Jayne Bateman’s travels had become a series of Alice’s rabbit holes. She felt sleepy, slow and ready for a nap at home in New York and then would descend, dream-like, onto the airport tarmacs of other cities and emerge in altered worlds, not quite Wonderlands, but places that made her wonder.
As she walked through airports she found the disorientation of this dream-life especially bad. Moving along the length of a terminal she would be absolutely certain beyond any doubt that when she emerged at the taxi stand she would be confronted with, say, the liquid air of summertime Atlanta. But just as she went through the glass doors, she would be shocked to see a checkerboard pattern on a policeman’s cap. Chicago.
She craved cheese steaks in Milwaukee, fish tacos in Philadelphia, bratwurst in San Diego, pizza everywhere but home. The local beers offered the same foaminess. The hotel rooms whiffed similar vapors. The conference rooms were all silvery and fraying. The clients were interchangeable: overweight women in slimming black cardigans with extravagant sets of bands and jewels on their ring fingers; lean men in chinos and button-down shirts with goatees that communicated end-of-workday wildness.
Charleston in July did not seem like a good idea to Jayne. Hot, humid, unbreatheable air—all by 6:45 in the morning. The hotel didn’t have a gym, but it did have an arrangement with one six blistering blocks away. Google Maps on Jayne’s iPhone took her the long, wrong way and she arrived dizzy and dehydrated. Colleagues from a sister agency also there for the client’s yearly meeting had already staked out treadmills and elliptical machines. Jayne nested her ear buds into place and climbed aboard a stationary bike. For the next fifty minutes she was Lance Armstrong in the Pyrenees pedaling to the pace of Madonna club mixes.
The workout had a normalizing effect on Jayne until she stepped outside again. The air temperature was too high, the natural light too bright, her sweat indistinguishable from the moistness of the air. Her brain didn’t know what to do with the many misfiring signals. She had been in Mobile once, in August, a few years before for a friend’s mother’s funeral. A number of the friend’s New York crowd had travelled together, dressed in black per urban requirement as well as mourning custom. Amid the various rituals of religious service, cemetery burial, casserole heating, cocktail pouring and kitchen cleaning most of their conversation had consisted of comments about the humidity. Stunning humidity, standing in a sauna humidity, wading through a swimming pool humidity. Jayne had wondered then if wearing black had made the sensation of moisture worse. Weren’t light colors supposed to help? But that was heat, she remembered, not humidity.
“Last year we developed three strategic imperatives under which we aligned our major tactics for the year.” A large client in a cardigan flaunted her corporate-speak as she stood before the group. “We’re going to spend the morning in breakout sessions around each of our three moments of truth in the consumer journey and we’re going to challenge those strategic imperatives to see if they still apply for 2012.” She darted her head in the direction of her boss before continuing. “We encourage you to develop bold ideas, think out of the box, and remember, if you come up against a knowledge gap in your discussion, please write it down on a Post-It Note and place it in the Parking Lot of IWIKs on the wall by the door.”
Jayne instinctively turned to see where the client was pointing and was not surprised to see a large piece of sticky easel paper pasted to the wall with the words PARKING LOT marked across the top in red. The first time Jayne heard the phrase “parking lot” in this context she knew from the evocative placement itself what it meant. IWIK, however, had stunned her into dim submission. I Wish I Knew. It was simple, obvious and poetic under certain corporate circumstances, but it was also Cheney-esque in the way it rang of military acronyms. Jayne avoided using it in speech and reserved it for slide titles in the appendices of PowerPoint presentations.
The day was a series of small group discussions, brainstorming sessions and PowerPoint presentations to all the client and agency teams. There were interruptions at regular intervals for meals and snacks, wheeled in by murmuring members of the hotel conference staff. Water bottles and soda cans sweated in bowls of melting ice next to platters of carefully arranged not-quite-ripe fruit. Protein bars shared space with large disc versions of chocolate chip cookies in an effort to provide options for the business traveler who sometimes indulged in a sugary treat to fend off stress, but who mostly stuck to a regimen of guilt and restraint. Jayne pocketed the free healthy options for the stockpile in her laptop bag. She usually held her own on most travel days, keeping to her diet, never reaching for the release of a treat, but the Charleston weather had opened something in her that could not be quenched by discipline. She ate everything that was put within a five-foot radius of her mouth.
