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  • Writer's pictureDonna Gerard

Lesson Learned

I thought that after I finished college I would get a chance to be wild and free. I’d get a job at an advertising agency in the city and spend my days in a nice office, go to meetings where we’d brainstorm ideas for commercials, and earn enough money for my own little apartment with IKEA furniture and a slightly boho vibe. I’d thrift a trendy wardrobe, go out to dinner with the new friends I’d make, and plan occasional weekend getaways to beaches and ski slopes. I saw myself learning to cook, jogging along the Hudson River, and keeping up with the latest books and movies. Instead I am scrubbing a smelly microwave caked with years of grime, bacteria, and grossness.

I’m not saying my situation isn’t my fault. It was definitely my fault. I was really stupid. I will get out of this mess (literally), but for now I am stuck working off a debt in total squalor.

After college I got my dream job at an advertising agency in the city and started to spend my days in a nice office where I go to meetings to brainstorm ideas for commercials. I’m one of four people in an apartment with shared rent. I’m the top bunk in the second bedroom and rights to the bottom rack of the small closet that I shared with Jill. If I manage to redeem myself at the agency, I figure I will be able to get my own apartment within six months, and could plan my first getaway by Christmas.

It was February first. The whole team, all seven of us, got called to a meeting. We were getting a new client who would meet with each of us, talk to us, and review our work. This client, an internationally known food conglomerate, loved the projects our team had designed and executed for other clients and would choose one of us to head up our own team at the food company to the tune of a LOT of money. I had dollar signs in my eyes and little hope of being chosen because I was the newest hire and was still taking Marketing 101 when much of the team’s track record was being established. Always an optimist, I thought that if I was charming, eloquent, and came to the table with industry knowledge, fresh ideas, and enthusiasm, I might stand a chance.

The next day Brent showed up and basically just hung out around the office. He wandered around asking us what we were working on, asked to see our sketches, and chatted. Literally we just had random conversations about whatever. When he came by me, he pulled up a chair, looked at me with his oceanic blue eyes, and started asking me what I generally do weekends. He was wearing a light blue button down with black pants and black loafers. He somehow made this very basic outfit look like it belonged on a magazine cover. His blonde hair contrasted with his deep tan skin. He looked like he’d just spent a week in the Caribbean. Maybe he did.

Wanting to impress, I didn’t think I should tell him the truth. After work on Friday I took a nap. I ate three slices of plain pizza and watched four episodes of Bridgerton. I spent Saturday morning at the laundromat followed by five more episodes of Bridgerton. I was on the phone with my mother for an hour, and then I helped my roommate Sven set rodent traps around the apartment. I went to a bar with Sven. On the way home we accidentally got off the subway train a stop too early and had to walk half a mile home. On Sunday I went for a run, scrolled on my phone, watched some more Bridgerton, scrolled, ate leftover lasagna, and played word games on my phone until I fell asleep.

By the time I finished telling Brent my polished version of the weekend, he had reason to think I was an amateur chef, artist, and athlete with a deep appreciation of literature and film. He may have also been under the impression that I had traveled throughout Europe in my teens. Actually my family visited my dying grandfather in France when I was 13. We had to transfer planes in London. Does that count as visiting England? At any rate it sounded better than the truth.

A week later I had an in-office lunch meeting with Brent and two of my co-workers, Collin and Marci. The conference table held sandwiches, a plate of cookies, and an assortment of drinks. The four of us settled in at the conference table and I noticed that there was a teapot, pretty porcelain cups, and some other stuff on the side table. The conversation quickly escalated way out of my league. It seems Collin is a world traveler, as is Brent. The two of them were comparing notes on Australia, Germany, and Bali. Marci chimed in when France and Japan came up. I sat there smiling politely and hoping they would forget I was in the room. My hopes were dashed when Brent asked my opinion on some place whose name I didn’t recognize but is obviously well-known by the whole rest of the world. I tried to look thoughtful for a moment and managed to mumble, “Honestly, I don’t really remember.” Brent nodded and tactfully moved the conversation forward.

