed my neck.  “Did I tell how you beautiful you looked tonight?”

I smiled, “You did, but you can tell me again.”  It felt nice to be told.  I thought about it, realized that I didn’t do it enough before and felt a little guilty and a little sad.
“You are gorgeous.”  I was wearing the lace dress that I had bought at Lilly Pulitzer.  Even with the circumstances that surrounded its purchase, I loved it.  It loved the way it hung on me.  I loved the way it showed off my legs and was flirty and sexy, but not showy.  It was soft and pretty and made me happy.  She put her arms around my waist.  “You were the most beautiful woman there, Jessa.”  I smiled and kissed her lightly on the lips, and gave her a half smile.  “What?” she said.

“Nothing.  Jessa,” I said, the half smile never leaving my lips.

She looked at me and smiled.  “You’re not Jess.  I was Jess and you’re you. You’re certainly not a Jessie.  You’re my Jessa.  If it bothers you, I’ll stop,” she said, unconvincingly.

“I was just curious,” I said.  “It doesn’t bother me at all.” It didn’t bother me.  To be honest, I liked it.  It was something different, something pretty and soft and feminine.  I would never let anyone else call me it.  I wanted it to be something that she and I, and only she and I, shared.

“Good,” she said, with a smile.  “When did you get that dress?”

“I bought it yesterday at Lilly Pulitzer.”

“You should shop there more,” she said.

I raised my eyebrow.  “I should shop there more?  Meaning?”  I would never have said that to her. I liked my head remaining attached.

“Meaning,” she said, playing with the laces on the neckline, “that it suits you.  Anthropologie,” she said, putting her hands under the dress and playing with my thighs, “suits you.  I like you like this,” she said, kissing my neck, then pulling the dress over my head.  I liked the way she did that; I would never have been that smooth.  “You are romantic and sweet and…” She left off feminine, but that’s what she was thinking.  It’s what I was thinking and I didn’t care.  “You’re my Jessa.  My princess Jessa.  And my princess Jessa should always feel like a princess.”  That made me feel very special and, to be frank, very strange.  I liked my clothes.  They were me, but it felt strange to have her say it.  She had really become a man, a strong, confident man.  “That doesn’t bother you, does it?”

I smiled shyly.  “No.  I know who I am.  Does it bother you?  Does it make you think about, you know?”

She smiled and pulled me down onto her lap.  “No, Jessa, it doesn’t. You’re the same person I fell in love with, just different.  Does me being like this bother you?”

I swung my legs over so I was straddling her lap.  I looked into her eyes and said, “What do you think, Dan?”  And it didn’t.  She seemed so happy, so in control.  All of her old issues were fading away and so were mine.  We were happy.  She was Dan and I was Jessa.

The next day, I got up early again while Jess slept.  I looked at her sleeping form for a while, watching her chest go up and down.  I was going to go downstairs and surprise her with coffee, but there was something calming about the way her chest rose and fell.  Her arms were spread out.  I was tempted to roll onto her arm and nestle myself against her naked chest; it made me feel loved and protected.  I thought about it and realized that I liked that feeling as much as I liked being her protector before.  I smiled and thought that’s what you’re supposed to as a couple, love and protect each other.  Before, it was my turn and now it was hers, but really it was no one’s and everyone’s.  I decided to just lay there for a while reading.  I picked up my Kindle and downloaded the Times, but I’d keep alternating between reading and watching Jess sleep.  

After about twenty minutes, Jess woke up and rolled over.  “Hey beautiful, how long have you been up?” She said with a smile.

I leaned over and kissed her on the lips, morning breath be damned.  “Twenty minutes.”

She got up and went to the bathroom, her erection leading the way.  I knew it wasn’t me, which was confirmed when I heard the stream hitting the bowl.  To her credit, she always aimed and always lifted the seat, which I had come to appreciate.  While she was in the bathroom, I took off my nightie.  She climbed back into bed with a huge grin.  “This is a nice wake up call,” she said.

I smiled.  “Maybe.  But right now, I just want to cuddle.  I want to feel your skin next to mine.”

She laughed. “You are such a girl,” she said, pulling me towards her.  I could feel the heat coming off her chest against mine, and it felt good.

“I am,” I said, putting it out there, to no response but her smile, “but I always liked this.  I always liked feeling your skin next to mine.  It made feel, I don’t know, close to you.”  I blushed.  “Sorry if that sounds weird.”

She looked me in the eyes.  “It doesn’t.  I didn’t know that,” she said, sadly.  “Now I feel bad.  Why didn’t you ever say something?”

“I tried, but it felt weird,” I said, looking down.  “I don’t mean to kill your mood.  I just like it is all.”

She smiled. “You could never kill my mood, Jessa.  I can’t make up for the past but we have the rest of our lives to do this.”  She paused.  “This does actually feel kinda nice.”  She kissed me lightly on the lips.  I looked up into her eyes and saw the eyes of my love.  Whoever we were, I was in love and I felt happy.  No, I felt content.

Thursday was an uneventful day.  You could pick your own activity among a menu of choices.  Some people went to the Everglades, some people did a Segway tour of downtown Palm Beach.  We did a boat ride on the Intracoastal, which separates Palm Beach Island from West Palm Beach.  You ride down and see the classic old mansions on Palm Beach on one side and the office towers of West Palm on the other.  I sat in my deck chair, enjoying my club soda and watching the world go by.  I talked to the other women and just relaxed.  Every so often, I look over and see Jess standing with the guys, the other guys, talking and laughing.  She’d look over, give me a wink and a smile and go back to what she was doing.  I had never seen her so happy on a trip and knew we were in a good place.

We spent the afternoon by the pool and came back to the room around 5:00 PM; we were meeting Bruce and Ellen at 7:00 PM.  We stood by our window and looked at the sun hang low in the sky, Jess’ arm around my waist.  I thought about it and realized that we hadn’t really talked all that much this afternoon.  We weren’t upset, or at least I wasn’t.  Rather, I realized that, on every other trip, we each kept a steady stream of patter, expressing our own neuroses about how the trip was going and trying to assuage the other’s and I smiled.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she said, pulling me closer.