At the end of the day, Jayne lurked near the clients to see if she could overhear the evening plans in order to assess her interest and/or required presence in any phase of the dinnertime activities. The restaurant’s name range a bell in Jayne’s catalogue of memories of clients stretching their entertainment budgets to impress their big-city agencies. She decided to join the festivities and headed up to her room for twenty minutes of alone time before having to be with other people again.
In the elevator, Jayne found herself, given the heat and humidity’s effect on her, in grave danger. She was alone with one of the male clients she could convince herself she found vaguely attractive. They exchanged weak smiles and settled in for the ride up to their floors. Jayne stood to his side and a step behind him in the small space. She inspected his clothes, noting they could all be upgraded with a quick trip to the men’s floor at Barney’s. He wasn’t that far removed from a decent haircut, and his universal goatee—worn by Brooklyn hipsters and midwestern brand managers alike—worked its magic as a Romulan cloaking device. It disguised all the evidence Jayne shouldn’t overlook and replaced it with impossibly fantastic outcomes for their imaginary future together. The bewilderment of her travels imploded into pulsing sexual desire in the time it took for the elevator to reach the third floor. If his sideburns had been a quarter of an inch longer—communicating Hot Mess in the language of facial hair in which she was fluent—she likely would have been panting.
“See you at dinner.”
Jayne became alert just as he spoke and stepped out into the hallway, half looking back at her. She feared there was spittle at the corners of her lips, but she managed a smirk and a nod. Actually speaking in her condition was out of the question.
The agencies and the clients occupied five crowded tables at the restaurant. The elevator client was not at Jayne’s table, but she had a clear sightline as he took aggressive, biting slugs of golden-brown alcohol from a heavy rock glass. With every swallow he seemed to be telepathically sending a heavily cc’d message that announced he drank like a man. She was sure she was supposed to find this modern display of plumage attractive—and she kind of did. She watched him suck—perhaps, even chew—on his ice cubes, but the action reminded her of numerous movie scenes where men did things like run companies and load shotguns exceedingly well—scenarios that made her feel like she was drowning in the dark. Jayne turned her attention from her fantasy life to her own table, asking people to pass things like salt and pepper and Tabasco sauce just so it would seem as if she was socializing. The tall French doors of the restaurant stood open to the street, failing to let in cooling evening breezes or any relief at all.
Three hours, three dinner courses and three glasses of a crisp Marlborough sauvignon blanc later, Jayne found herself back in the same elevator with the same client as well as a few other colleagues. Her interest in this man had turned to dismay during dinner and now disintegrated into boredom. At least they would always have that first elevator ride. And as he—now of the bad shoes and ill-fitting shirt—passed into the space beyond the closing elevator doors, Jayne dismissed him and her desire to fill empty spaces and wondered how hot and humid the next morning would be when she made her way to the gym and how she could do better this time in keeping it all at bay.
Jayne returned to New York on a Wednesday night. The effects of the out-of-town weather eased out of her and she was partially restored. She ate less, pulsed less with longing and left the stash of protein bars in the laptop bag even as she carted it to and from the office.
Montgomery was hot without the humidity so Jayne experienced simple stupidity, without the flailings of lust. There had been a male flight attendant from Atlanta to Montgomery who narrated their journey over the PA through most of the flight. He sounded like Truman Capote speaking in tongues and Jayne wondered if some part of her brain only neurologists had a name for had been damaged. Now she sat in the backseat of the rental car while her knucklehead colleagues in the front seats tried to get the GPS to work. Neither the account director nor the media guy seemed to be technically inclined. Jayne leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes, listening to their Two Stooges dialogue. They were sweet, funny men who managed multimillion-dollar pieces of business for the agency, but the GPS set-up menu defeated them.
“Can we have the British woman’s voice?” Jayne didn’t lift her head from the seatback or open her eyes, but she felt the media guy twist in his seat to face her.
“Seriously? This is your contribution?”
“Just use your phone to get us there.”
“Then it’ll be the New Jersey man’s voice. Does that work for her highness?” He said it lightly with the usual smart-ass bite that characterized all the friendly conversations at the agency.
“I’ll pull this car over right now if you two don’t stop fighting.” This was the account director practicing for the kids he and his wife were considering.
