From: Visitor Subject: Let me introduce myself

Alice drove Andrew to school and then continued on to work. In doing so, she was unremarkable, like dozens of other women dropping their children off at this school, a demographic and social class without social identity, a group of women with children in tow who eyed each other in the store or at the museum, wondering if there was something other than bad luck that had them finding their greatest companionship in their children — maybe seeing the competitor in each other, especially given the sense, common among them, that there was a vanishingly small number of marriageable males who would be interested in them. The “Dear Abby” ratio, if you will.

Alice may have been unusual on the road for always being fully made up, never hurriedly lipsticking or brushing her hair. She would not leave her condo door without being completely ready from coiffure to low heels. It’s easy to see this perfected preparation as a kind of armor, in the way that “clothes make the man” or the way that a finely tailored suit makes your muscles work a different way, gives your gait a completely different rhythm, because style is a kind of beauty, a beauty that flows from others’ eyes or, rather, glows out of your eyes and reflects back out of others’. Just as the exterior defines us in relation to each other, we grow into these grooves of interaction so completely that we commonly forget the near featureless, dank and naked creature beneath them. Thus, both armor and a home on our backs.

Alice had worked at the same paint distributor for 15 years, during which time she had 8 job titles but essentially the same job. Like many a competent office manager, she would never become anything else without a retooling and retraining that most are unwilling or unsuited to do. Alice could easily have done something else — not only did she have the inner fortitude to do more, she had the natural intelligence as well. But she never expressed the least desire to leave the job. There has been some question among those who know and love her about why she did not. A lack of confidence? A bitterness? A smugness? The struggles? All these theories have their advocates, but my own opinion is that she never found something more compelling than doing a job right. The reinforcement was meager enough, sure, but enough to keep her coming back. A job well done.

In pro-Alice comments on forums and blogs, some have argued that she would never put her son, Andrew, at risk as portrayed in this story. Similarly, some have said that she is a walking contradiction and that she wouldn’t be satisfied in this dead-end job, if only because she would want more for Andrew. But you have to understand in what context we seek more. It was never monetary with Alice — quite the opposite. As singleminded and unambitious as a medieval craftsman, she perfected her job in a way that belied six hundred years of rationalization and shallowing. Just because. That was the gift that she gave to her precocious son. She knew enough not to presume that it would be enough for his nimble intellect and obsessive personality. No, for Andrew a job well done was one in which there was a trajectory and a target met, a target that may have no equivalent in an external act or result. They were different people, to the core, but she was grateful for this much, that he had a spirit that could float with the currents and get along, stay out of trouble, find its own meaning without rebelling meaninglessly.

Alice was neither particularly spirited in the workplace nor standoffish. She smiled demurely when spoken to, and quietly offered the response that made sense, but stayed out of the discussions that had nothing to do with her work. It is easy to misunderstand this. She had been considered slow by more than one of her supervisors. But they came and went — rising in the corporation, failing and leaving, jumping ship, starting an ice cream parlor, retiring. They never seemed to understand the office that responded to them and could only hope that it survived on its own. Sometimes the office would. Sometimes it wouldn’t — but not on Alice’s watch.

She walked in that morning at the accustomed time, as the first, and turning lights on as she went. She hung up her sweater, made coffee, and set herself at the desk and the computer. She didn’t start the computer right away — it was a necessary evil for her work — but once she had reviewed her to-do list and sorted papers that needed dealing with, she flipped the surge protector switch and the whole ensemble whirred and beeped to life: computer, monitor, printer.

A few minutes later, she was skimming her email, deleting the spam and noting the important messages to which she would have to respond. One message in particular looked like spam — “Let me introduce myself” — but different enough that she opened it. The message was brief:

From: Visitor Subject: Let me introduce myself

I would like to introduce myself. I am a guest and I want to greet my hosts. I was a guest at your apartment four months ago and you helped me to find a place to stay. I want to thank you. I would like to get to know you, Gary and Andrew. You are friends of mine. Mary is also my friend, but I cannot tell you where she lives. I can come perhaps to stay with you again.

An unremarkable message, one that she would instinctively print out, delete and maybe mention to Andrew, but for one disturbing factor. Gary. Everything could be rationalized as misunderstanding, but — four months — Gary — place to stay — that was too much. She stared at the screen, motionless but for her hand, which was poised at one moment over the mouse, then moved to the vicinity of the delete key at another, at the beck and call of a mind overcome by indecision, dread, foreboding — and a sense of selection, of overwhelming impossibility: impossible odds that were both a blessing and a curse, an inevitability that you could not help but trace back to a choice, made much earlier in ignorance of the consequence but also made with a sense — a deep, dark and undeniable acceptance of the risk. Oh my God. An unbearable sense of guilt, in other words, but also a sense in which you acknowledge that life bears risks and that for however much you would wish to save your child from it, if the heavens open and call you both, then that is different than if you put your child at risk among men. An intoxicating sense of an awesome, unpredictable power had now come to supplement a fear of life, one that had informed so many of her decisions until those days.