I smiled, “You know what I realized?  We haven’t been doing post-game this trip.”

“Huh,” she said.  “I hadn’t thought about that but you’re right.  I didn’t even notice.  Do you want to?”

I turned to face her, standing on my tiptoes to kiss her which, even now, could make me giggle.  “No.  Not at all.  It’s more like having heartburn and waking up to find it gone.”

She laughed and kissed me.  “Yup, the money your dad spent on that English degree was well spent.”  I playfully swatted her.  “I’m just teasing,” she said.  “By the way, you look beautiful.”  I was wearing a pink string bikini with a loop in between my breasts and one on each hip.

“You don’t have to say that every time,” I said, giggling.  “I’m going to sleep with you.”  I had no idea why today I felt so girly.  I had heard an old wives’ tale that said that, if during your pregnancy, you were into girly things, it meant that you were having a girl.  Two things worked against that.  First, if I was pregnant, I was about three minutes pregnant.  Second, I remembered that Laura became very girly during her pregnancy - and Tucker was now three.  Maybe I was just losing my mind.

“I know, so that’s how you know I mean it,” she said, with a smile.  “You seemed so much more at ease today.  You just walked around…”

“Like every other woman?” I said.  Jess blanched and I said, “I did, because I am.  Plus, I realized the other day that no one thought twice about it.  This is me, the girl in the bikini.  I’m OK with it.  Are you?”  I paused, about to say, “even if we change back,” but I realized that that was not likely happening and, even if neither of us said it, neither of us wanted it.

She smiled, “I love you, whoever you are.”  I felt like she wanted to say something more, like she liked this better but didn’t for fear of setting me off.  What she didn’t realize was that I had moved past acceptance a while ago.

At 6:30, we went downstairs to get a cab to the restaurant.  Bruce told Jess that we needed to go separately for “political reasons.”  I would have suggested it even if he hadn’t; why give people something to talk about and, unlike 99% of what people thought people talked about, the VP having dinner with one other couple would do that.  

We were early so we walked around the hotel for a little while. “I am soooo happy I bought that other dress yesterday,” I said.  I was wearing a blue sheath with cutouts at the shoulder that fell about 3” above the knee, and a pair of 3” heels.  “I mean I love the other dress, but that was for just us.”  One night every trip they allowed you to have dinner by yourselves, if you wanted.  We always joked it was for debriefing each other, although our dinners usually devolved into “Barbie-bashing.”  I had brought a black sheath dress with a crossed neck and a low cut back and a knee length hem.  I didn’t realize it but I was talking with my hands.

Jess smiled, “Just us?”  She was wearing a charcoal gray suit and blue shirt, with no tie.  She had gotten a little color which, combined with her weight loss, made her look incredibly handsome.

“Yes,” I said.  “It was way too sexy for Bruce and Ellen.”  

Jess laughed.  “Too sexy?  Boy, someone is full of herself.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Hey!”  I said, embarrassed to be caught.  “I didn’t mean it like that.  I meant I just don’t want to look slutty or something,” not even pausing to think about how absurd this sentence would have sounded last year.  “This one is much better, right?”

She smiled, “Ellen will love it.  You all dress for each other anyway.”  I let the comment hang.  I never thought that I did that but I knew now that was wrong.  I liked Ellen and didn’t want to give off the wrong impression.

We were walking hand in hand.  “Do you ever miss it?  Miss getting dressed up and stuff?”

She thought for a second and said, “Not anymore.  I used to, but I’ve gotten used to it.  I mean there’s a lot to be said for not having to think a lot.  I mean it’s basically three or four colors of shirt, two colors of suit, stripe, solid, maybe window pane if I want to go on the edge,” she chuckled.  “It makes life easy.  You have to make all these choices - what length?  What neckline?  What color, what pattern?  Is this too dressy, not dressy enough?  What shoes?  What accessories? Just thinking about it gives me a headache now.  But, you totally get it.  You never make the wrong choice.  You always look perfect,” she said, giving me a kiss.  “You’re better than I ever was, Jessa.”  I let that last comment hang there.  I was better but wasn’t ready to unpack (pardon the pun) what that meant.  “Sorry about that.  Do you ever miss this?”

Now I thought for a second and smiled.  “No.  I could live without waxing and plucking and all that.”  Jess smirked at that.  “But, no, I don’t miss it, and then I said out loud what had been hanging in the air for weeks, if not months.  “I like being pretty.  I like my clothes and my shoes.  I like being Jessa,” and I looked at her.  She just smiled and said, “I like being Dan,” and she kissed me.

Dinner was at a restaurant, Kitchen, in West Palm Beach.  We walked to the reservations desk and Jess said, “We’re meeting someone, Conlan,” she said, giving the hostess a smile.  I caught the hostess looking him then me up and down.  She was a classic South Florida blond 24-year old, hoping she’d parlay this into a good marriage.  ‘OK, Jessica,’ I thought, ‘you need to chill out.’  

“Come this way,” she said, leading us to the table.  Bruce and Ellen were already there.  The table was set for six, however.   The restaurant was pretty full so I thought ‘maybe this is just the table they had.’ I gave a quick look at the other place settings and looked at Jess.  Jess gave me a quick look that said, ‘I don’t know either.  Leave it be.’  

We came to the table and Bruce and Ellen both stood.  Jess and Bruce shook hands, Jess having mastered the grip and grin.  Ellen and I exchanged kisses.   She looked me up and down and said, “I love that dress, Jess.  That is a great color for you.”  It was.  With my coloring, it really set off my eyes.  Yup, I was Jessa and I dressed for other women.  

I smiled and said, “Thank you.  You look gorgeous.”  She was wearing a black short sleeved A line dress, with a strand of pearls.  It was knee length, simple yet elegant.  