“We haven’t even left Hertz yet.” Jayne lifted her head, opened her eyes, and smiled at her colleagues. “Montgomery is totally the blast you promised. Which client is this again?”
Once the GPS was up and running and they all had their phones out as just-in-case back-up, they finally were able to pull out of the airport lot. Jayne thought that having been to Mobile that August years ago she’d been to Alabama, but as soon as they got on the highway, she realized she’d never been any place like this. A sci-fi version of Mars came to mind. A barren landscape punctuated with strange structures and alien beings. A sign outside a church offered: Simple. Intense. Worship. The words made sense, but the punctuation confused her.
“What does that mean?”
“Some kind of religious event, I guess.”
“Is it a branded service?”
“You mean the competition offers Complex Moderate Blasphemy?”
“I’m confused. Do you think it’s trademarked?”
“Is blasphemy the opposite of worship?”
“I think we might get in trouble for talking this way.”
“You mean we might go to Hell?”
“Did you say that with a capital H?”
They drove in silence past the sign that read Combustible Fire Ministries.
The Montgomery host client served bad food for snacks and lunch, but assembled the best meeting supplies Jayne had ever seen. She actually felt her eyes widen as she surveyed the day-glo Post-It Notes in a variety of shapes and sizes, multi-colored felt tip pens, table-top easels of large sticky paper with cardboard handles for easy carrying, and boxes of impossible-to-find small binder clips. Jayne was in first-day-of-school heaven, lining up pens and paper and feeling very prepared to do everything right on her clean slate.
In the first breakout session, Jayne’s group gathered around a large glossy whiteboard propped against the wall in the corner of the meeting room. A junior account person from another agency grabbed up the dry erase marker and assumed a sentry-like position, awaiting orders. Jayne was generally very good at these events although she knew she had a tendency to talk too much to impress and not enough to collaborate. She also often interrupted and talked over or through people, especially if they worked at another agency. She liked to think it was a competitive streak, but she knew it was more about wanting to be seen to be earning her agency’s hourly billable blended rate.
Jayne looked out the window to the Martian landscape of the Montgomery suburbs and wondered if either the avenging conflagration or the glory of salvation that the various church signs had promised could reach her here behind the protection of the receptionist, the chief marketing officer and the holy cordon of strategic initiatives and bold tactics. It was just half a beat after she offered her first nugget of expected wisdom that she felt the desire to please seep suddenly from her like waters rushing back out to sea. She was unable to form thoughts of value or figure out how to express them in ways that were coherent. Her head was filled with illogic, non-sequitors and general nonsense. She was required to speak here, or was she? Was this rust or rebellion?
As the day went on—in small group sessions, during breaks, and at lunch—Jayne experimented with not speaking. She gestured, she smiled, she stared into space above people’s hair. She became absorbed in guessing which color marker would be used.
At first it was difficult to stay silent. She felt an inner pressure, as if someone was reaching into her trying to pull out large strangely shaped objects, but slowly she realized it was all right not to speak. No one seemed to think she was stupid or unprepared, no one seemed to think she wasn’t doing her job. She began to think that people actually liked her more when she was silent.
Near the end of the day, the media guy gradually became alarmed when he turned to her expecting her to speak, only to find her tight-lipped and nodding. In an afternoon breakout session the account guy leaned down from his towering height and asked if she was feeling okay. Jayne smiled and nodded again.
“Do you have a sore throat or something?”
Jayne cleared her throat. “I’m good.”
“Did you forget to read the pre-read?”
“I’m good. Just don’t have anything to contribute.”
“You can just repeat what they say. It’s really why they pay us.”
Jayne chuckled as he expected her to. “I’m good. It’s fine. I talked a lot last time.”
“You need to contribute.” He was firm, no longer friendly.
Jayne hardened her face and for once took a moment to think about what to say. She could remind him that she didn’t report to him, that he was being ridiculous, that she would, of course, offer up marketing wisdom at appropriate moments, that she wasn’t feeling well, that she was just kidding around, that maybe he could get off her back. But instead she told him that everything was fine, she was good and, hey, she wanted to mention to the client that consumer tracking study they had talked about last time. Was that okay with him?