A thousand years later, when the sandwiches were done, I hoped we’d get onto some business talk. But Marci, who is ten years older than me,has the body of a supermodel, Harvard credentials, and three advertising awards under belt, got up and went to the teapot. It became apparent that Marci and Brent, in their prior conversations, found they had a shared passion for tea culture. I didn’t even know that tea had a culture beyond occupying the little white bags in the smallest mushroom shaped canister on my parents’ kitchen counter. She brewed some loose tea that she had picked up on her vacation to India. The engraved bronze pot was beautiful, as were the cups decorated with elephants that were decorated with flowers. She told a story about how this tea was said to have healing properties for a variety of ailments, and was grown by a renowned horticulturist hired by a maharaja two centuries ago. Brett was positively captivated by her conversation and the way she made tea. I sipped the tea and shoved a cookie into my mouth in one bite, trying desperately to hatch a plan to impress Brent.

The conversation finally turned to the new ad campaign. The particular food to be advertised was cookies, as in the cookies on the plate on the table in front of us. Collin picked up a cookie off the plate, examined it carefully, and took a bite. He tasted, considered, and tasted again.

“I would present this as a luxury dessert, perhaps something served at a state dinner. Maybe there’s a tense moment at the table but the tension is broken when the waiter sets down a tray of cookies. The diplomats leave their conversation, suddenly diverted at a chance to get a Delicieux.”

Brent considered what Collin was saying and nodded. “I can see that. Upscale, not a kid product, but bringing out the kid in the adult. Okay. Samantha?”

I swallowed my mouthful of tea. “Yeah. I was thinking of something playful. Maybe a cartoon of how Delicieux are made. Goodness from our kitchens to yours. Then show a multigenerational family gathered together enjoying the cookies.” I immediately hated everything about this stupid idea.

Brent stared past me to the window. “I think we are going for something a little more sophisticated, adult. Then again, your idea might widen the appeal to kids, because of the cartoon images, and to families. We’ll consider it. Marci?”

Marci got up from her chair and sat on the corner of the side table. She crossed her long legs, bringing them into Brent’s focus. She picked up a bottle of Perrier. “Imagine it’s a glass of champagne.” She held a cookie between her long fingers and slowly brought it to her lips. “Come on in. It’s time to celebrate.”

Brent stared. And stared. Collin did the same.

“Wow. Marci. A sexy cookie. That’s quite an idea.” He walked over to the window and looked out at the other skyscrapers. He finally returned to us. “I’m only here to pick the team leader. Once the team is assembled, someone else will approve the actual ad. But I don’t see how that wouldn’t be in the running.”

He talked some more, but I was busy stewing. Marci had this job for sure. There was nothing I could do about it. Then I had the worst idea of my life.

When Marci and Collin went back to their desks, I stayed behind. I couldn’t compete with Marci’s advertising sex appeal, but maybe I could use sex appeal in real life. I decided the only solution was to seduce him.

“Marci really came up with a winning idea. But maybe, rather than have the main character invite the audience in, she should have a man in the room with her.” I picked up a cookie and put it to his lips. I stood inches away and looked into his eyes. “Come on in. It’s time to celebrate.”

Brent backed his chair away from me. “I think that’s something to consider in another conference room. Thank you for attending, Samantha.” Then he left the room. He left so quickly that he bumped into the lady who was coming to clean up the room. I was still holding the cookie where his mouth had been.

The next day Connie, the big boss, called me into her office. Without rehashing the pathetic details of the conversation, I thought I was getting fired, but I’m suspended without pay for one month and I have to take an online course on sexual harassment and get counseling. Because of my “youth and inexperience,” because Brent “expressed concern that I would debase myself for this job,” and because I have “demonstrated great promise,” I am to be given another chance. Angela was actually very nice to me. I, of course, burst out hysterically crying, apologizing, and explaining my actions with minimal coherence. Then I started sobbing even harder because everyone would know what happened. But, as it turned out, Brent would be leaving this morning after announcing who would be going with him to lead the new project. I was supposed to stay until the end of the day and act like nothing was wrong. On Monday morning I would start my suspension, but I had to “mention” to people that I would be spending the next month furthering my education as part of my professional development plan. So she suggested I take an advertising class in case anyone had questions upon my return.