She smiled, “For an old lady.”

“Stop it honey,” Bruce said, giving me a kiss.  

“Thank you for inviting us, Bruce.  I really appreciate it.”

He laughed and said, “I didn’t have a choice.  Seriously, I’m glad you made it.  Sorry to take away your free night,” he said, seeming sincerely but he knew that we wouldn’t turn down a private audience with the boss.  

I smiled and said, “Please.  This is just the topper to a great trip.  I’ve really had a great time.”

Ellen said, “So what did you do today?”

I started to say something but noticed Jess wanted to speak, so I paused.  This was her chance to shine in front of the VP, so I held back.  Like the song from Hamilton says, I decided to talk less and smile more.  Jess said, “We did the cruise up the Intracoastal.  That was a lot of fun.”

Bruce turned to me, “Did you enjoy it, Jessica?”

I decided to needle Jess.  “I wanted to do the Segway ride, but Dan vetoed that…”

Ellen said, “I’m very disappointed in you, Dan,” and then she smiled.

Bruce said, “Didn’t your father teach you happy wife, happy life?”  I always hated that expression.  Even now, I did, even though it sort of benefitted me.  It was sexist to both of us, like I was a child that needed to be pampered and Jess had no desires beyond pleasing me.  I understood that it was a throwaway comment and that Bruce forgot about it in the time I was in my own head, but it just bothered me.

Jess laughed.  “OK, in my defense, I grew up down here.  I know a lot of people who work on Clematis,” the main business street in West Palm, “and if I was seen riding around on a Segway, I would never hear the end of it.  Honey,” and she turned to me, “we can do it anyplace else.  I will buy you a Segway,” as Bruce and Ellen laughed.  Jess turned to Bruce and said, “Look me in the eye and tell me you would do this in Boston.”

Bruce laughed.  “You’ve sold me, but Jessica,” and here I crossed my arms and mock-scowled, “seems less than impressed.”

I couldn’t hold it and laughed.  “What about you two?  What did you do?”

Ellen smiled, “We just relaxed by the pool.  It was nice to just sit and read.  Thank you again for joining us.  I’m just glad to get a chance to speak with you two without prying eyes around,” and she gave me a knowing wink.  I gave an exaggerated ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’ look, which made her laugh.  “I knew I liked you.”

Bruce smiled and said, in a drawn out manner, “Ellen….”  Then he looked at me and said, with a grin, “I’ve heard you’re a literature and art expert, counselor.”

I blushed.  I don’t know what had gotten into me but I kept blushing lately; maybe, hopefully, it was a pregnancy thing.  Jess laughed and said, “What have you been up to, Jessa?”

‘Jessa’ made me regain my composure.  “I’m no expert.  I just really liked the exhibit.”  I turned to Ellen and said, “Sorry if I monopolized the docent.  I was talking my head off.”  I did but the funny thing was, as Dan, I don’t know that I would have noticed - or cared.  Since the switch, I had become more aware of the people around me and how I was perceived.  Like Jess said, men talk, women listen.  I was learning to listen.

Bruce smiled and said, “That’s not what I heard.  What I heard was you really knew and loved the subject and were trying to show people how much you loved it.  I’ve heard, and not just from Ellen, that you really got people interested.  That’s a good thing.  I want people to remember the people they met.  That’s what this is about, the people.”  I wasn’t sure if it was sales bullshit, but whatever it was, I believed it.

I smiled and said, “That’s what Dan says too.”  I figured it was good to reflect that back.  “It’s about the people.  A hotel is a hotel, even as beautiful as this one, but it’s about spending time with everyone.”  That was technically correct.  It always was about the people with Jess.  It was about how much she couldn’t stand them, but let’s not split hairs.  “I’ve really realized that this trip.  I’ve really gotten to know a lot of the people.  Thank you.”

Bruce started to say something and Ellen interrupted him.  “Stop it, Jess,” she said, with a smile.  “This trip is for the company to thank everyone, spouses included.  Nothing gets done without everyone, even us non-Stone people. Right, Bruce?”

He smiled. “And all these years I thought she wasn’t listening.”

She smiled and said, “I wasn’t.  OK, that’s enough company talk.  I said that I wanted to get to know you too, so tell me about yourselves.  Dan, you first.”

Jess smiled and said, “Like I said, I’m a rare character, a native Floridian.  I grew up in Coral Gables, then went to Vanderbilt.  I moved to New York to work for the company and that’s that.”

“That’s not just that,” she said.  “Tell me about your family.”  OK, how much time and alcohol do you have, Ellen?

Jess smiled.  “My dad is an ophthalmic surgeon and my mom is a federal judge.  I have an older sister, Jill, who’s an economist and, as of next semester, an adjunct at Vassar.”

Bruce laughed.  “That’s quite an accomplished family.  They should meet mine.”

I squeezed Jess’ knee, hoping to impart ‘ask him’ to her.  She may have looked like me but she still had some her because she said, “What about yours?”

“I’ll see your doctor and judge and raise you cardiothoracic surgeon at Deaconess and PhD psych and professor at BU.  And my sister is a criminal defense attorney, and an ex-AUSA,” an assistant US attorney.  “I guess we’re the black sheep.”  I could see Jess relax.

I smiled and said, “You seem to have come out of it OK.  Criminal defense, huh?  We better keep her away from Johnny Rockmore.”

Bruce laughed, “Ah, the sarge.  I remember when Denice worked with me,” I noticed how he said with, not for.  Bonnie’s husband John used ‘for’ and that’s why Bruce was his boss.  “He offered me his son.”

I laughed.  “He offered me their daughter.”

Bruce said, “Jocelyn? She’s gotta be 14 now.  I love Em, but say ‘no thanks.’”

“That’s amazing,” I said, “How do you keep track of all of them?”

Ellen smiled and said, “The same way you do.”  I must’ve looked at her because she said, “Don’t play modest, Jess.  I guarantee you that you remember everyone’s name and hometown and their kids.”