At the close of the day’s session, Jayne selected the best pads of Post-It Notes and grabbed up as many pens as she could and shoved them into the outer pocket of her laptop bag. She remembered the collection of protein bars in the inner pocket and for a brief moment wondered if she was stealing. She used to relieve her local Starbucks of fistfuls of Splenda packets to keep at home until a friend informed her this was theft.
“But it’s free. It’s there for people to take.”
“It’s there for people to use,” her friend explained. “To use while they are actually still inside the Starbucks, in the drink they’ve bought at the Starbucks. Not, for people to stock their kitchen cabinets with at home.”
Jayne felt like an idiot about things like this—she suspected it had something to do with lacking a moral compass, but she wasn’t even sure what that was. She stopped liberating the Splenda packets, but her laptop bag and her drawers at the office were filled with other acquired freebies that could be used as evidence against her in the increasing likelihood that she was a thief waiting to be caught and prosecuted.
She begged off dinner with the clients and the other agencies—Montgomery’s best restaurant held no allure—and thought for a moment about having a cab drive her to see the Hank Williams statue she had read about. The sun setting around that not-such-an-angel from Montgomery seemed as if it might be the kind of moment that could restore her equilibrium. But she ended up watching unmemorable television in her room until she fell asleep. The Hampton Inn offered a self-service waffle machine at the breakfast buffet and she wanted to be well rested when she used it.
Jayne returned to New York later in the week and couldn’t help but notice all the churches and temples she passed as she commuted between her apartment and work.
Jayne flew into Columbus very late on Sunday night. The flight was quiet with none of the usual thundering noise and dramatic swoops of takeoff and ascent to cruising altitude. The interior lights stayed off for the duration and the aisle of the plane was lit in a few rows by laptop screens. As she closed her eyes, the screens of spreadsheets seemed to flicker, reminding her of lighters held aloft at concerts accompanied by pleading requests for favorite songs. What song was it she wanted to hear? She slept a little and felt relaxed within her disorientation in the air, but as she made her way through the terminal—rolling her suitcase behind her, her laptop bag hunched over her shoulder—she became over stimulated. Shops were open, drinks were being served. Jayne thought it was too late for this kind of commerce. She felt out of time, sleepy and awake all at once.
When the taxi driver pulled up to what he said was her destination, she thought he had made a mistake. The cab idled in the middle of what appeared to be a shopping mall. She could see a Banana Republic Sale sign flapping in darkness against a stone building. Then she looked to her right and saw the hotel entrance.
Jayne went to sleep immediately after getting settled in the room, willing herself instantly into unconsciousness as if switching off a light. She awoke a few hours later, rested and ready to start her day, but it was too early for that. She stood at the window looking out at the dimly lit weird geography of hotel-as-mall. Maybe she would buy some shoes.
When morning finally came she ran on the treadmill in the too-cold gym. She never really warmed up and struggled to finish the slow three miles she settled for. She walked outside in the hotel-mall parking lot—seeking warmth and her bearings—and found herself mesmerized by the array of options: Pottery Barn and West Elm and Restoration Hardware. Was all this necessary? She walked the strangely named mall streets—could malls really have streets?—her hands on her hips and she wondered, looking at the carefully arranged window displays, why we do this to ourselves.
She walked deeper into the deserted mall, taking a turn at a street called Chagrin Drive. She wanted to laugh, because she was sure this was funny, but she couldn’t remember the precise definition for chagrin so she just snorted to herself and walked on. The mall was scary in the usual way—scary in the way that when faced with too many options she became overwhelmed or scary as when that desire to have, to buy, so quickly overpowered her. When America lined up all her brands in one place there was a certain martial massing of weaponry that brought to mind Soviet May Day celebrations. She didn’t feel like looking at shoes after all and sensed that she would be late to the meeting if she didn’t get back to her room to change.
The morning sessions were filled with everyone’s bosses’ bosses presenting their underlings’ work and showing off their corporate shmoozability. Jayne nodded and assumed she was smiling. She doodled and admired the hotel pens, grabbing a few from the tables around her. Hilton always had good stuff like that. She would take the note pads from the room when she left.
By the time they broke for lunch, the air conditioning had been on Super High for hours. She needed to feel warm again and took her lunch plate outside into the Midwestern summer sun. There were no chairs or tables, only the sidewalk’s curb to sit on. She sat on the cement, balancing her lunch plate on her thighs, waiting for the sun to warm her bones. The hotel loomed over her and she could sense the shopping mall beyond the hotel, humming at her back.
