I sat staring vacantly at May Yong as she spoke, while I sipped vodka and tried to appear interested. Across the table from me were my hosts at one of the largest law firms in New York. They had rolled out the red carpet for me this week. A town car picked me up, they catered food and liquor, and their conference table was large enough to land an airplane on. Four partners were spending their Friday night sitting in this office welcoming me to New York, and all I could do right now was stare vacantly at May Xu as she delivered her pitch.
My phone was on the table, directly between me and May. I had not checked my texts in a while. I wondered if Diana had texted me. I missed her when I traveled. Text messages were a proxy for “being there” for two people who were so busy that they desperately needed technical proxies. I wanted her to be here.
An art lawyer in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, William Brixton enjoys chatting, writing, and text messaging in his spare time. He may be reached through comments to this post.
I had no illusions that these New York lawyers were hosting me because I am so great. It is only that, in this economy, every firm in town needed referrals, even a big time downtown NYC law firm. By some cosmic quirk, I controlled the work, so they went out of their way to welcome me. The limo, the room, the food – all of that paled in comparison to the introduction that had now been made for me. May Xu was perhaps the most well known American lawyer in China. She postponed a dinner engagement to greet me. It was their gift to me for referring a big case to them. I gave them a case and they gave me this introduction. If May liked me, she could bring me into her international deals, which is no small thing for a small law firm like mine.
When I looked at May, I looked at my phone. It was in my line of sight. Fortunately, she had that Asian habit of dropping her eyes when she talked, so I could do the same. She did it out of habit. I did it to remind myself that I wanted to check messages. I wanted the closeness, even now as she spoke.
God, I was tired. Ten hours of meetings were already under my belt today. This was to be my last, and most important one, today. Even so, none of that really mattered right then. None of that was on my mind. All I really thought about today was the argument I had with Diana two nights ago.
It was nothing really. Just a simple mis-communication; the result of a few too many drinks and the ambiguities of electronic messaging. Honestly, it was hard for me to described in detail exactly what it was I had done wrong, it seemed like such a small thing at the time, but the unreturned phone calls and paucity of text messages during the last 18 hours told me that I had committed a major sin. Why was she taking this so hard? I said I was sorry, didn’t I? What more could I do?
May was a good ten minutes into her introduction before I could bring my mind back to the meeting. There was a reason I fought for this moment. One call from May could land me a deal that would pay a year’s salary of one of my associates. This was important. I needed to be in the present. My phone taunted me, and dared me to try.
This was not the first fight Diana and I had had. The first one was when I wanted her to go biking with me, and she politely declined. I said “well then, let’s just say our goodbyes now.” I hardly knew her then – what had gotten into me? Even though our friendship was young, I felt the pain of loss almost as soon as the text left my screen, and I often wondered where that burst of emotion came from. It was absolutely not like me. I recanted soon after and it took a long time to regain her trust. I vowed never to lose it again. That was almost exactly a year ago.
I knew May, but she did not know me. We both worked in New York in the late 1980s. At 30, she was the youngest partner in her 500 lawyer firm despite being a woman in an Asian practice. She was a big deal even then, and I remembered the media coverage even though it was 20 years ago. New York is like that – ageless. All that matters is whether you can produce. When I was 30, I reported to 27 year old prodigies, and 50 year olds reported to me. It was weird that way. I soon burnt out on NYC and, after three years of 80 hour work weeks, I abandoned my hopes of making it in this town, and went as far west as I could. I secretly hoped that I might return and get a second chance at it. This was my second chance, and I was blowing it.
We were a good 15 minutes into the meeting and I had said nothing interesting. I needed to establish rapport with her, and fast. How could I have come here so unprepared? What had I been doing these past two days?
Diana had been too hard on me. She really had and I probably should have told her that. All day long I thought about telling her that – but would that be for her benefit? Or for mine? And hadn’t I done enough damage for the sake of my own selfish benefit this week? I need to think of Diana’s feelings now. It was time to heal. My issues could wait. I wasn’t sure whether my phone could.
I noticed that May had stopped talking and was looking at me expectedly. The other lawyers in the room were also looking at me. I had been asked a question, and they expected an answer. For my daydreaming I did not hear the question, but it did not matter because all I really needed was an opportunity to speak. Despite her excellent English, it was not her first language, and I made a mental note to pause two seconds for every six syllables. I knew she would unconsciously appreciate and be drawn in by the speech pattern.
“That outfit,” I said to May. It looks very Asian. “I am guessing that you bought that in China. Do you often find that you have one foot in each country?
Observation, Comment, Question.
Her eyes lit up for a moment. She probably found it refreshing to not get the same tired legal questions. In fact, she said that she cobbled her outfit together while on a business trip, and took a particular pride in not simply taking a designer’s brand. “Thank God for vanity,” I thought. And predictability.
“There was a time when women had a tougher time of it with Chinese clients,” I followed up. “A person has to be careful about dress, custom and culture. Do you see more women in the Chinese business community?”
Observation, Comment, Question. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Thankfully, I was on autopilot now.
Unexpectedly, the light fell from her eyes. “As I said earlier…..” she dryly started to reply, and I realized that she had already covered the obligatory nod to the importance of culture in Asian business. I had not been paying attention. Where was my mind today?
So far today, I had not received one single text from Diana. I could not help noticing that this may have been the first time in a year that happened. Was she really angry with me, or really hurt? Maybe I should send flowers, or would that be cliché? I really wanted her to know that I meant no harm. I wanted her to know that it hurt me as much as her, more in fact, to offend her. How could I let her know that? How could she not know that?
May’s lips had stopped moving again. That meant it was my turn to talk and convince her that I was worthy of a referral. My next words would be very important. May was not going to wait around all night for me to prove myself. This was the moment I had waited 20 years for, and all I could think about was the cell phone sitting between us like our own private Great Wall. If there were no text, it meant that Diana was angry, and I would feel terrible, but if there were a text, that would mean that I was forgiven, and I would feel great. Which would it be – terrible? Or great? The suspense was killing me.
That was the problem with Diana. We were so involved with each other that little problems seemed huge. The plus side of our intimacy was that we could enjoy a quiet café together, and we could cry in front of each other with no shame or reservation. That kind of closeness is rare in life, and it was terrific! It justified all that I was going through now. If by some cosmic justice things would all “even out” in the end, I was due for some big highs today. Did I have a text message waiting?
My hour with May was coming to a close, and I had not made an impression. A lot was riding on this – 20 years had led up to this meeting, and I found that I had no game.
Sometimes a guy just has no rhythm. Some days a person is just tired. Some days a person’s timing will be off. And some days a person has carelessly hurt someone they care about and simply cannot be in the present no matter what the stakes. The solution on those days is to retreat and regroup. It was time to bail.
“May,” I said. “I know that you have other pressing engagements, so I wonder if we could continue this meeting in the morning?”
She paused to consider that. It was late, but did she really want to have to do this again tomorrow?
I added that I would only have 20 minutes or so in the morning before my flight. Mentioning the time constraint was important, since she might not want to meet with me if it would eat too much into her day.
“Yes.” She said as she stood up to leave. “Let’s meet tomorrow morning.” I complimented her again on her outfit as she left. It really did look Asian. Only a few women could pull that off. I wasn’t sure whether she was one of them but, no matter, as I would have my “day two.” As I watched her walk away, I sipped my vodka tonic and contemplated that I should be feeling relieved right now. I should be feeling good. My phone was staring at me. It was time to check my text messages.