Jess looked at me, then her and said, “She’s got your number, sweetie.”

Ellen said, “Right now, how many people on this trip have you been with before?”

I smiled and looked at the ceiling.  “Fourteen, no wait, fifteen.  We were on a trip with Aaron Mack, but he wasn’t with Trish then.  He brought this brunette, Allison, who had big...” And then I remembered who we were with and who I was, “uh, personality.  Yeah, that’s it, personality.”

Bruce and Jess laughed, loudly.  Ellen smiled and said, “Big personality?  That’s the first thing Bruce notices.  We can be walking down the street and his head will turn whenever he sees a woman with a big,” and she grinned.  “Personality.  That’s my Bruce, a personality man.  The bigger, the better.  What about you, Dan?  Is it about personality?”

Jess smiled and said, “I’ve always been a morals man myself.  Nothing better than a woman with morals.”

I mumbled and smiled, “OK, I’ll shut up now.”

Ellen said, “We’re just playing.  You walked into that.  What about you, Jess?  Tell me about you, other than you love books and art.”

“Well,” I said.  “I’m from Rockland County, New York…”

Bruce interrupted me, “Nanuet Hotel or Martio’s?”  These were, in my opinion, the two best pizza places in the county but unless you were from there or spent time there, you wouldn’t know.

“Martio’s,” I said.  

“OK, you can leave now,” he said, with a grin.  “How can you like it better?”

“It’s as good and the lines are shorter,” I said, raising an eyebrow.  “More importantly, how would you know them?”

“I used to work for AHP.  I spent a lot of time at the Pearl RIver plant.”

“Ah, OK.  I was trying to figure out how a Bostonian would know good pizza,” and he smirked.  Bostonians swear by the pizza in the North End; everyone’s entitled to an opinion, even the wrong one.  “Anyway, I’m from New City.  My dad is a CPA.  My mom stayed home and took care of me and my sister Laura.  I went to the University of Wisconsin and then Columbia Law School.  I’ve been doing litigation since I graduated,” and I paused.  “But, that’s enough about us. I want to know about you two.”  I decided to go with something girly.  “How did you meet?”

Ellen smiled and said, “I hit him with my car.”

Jess went with, “I thought that usually comes after you’re married.”

Ellen gave him an ‘I like you’ look and said, “No, that’s when you do it on purpose.  I was driving on Boylston and wasn’t paying attention…”

Bruce chimed in, “She was putting on makeup….”

“To go defend my dissertation and, anyway, I may have been putting on makeup when I stopped short and rammed into the car in front of me….”

“And she was so upset and so sorry over a little dent.  I was ready to drive away and pay someone $50 to pull it but she said that we had to wait for the police and, by the time they got there, I had asked her out.  Twenty-three years later and we’re still here.”

I smiled, “That is such a sweet story,” and it was.  “So, what was your dissertation for?”

“A masters’ in clinical psychology,” she said, grinning.  “His mother has a PhD in it and I have my masters’.  Make of that what you will.”

Jess smiled and looked at Bruce.  “My mom’s a judge and,” she pointed at me.  “Hello?”  Well, technically, I am, or was, your husband, so it’s not a mommy problem.  It’s a mommy problem on psychotropic drugs but who’s splitting hairs?  

Bruce laughed, “You know what drives me nuts?  When they start talking shorthand and then look at you like you’re an idiot.”

I decided to play with him and hoped it didn’t backfire.  I put my hand on Bruce’s and said, “You should know.  That look has nothing to do with work.”  Ellen laughed, loudly.

Bruce looked at Ellen and said, “I see why you like her,” and then, looking at me, “wiseass.”  She liked me.  I knew she did, but I needed affirmation.  After that, the conversation flowed freely.  Jess and Bruce inevitably drifted to work topics although I noticed an interesting trend.  Bruce was asking Jess her opinion on field deployment.  Without boring you, deployment is where you decide to place representatives; the more populated a district, the more representatives although it’s more complicated than that.  It wasn’t Jess’ background but she was holding her own.

Ellen and I were talking about the museum.  She said, “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind Worth Avenue,” and she gave Bruce a look and said, with a smile, “Do not go there, Bruce.  But I would have been happy to spend all day at the museum.  I loved listening to you and the docent.  I wished I could have been fully involved but sometimes I swear it’s like a field trip.”

Jess laughed, “That’s just what Jessa said,” and she rubbed my knee under the table.  She did that before we switched; I never knew if it was affection or ‘shut up,’ so I went with ‘shut up.’  G-d knows I never did that before but this was her VP, her show.  “She said that she thought some of the women were sneaking off to get fake i.d.s and beer.”

Bruce laughed and said, “We did that on a trip to New York in high school.  Ah, Dan, you missed the fun times on 42nd.  Sorry, ladies.”  Well, technically, I missed them but who’s counting?

We had ordered appetizers, when another couple approached the table.  He was about 55, with salt and pepper hair, brown eyes.  6’2”, if I had to guess.  He was dressed in a navy suit that was clearly made for him, not off the rack and a light blue shirt.  He was with a woman, who was about 5’9”, 155 pounds, brown hair, green eyes and wearing a red dress, v neck, short sleeve and knee length.  She looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place her.  It was going to bother me until I did but resolved to focus.  Yup, if the lawyer thing failed, I was going to the police academy.

The man introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Greg Lyles.”  Greg Lyles was the president of the US division. Someone else would’ve been late. He was the president so he wasn’t late, we were early.  Jess stuck out her hand and, looking him in the eye, said, “Hi Sir.  I’m Dan Silverman, we met at the Praxal launch last year.”  I was impressed.  The old Jess would have been hyperventilating at the prospect of dinner with the boss, but not the new Jess.  I, on the other hand, was confused and nervous.  Why was the president of the division here and eating with us?  Or, more accurately, why were eating with him? “This is my wife, Jessica.  Jessica, this is Greg Lyles.”

I smiled and gently gripped his hand, “Very nice to meet you, sir.”