I basically spent the next hour in the bathroom waiting for my ugly-cry face to calm down. I put on extra makeup and went to the conference room for the big announcement. Brent presented Monica with a bouquet of tulips and the opportunity of a lifetime. I stole a glance at Marci. She looked disgusted and left the room as soon as we were adjourned. She pretty much stayed at her desk and didn’t talk to anyone all day, except maybe for Collin. From a distance I could see him approach her desk. She didn’t look up and he left very quickly.

Before he left, Brent sat by my desk. I didn’t know whether to smile nonchalantly or scowl at him as my stomach clenched in a knot.

“I hope you’re not too mad at me,” he said in a very low voice.

I looked up at him. He looked sad.

“I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable. I wasn’t thinking, but I didn’t mean anything by it. I know I looked like a jerk.”

No, Samantha, not a jerk. You looked like a very young woman who wanted a crack at a job you’re not ready for and followed the wrong lead to get it.”

“The wrong lead?”

“You thought Marci had a great idea, probably based on my reaction to it. I thought she had a winner too, until I saw your follow up. You made me rethink my response and I thank you for that.”

“Why did you go to Angela?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have. I probably should have come to you. But I kind of panicked and maybe did the wrong thing. If anyone had come into the room, it would have looked bad for both of us. In honesty, I needed to cover my own ass.”

I hadn’t even thought of that. It could have looked like he was coming on to me. “Oh my God, Brent. I didn’t even think. I’m so sorry. “

“Samantha, in the couple of weeks I’ve been here I’ve heard some great ideas pop out of your mouth. I’ve seen really good work. You’re creative and you have good taste. You need more time to develop your portfolio and get more experience. But there are plenty of guys in this business who would have taken advantage of the situation yesterday. I don’t think you want that.”

I shook my head. “No, I don’t. You’re right.”

“Good. I want to wish you all the best. Monica’s waiting by the elevator so I have to run. I hope we get a chance to work together in the future.” We shook hands and he left.

I spent the day finishing up a few things, telling a couple of people about my new class, and alternately feeling stupid about what I did, and feeling better after my conversation with Brent. I would take my punishment and start fresh in one month. I just had one huge problem.

I did not have enough money saved to pay all my expenses. If I skipped my student loan or my phone bill, I’d mess up my credit. That means I’d have to tell Grissom, the roommate whose name is on the lease, that I don’t have rent money. Thank God I didn’t think of this earlier in the day. It would have given me one more thing to cry about. How did I not think of it right away, like when Angela said I was suspended without pay?

Grissom was in the kitchen frying a cheeseburger. He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t threaten to kick me out either. He just shook his head as I told me tale of woe.

“Look, Sam, this is none of my business, and I can’t say I never messed up. So I get it. But I have bills to pay, and I have to get the rent in. He suddenly stopped chewing his burger, then resumed. “I have an idea. If you do this, you don’t have to pay me this month’s rent, and I’ll give you $200 for food.

So this is what I agreed to for one long month in exchange for food and a month’s rent. Grissom has a grandmother who’s up there in age and who’s a bona fide hoarder. The place is covered in garbage and hasn’t been cleaned since World War II. Grissom and his parents and brothers saw how “Gram” has been living. She’s in the hospital now, but she wants to go home. Since she’s old and lives alone, a social worker is going to check out the situation to see if it’s safe for her. It’s not. The family is pitching in to do the clean up job, but everyone has work and they don’t enough time. For this month, I am part of Operation Gram’s House. So here I am, 7 hours a day shoveling gunk, washing years of grim off walls and windows, and on the good days, sitting at Grissom’s mother’s house washing clothes and curtains. Then I take online classes to pay my debt to society. It’s only a month.

All three bedrooms have been cleaned so yesterday the new beds were delivered and I made them up. Last night I dreamt that I put tulips under all the pillows and set the house on fire. I wish. Here’s something else I wish. I wish that I never get into a situation like this again. I swear I won’t.

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