She moved the bean salad around with a fork, put a small amount in her mouth and chewed it slowly. This was the last trip for a while, but the dreamlike disconnection felt heavy on her and within her. What was happening? What was her current experience, as her client would phrase it? And what was the new unparalleled experience she required? Maybe she just needed to stay home.
She finished off the bean salad and took a bite of the turkey sandwich. The attempt at healthy eating constructed for the business traveler made her gag a little. The idea of lite had not seemed to produce anything actually edible. She tried to think of something she would rather be eating instead but nothing came to mind.
Three days later Jayne was home, back on the New York subway, picking up her iced coffee, going to work, going to the gym, doing it again. She lugged her laptop bag from destination to destination, heavy baggage that left her body distorted.
On Friday morning she got off the 1 at Times Square and made her way through the station, joining the stream of commuters heading for the Shuttle. It was crowded, but she fell in with the right current of movement and was carried along mindlessly toward the correct platform. She wasn’t able to find a seat, but the trip was only two minutes. A guy claiming he was homeless, sick and a war veteran pushed his way through the crowd on the train. He was of indeterminate race—like the actor cast in the latest television commercial the agency had made for the Indianapolis client—and he wore a red Phillies T-shirt under numerous layers of unbuttoned shirts in a variety of pale colors. He hummed as if it was some kind of practiced entertainment performance and shook a dingy, damp paper cup with a few coins in it.
At Grand Central Jayne was gently shoved away from the open doors while other passengers got off ahead of her. She sank back against the unopened doors on the opposite side of the train and watched as the car slowly emptied. Just before the new set of passengers heading back to Times Square embarked, Jayne took a step toward the open door, but an inchoate impulse stopped her. She swiveled on her foot, turned and sat down heavily and definitively in a seat as if she was very tired. People crowded around her, the doors closed, announcements were made and the train headed back west. The homeless vet had stayed on the train as well and moved through the crowd again, humming and shaking his cup.
Jayne didn’t get off at Times Square. She remained seated. She watched the homeless vet do his thing as the Shuttle headed back to Grand Central. Jayne stayed in her seat, watching him, wondering if he would notice her.
It was the fourth time they pulled into Times Square that the homeless vet came up to her. He stared at her and shook his cup in her face. The tails of his shirts seemed to lift and flap as his arm moved back and forth. She reached into her laptop bag and pulled out one of the protein bars and dropped it in the cup. It felt good giving something away.
For most of the rest of the morning Jayne Bateman rode the Shuttle back and forth communing with the homeless vet by relieving herself of her hotel and conference contraband and giving it to him. She started with the protein bars, then the pens and Post-Its. When she felt the prized small binder clips in her hand, she paused, fingering them out of sight deep down in her bag. They felt clean and efficient and useful. She visualized the black matte and bright silver as she stroked them. She didn’t want to part with these, but ultimately did, bringing them up out of the darkness of her bag. She dropped them, almost defiantly, one by one into the shaking cup in front of her. The hotel memo pads were easier to cede although she thumbed the sheets in a fan just to briefly hear the lovely sound that reminded her of shuffling playing cards. Days later, when asked, she would have liked to say she thought about it for a few minutes before she handed over the laptop itself, but she would have been lying. As she stood at Times Square she flung the empty computer bag at the homeless vet. He caught it, straightened himself up to an almost military stance and then bent abruptly and briefly at the waist in a bow of some kind of acknowledgement Jayne could not decipher. She then offered her eyeglasses, folded and gently perched in the open palm of her hand. He sniffed and looked away. She was not yet fluent in the signals of gratitude that ended completed transactions.
She went slowly up the subway exit steps and emerged from the transit system below onto the sidewalk of the world above. She was awake, alert, brightening slowly like a rising sun. She looked back down the stairs to where she had come from and felt as if she had been away for a very long time. She walked toward her apartment, feeling the lift of not being where she was supposed to be, where she was expected. The rest of the day lay before her as a time of wonder and a place called home. She moved slowly up the avenue, stepping carefully because she was barefoot.
Katie Rogin is a writer and filmmaker. She lives in Brooklyn.