He laughed and said, “Call me Greg, you two.”  He turned to Dan and said, “I’ve been hearing a lot about you lately.  Your work on Xaldor is impressing a lot of people.”

Jess smiled and said, “Thank you.  That’s always nice to hear.  It’s been a team effort.  Everyone deserves credit.”  Bruce gave a small smile and an almost imperceptible nod.  I was still curious as to what was going on but everyone seemed to be glad we were there, so I let it ride.

Ellen turned to the other woman and I and said, “Jessica Silverman, this is Jillian Lyles.  Jillian Lyles, this is Jessica Silverman.”  We leaned in and gave each other a small peck on the cheek.  I kept racking my brain trying to remember why I knew her.  I knew we had never been on a trip with them, I’d remember that.  I just hoped my thoughts weren’t crossing my face.   

“It’s very nice to meet you, Jillian,” I said, still racking my brain.

Jillian smiled, “You too.  Ellen has told me all about you.  She said that you can speak intelligently on any topic.”

I debated making a joke like, “Speak yes, intelligent maybe,” but went with, “It’s easy to talk when you have someone interesting to talk to.”  Even though I knew Ellen would get it, I had found that my sense of humor tended to fall flat a lot on these trips.  

Jess, Greg and Bruce fell into work talk which was fine.  When you get a private audience with the boss and the boss’ boss, you use it. Jillian, Ellen and I began to talk amongst ourselves.  The more Jillian spoke, the more I was tortured. I recognized her voice but couldn’t remember where.  Eventually, I said, “I am so sorry, Jillian, but I feel like I’ve met you somewhere and I can’t figure out where.”

She smiled and turned to Ellen, “Did you tell her?”

Ellen laughed.  “No, but I told you she’d know you.  Jess, you are amazing.  Is there something you don’t know?”

Everyone at the table looked at me.  “OK, if there’s some inside joke here, let me in.  Please.”

Jillian said, in her best NPR voice, “I’m Jillian Robinson, NPR News.”

I smiled, “That’s it!  I knew I recognized you.  I love your work.  I used to listen to you,” and then I paused, realizing that the next part of the sentence could go either way, “when I was in college.”

She laughed, “Well, I opened myself up to that.”

I backpedaled, poorly.  “Well, it was a really long time ago,” which I realized probably made her feel even older.  “Anyway, I remember a story you did on Latrell Sprewell.”  Everyone kept looking at me.  “OK, so Spree turned down a contract from the T-Wolves on the grounds that he needed to feed his family and Jillian did this whole story on how much you could do with the $14.6 million he turned down.  It was so amazing.  That and the story on the Food Bank and how many people they could feed with the money.  It was amazing.”  Jess told me later that I was gesturing passionately while I spoke.  I felt everyone staring at me.  “Well, now, I feel silly.”

Greg smiled.  “You have a fan, Jill.”  I wanted to sink below the table.  “I’m amazed Jessica.  How old is that story? 10, 12 years?”

I regained my composure.  “It was a great story,” I said.  I turned to Jillian, “It really was.  I always wanted to write a story like that.”

She smiled.  “Now it’s my turn to blush.  Are you a journalist?”

I blushed again.  I must’ve looked like an idiot or someone in the throes of fever.  “Hardly.  I wrote for the paper in college, but journalist is not a term I would use.”  It wasn’t.  I covered student government meetings and protests against the Iraq war on campus.  When I was a senior, I covered the state government.  But I was not a journalist.  I was a kid with a laptop.

“And what do you do now?”

“I’m an attorney, a litigator.  What about you?  I haven’t heard you on NPR in a while.”

“I’m in corporate communications now,” she said.  “After I had my second child, I decided to go inside for a while.  Occasionally, I’ll write something for HuffPo, but not really.  Given Greg’s job, it’s best that I lay off politics for awhile,” she said, with a wistful, if not rueful, look in her eye.

“So, what sort of things does that involve?”  Once she began to describe her job, the conversation inevitably drifted back to Stone vs non-Stone.  I kept reminding myself to listen to Jillian and Ellen, and not talk too much; I was the junior guy’s wife and needed to defer, for Jess’ sake.  Well, that and I wanted them to like me.  Jillian told us her job was mostly writing press releases for companies and managing media relations for hedge funds.  She couldn’t work in pharma, for obvious reasons.  She had two sons, Jack and Eric, who were 17 and 12.  Jack was a senior and was considering Wisconsin.

“Well,” I said, “if he has any questions, please have him call me.  I had a great time there.”  

Jill said, “Thanks.  I’ll let him know.”  I knew he would never call and she would forget the offer, but it was one of those things that you said, like asking people ‘how are you.’  You didn’t really care and they didn’t care if you did, but it was common courtesy.

We ordered dinner and Greg ordered a couple of bottles of expensive Merlot.  I didn’t want to drink (Emma needed that Ivy League degree) but knew that, politically, I couldn’t order club soda unless I wanted to go down that road with Ellen.  I liked her but I wasn’t there yet.  So, I took small sips and made it look like I was drinking it.  Besides, everyone was drinking but no one was going to get drunk.  These were people who knew what a work dinner was.

Greg, Bruce and Jess were talking about interviews when Greg turned to me and said, “OK, counselor.  Give me an interview question you’d ask.”  Well, I was asked once when I lost my virginity (I work with construction, and was told that I better be able to handle some interesting people) but decided that was NSFW and didn’t really tell you anything.  By the way, the answer is 17.  To Angela Maresca.  Before I puked on her.  I went with, “What was your first job and what did you learn there that helps you in your current position?”

He smiled, “Interesting.  So what’s the answer?”

“I worked as a wait...ress at a country club near my house.”  I had been a waiter but that was seventeen years and one penis ago.  “I learned how to deal with people.  Not in some vague Miss USA garbage way, but I learned that sometimes people will be irrational and nasty and you may not want to deal with them, but you have to.  And this was a country club where people I knew from high school belonged and I had to deal with that too.”

Jillian smiled, “Meaning?”

“Meaning that high schools girls can be, um, challenging.” She and Ellen laughed. “And maybe not so nice to someone they know who’s serving them, but you don’t have the luxury of getting angry.  You just do your job the best you can.”  I didn’t get shit from the girls; they flirted with me so I’d give them free stuff, although they didn’t reciprocate nearly enough.  It was the boys who would do things like spill stuff on purpose so we had to clean it up.  

Bruce laughed, “That was a very mature attitude.”

I smiled.  “You asked what I learned from it.  Then?  Then I hated them with every fiber of my being and wanted to spit in their food,” and everyone laughed.  

Bruce said, “Did you ever?”

I smiled and said, “Let’s just say that rule Number 1 is don’t mean to be your waitress.  Rule Number 2, if you are, don’t eat the coleslaw,” which wasn’t true.  Everyone fantasized about it, but no one would do it.  “Seriously though, what I learned is not every day at work is going to be fun.  The client isn’t always right but they’re the client and you have to figure out to make them happy while doing the best job you can for them.  OK, what about you?”

Greg smiled.  “Country club, too, except I was a range rat.  You know, drive the little cart recovering golf balls while guys like Bruce here aim at me.  What did I learn from that?  Life is full people aiming golf balls at you, the key is to try and avoid getting hit and not letting it faze you when you do.”

I smiled and said, “So what was the last golf ball that hit you?”  Jillian looked at me and gave me a quick smile that felt like an affirmation.

Greg smiled, “The last time I went to Congress to testify on drug prices.  That was probably as close to being in the cart as I’ve been for a long time,” and then we went around the table, talking about first jobs.  Ellen worked as a secretary for an HVAC company and said that the training she got there gave her more insight into human behavior than her clinical training.  Jillian worked at Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream and Bruce worked as a plumber’s helper and said, “The value of a dollar.  Well, that and some days, you’re just going to be knee deep in..” and he smiled.

Greg smiled at me and said, “I have to remember those questions, counselor. What made you think of them?”

I thought for a second.  “You can learn about someone from their first job and how they saw it.  I mean, for most people, it’s a job not a career and so you have to think about what you learned.  And it’s open-ended.”  

Greg smiled knowingly, “Open-ended?”

“Open-ended.  The first question doesn’t matter.  The second answer does.  Lawyer’s trick,” and I smiled, somewhere between sweetly and sarcastically.  I wanted to affirm that I was someone too, that I could be in many rooms.  Then I thought about it and realized that I was Jessa, not Dan.  This was Jess’ chance to shine, not mine.

He looked at Jess and said, “You better stay on her good side…”

Jillian smiled. “Not bad, Jess.  Do you mind if I call you that?”   

No, of course, I don’t.  You’re the boss’ boss’ wife.  Call me what you want.  “Not at all, that’s what everyone calls me.”  Except Jess, who looked at me with a smile.  She knew that I was her Jessa.

She said, “That was a good question, and a better follow up.  Somewhere in there lies a journalist waiting to come out.”

“I wish,” I said, with a smile.  “I would’ve liked that.”

She smiled, “So, why didn’t you?”

I looked up at the ceiling, still no answer.  “I don’t know.  I mean, when I graduated, only the Journal had a pay wall.  Everyone else said ‘information wants to be free.’”  

She smiled, “And if information is free, guess who doesn’t get paid?”

I said, “Exactly.”  That wasn’t it exactly.  I didn’t try and be a reporter because everyone told me that I should go to law school, that I could make a good living.  They didn’t tell me that I’d be graduating into 2009, but I got a good job that paid well.  I didn’t really think about it until now.  “So, armed with my English degree, here I am.”

“Well, if you ever want to write, let me know.  Send me some clips.  It’d have to be for free though.”  

“Thanks,” I said, with a smile.  Jess squeezed my knee.  I knew this was a good squeeze, because it wasn’t too hard.  “I think I’d like that.”  Ellen gave me a little smile.

Before dessert, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and Ellen came with me.  I was at the mirror checking my makeup and she said, “You’re doing great, Jess.”  I didn’t realize that she was paying attention like that but, in retrospect, I’m not sure why I was surprised.  She had been playing the game a long time.

I smiled.  “Thanks.  I’m having a great time.  I hope I’m not talking too much.”

She took my hand.  “Would you stop it?  I never thought I’d meet someone more neurotic than me.  You are doing terrific and so is Dan.”

“Thanks.  I really hope we didn’t horn in on your dinner with Greg and Jillian.”

She looked at me and said seriously.  “I invited you, remember?  I wanted you here.  I like talking to you and so do Greg and Jill.  I’ve known Greg for twenty years and he likes you, which is good for Dan.”

“Thanks.  I mean, do I really matter?”  She looked at me.  “Sorry, I mean I come from a law firm.  Everyone could love you but what matters is numbers.  If I bill 2,500 hours, I could scream at people and be partner.  If I bill 1,500, I could be everyone’s friend and I’m gone.”

She smiled.  “It’s the same here but, all things being equal, if people like you, it helps Dan a lot.  No one wants to be around some people….so what happened exactly?”

I smiled sweetly, thinking about what Julie told me and thinking how I was here and Bonnie wasn’t.  “Nothing.  Nothing happened.  Someone who shall remain nameless,” and Ellen laughed.  “Said something, someone else reacted in a way that she would prefer to walk back…”

Ellen said, “I heard that second someone didn’t do anything wrong.”

I smiled, knowing that I was seen as the aggrieved party.  “She didn’t, but she would still handle it differently now.  And she found out who her friends were and she’s glad for that.  Anyway, it’s done and the second someone put it out of her mind.  Seriously, how did you hear?”

She sighed.  “I told you it’s like a field trip.  People like you and what’s most important is the people who need to like you like you,” and she pointed towards the door.  “I like you.”

I blushed.  “I like you too.  I’m sorry to be all neurotic.”

She laughed, “Please.  Ask Bruce how bad I was on the way home from our first big dinner.  You’re doing terrific.  Keep it up,” and she gave me a hug.  We walked out of the bathroom and I felt great.  I was doing well and I was doing well for Jess.

We got back to the table.  Bruce, Jess and Greg stood, which struck me as old-fashioned but I would’ve done it.  It felt good to be on the receiving end of it.  Greg said, “I hope you don’t mind, but we’d like to borrow Dan tomorrow morning for a round.”

I smiled, figuring this was a very good thing.  If they were going to fire him, they just would and they wouldn’t have asked us to dinner and yes, I’m neurotic, why do you ask?   “Of course.  I’ll find something to keep me out of trouble.  But, when you’re going from second to third, hold the clutch down halfway.  Otherwise, it stalls out.”

Greg, with the practiced timing of a good salesman, said, with a smile, “I said Dan, not van.”

I smiled.  “I heard you the first time,” I said, to laughter.

Bruce said, “I had a Datsun B-210 wagon like that.  And a girlfriend.  Couldn’t get either started in the morning.” and Ellen threw a napkin at his head.

We took a separate cab back to the hotel for the same reason and got back around 10:00 PM.  We came into the lobby and ran into Jane, Courtney and everyone and went into the bar for a drink.  I was back on club soda; when asked, I said, “I had a little too much tonight.”  I had had one glass of wine at dinner but figured no one would ask beyond that and they didn’t.  We all sat and talked.  I started thinking about everything.  This time, the last year, we would have been sitting in the bar with everyone, but the conversation wouldn’t have been the same.  It would’ve been some stilted conversation about sports, while Jess pretended, poorly, to like the wives.  Now, we were both enjoying ourselves.  We certainly wouldn’t have had dinner with the bosses.  Ellen would’ve been polite to me, as she was to everyone, but I would’ve been eminently forgettable.  I wouldn’t have met Jillian.  Did everyone like me or were they just amazed that a girl knew things?  I know I was the same person as I was before, but was I better or was this just the triumph of low expectations?

Around 12:00, the crowd started to break up.  Everyone went to their rooms.  We got out of the elevator and I took off my shoes, “Oh, that feels so much better,” I said.  “They look good but damn they hurt.” I smiled sweetly, “Foot rub, honey?”

Jess smiled.  “You are such a girl, Jessa,” she said, as she slid in the key card.

We walked in and Jess went to take off her jacket.  I looked down and there was a note under the door, addressed to me.  It’s interesting that Jess didn’t notice it.  Maybe she was becoming more like me every day.  I opened it:

“In case you were wondering if you matter, you do.  They loved you.  See you tomorrow,” and it was signed with a heart and “E.”   I smiled and put it in my purse.

We sat on the bed and Jess rubbed my feet.  “That feels so good,” I said.  “Dinner was fun.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “It was.  I can’t believe Greg was there.  That was weird.”

“You did amazing.  I was so proud of you.  He likes you, Bruce likes you.”

“You think?” she said, in a way that said she knew, which surprised and excited me.  The old Jess would’ve said, “I don’t think so,” or said, “you think,” really wondering about the answer.  So, would the old Dan.

“Did I do OK?” I said, looking at her.

“You were great,” she said, “They loved you.  When you got up to go the bathroom, Jillian told me that to make sure you sent her clips, that she expected that she’d love them.  And Ellen wanted you there.  Seriously, though, are you OK?  You seemed a little out of it in the bar.”

“Just thinking,” I said, as she switched from rubbing my feet to my shoulders.  “That feels great.  Thank you, Dan.”

She smiled.  “Don’t think, Jessa.  It only hurts the ball club.  Seriously, though, what’s up?”

“Just thinking about everything.  Dinner.  The trip.  This year.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” I said, turning to face her.  “How great you are.  How much you’ve grown.  You’re a real leader.  Ramona said it and Greg and Bruce just validated it.  Everyone respects you.  They really do.  And you’re not a dick about it.  John Chapman’s people listen to him because they have to, because they’re afraid.  People listen to you because you lead by example.  Seriously, I keep saying it because I’m proud of you. And so is,” and I pointed at my stomach, “the zygote,” and then I tapped my head three times, as if to knock on wood.

Jess smiled, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”  I pursed my lips and blew air as if to say, “please,” but she said, “No, I’m serious.  I’ve been thinking too.  Everyone loves you.  Jane, Courtney,” and then she paused, “Ellen, Jill, everyone.  They’ve all told me how great you are.  How smart, how funny, which I already knew.   And I’ve seen how much you care.  And I figured it out.”

I was confused.  “And?

“They’re not Barbies to you.  They’re women.  They’re people.  You relate to them, better than I ever did, then I ever could.”

I got a little nervous.  “Are you saying you think I wanted to be a girl?”

She took my hands.  “No no no.  I never thought that and still don’t.  You’re who you always were but you couldn’t be you when you were you because they wouldn’t let you.  But, by being me, you get to be you.  Does that make sense?”

“Kind of  But what about you?  You don’t want to be you?  I mean like me?”

“I am me.  I’m more me now than I ever was then.”  Now I was thoroughly confused which must have shown because she said, “I never wanted to be a guy.  I liked being a girl.  I just never liked the games that went with it.”

“I don’t either,” I said and I didn’t.  I was like Sarah in that respect.  I just wanted everyone to get along.

She smiled.  “I’ve watched you.  You don’t play games, because you don’t have to.  You’re just one of those women who gets it.  No one plays the game with you because you’re genuine.  People like you.  They like Jessa, so they don’t play the game with you.  Since this all happened, I realized that I always related better to guys.  They don’t play games.  I mean I had girlfriends but half the time, they were frenemies like Lori.  I was a guy’s girl.”

I thought about it.  I had close guy friends but who did I turn to?  Michelle and Sammie, they were my closest friends.  “What does that make me?  A girl’s guy?  A girl’s girl?”  I wasn’t upset about the implication, but just wondered.

She kissed me and said, “We’re us.  We always were and we always will be.  I just know that you’re a better me than me.  And you were a better you than me.  But I’m a better me as you than I ever was as me, y’ know?”

I laughed, “He’s on third base.”

“I’m serious,” she said.  “Everything I’ve done, I’ve accomplished is because of you.  It was before and it is now.  By being you, you made me better.  I love you, Jessa.”

I started to cry, stupid hormones.  “I love you too, Dan.”

We made love and we went to bed.  The next morning, Dan got up and met Bruce and Greg for golf.  I laid in bed for a while and read, then decided to go for a run on the beach.  I wasn’t in the mood for the gym today.  We’d be heading back to the cold tomorrow and decided to take advantage of one last day of sun.  Forget April.  February is the cruelest month, at least in New York.  I was stretching against the steps down to the beach when I heard, “Hey, Jess.  Headed for a run?”

I turned around to see Jillian.  “Oh hi, Jillian.  I figured I’d get a run in while they were at golf.  You?”

She smiled, “Same.  I like running down here.  No,” and she looked at the hotel and rolled her eyes.  “Crowds.”

I smiled and said, “If you want to be alone, I 100% get that.  I’ll wait until you’re down a ways to start.”

She laughed.  “I said crowds, not you.  Come on,” she said and we started to run down the beach.  “I had a great time last night.  You guys are terrific.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “We enjoyed it too.  I hope I didn’t talk your ear off or embarrass you with that story.”

She laughed, “Please.  Yes, Greg busted my chops about you remembering and,” and she mocked stabbed herself in the chest, “being in college when it happened, but I was not in the least embarrassed.  And you talked the right amount. I see why Ellen likes you so much.”

I blushed.  “I like her too.  She’s terrific.  I’m glad we got to spend the time together.”

“She is too.  So am I.  I am serious though about writing.  If you don’t mind an unpaid job to start, let me know.  I have to see the clips but I can tell from your conversation, you’d could be very good at it.  Ellen can give you my email.”

I smiled, “It would be good to engage that part of my brain again,” I said.  “Thanks.”  I realized what Jess said yesterday.  None of this would have happened to Dan.  Dan would be the guy running on the beach with his earbuds in.  Dan would’ve been the guy in the corner talking about sports at the cocktail party at Marty and Evelyn’s.  Dan may have made partner, but he wouldn’t be here.  Jessa was.

We ran for a while, talking about her favorite place to cover (Brussels) and her least favorite (Springfield, Illinois), the demands of Greg’s job and her kids and just life in general.  She told me that her kids were the best thing that she had ever done and asked about our plans.  All these months later, and I was still amazed at how forward women were on this topic.  Your uterus was for public discussion.

I just smiled and said, “Soon.  I’m ready, I think.”  Hopefully, nine months less three days, but who’s counting?  

She smiled, and said, “When it happens, try and enjoy every minute.  It goes too fast.  One day, you’ll look up and your 2 year old will be 6 feet tall and looking at colleges.”  She stopped, took a deep breath and said, “Greg really likes Dan, by the way.  He says he has real potential.”

I smiled.  “Well, that’s always good to hear, thanks.”  I joked, “I keep telling him that when it comes to cleaning up after himself, too.”

She laughed, “Good luck with that.  Three men.  My house smells like a locker room and looks like a bomb went off.”

We finished the run and she said, “I’m going to stay down here for a few minutes, sorry.”

I smiled, “Crowds?” I said, making quotes.  “I didn’t see you.”

I went upstairs, showered and was sitting having coffee with Ellen, when Bruce, Greg and Jess came back.  Jess had a huge grin on her face, as did Bruce and Greg.  Bruce looked at me, swatted Jess on the ass and said, “Go over.”  He gave Ellen a small smile and a nod.

Jess came over and said almost giddily, “Hi Ellen.  Excuse us, but can I borrow Jess for a second?”

Ellen smiled knowingly and said, “Of course.  I’ll see you in a little while, Jess.”

I smiled, “What?  What’s so important?”

She grinned and took my hand.  “What is so important is I was just offered the job of assistant VP of operations for the US.”

I hugged him, “That is so amazing!  What?  How?  Huh?  Tell me.”  Over Jess’ shoulder, I could see Bruce and Greg smiling.

“Well, Dave Raymond is retiring, so Bruce is going to be the senior VP now and he needs a second in command, like a chief of staff and he offered it to me today.  I told him that I had to talk to you.”

“Are you an idiot?  Go over and accept.  Now!”  I felt so proud of her.  I realized that I may never have felt that before.  I may have congratulated her when things went well and commiserated when they went poorly, but I don’t know that I felt pride.  Maybe it was my male ego and maybe neuroses, but I realized it now.  I was proud and wanted to make sure that she knew that.

“It’s longer hours and more travel...but I get a 25% raise,” she said, the grin never leaving his face.

“Hello?  Is this a negotiating thing?  Because unless that’s it, get up and go.  Now!”

“What about…?”  

She didn’t have to finish the sentence.  I knew what she meant.  “We will be fine,” I said, actively stopping myself from touching my stomach in front of Ellen.  “This is a huge opportunity and, if you’re not going over, I, as your attorney, will,” and I got up to walk over.   Jess got up and we walked over together.

Jess looked at Bruce and said, “On advice of my attorney, I accept.  I’m looking forward to it.”

Bruce looked at me and said, “You have a very smart attorney.  I strongly recommend following her advice..often,” and he leaned over and gave me a kiss.  “How about a drink to celebrate?”

We walked to the pool bar.  Jess was talking about the job with Bruce and Greg.  I could see everyone looking at them and then us, trying to figure out why the HQ guy was with the VP and the President.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jane who raised an eyebrow and smiled.  I mouthed “later.”

Ellen looked at me and said, “Welcome aboard,” with a smile.  I was aboard.  On what I was aboard, I had no idea.  But I was aboard.

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