The waitress wore a black leotard. She brought leather menus and asked if we wanted anything to drink. Cessair looked at the menu with the look of one who likes food more than alcohol, the food look of people who dont have all of the social warmth that they would like. She ordered a shrimp salad. I wondered whether if, unconstrained, she might have preferred a roast beef au jus or a T-bone steak. I ordered a Corona, she a mineral water.
She seemed half adult, half student. She wore a long denim skirt, carelessly ironed, and carried a backpack. This was a formal lunch, meeting the professor; ironed denim fit the bill. I was a little disappointed.
"Well how do you like your life," she asked in a rehearsed way. I was nervous, imagining I was on a middle-aged date. I said that it had worked out all right so far. My life hadn't lacked for variety. One tries to do something creative.
"I've been thinking about my career," she said, closing the menu, trying to sound serious and businesslike. I was enjoying the effort. Nothing would come of it, but I would keep the image of her chewing a black olive in my mind. she had a little piece of it stuck to her tooth. It was charming.
"You seem to enjoy olives. The ancient Celts, your forefathers, knew nothing of olives; Julius Caesar remarked on the fact. But here we are in California, basking in this Mediterranean climate."
"I'm eating an olive."
"Yes. You've from a colder northern place, Ireland and Poland and St. Louis and you've come here to California. The Celts believed that they had come from the South, that they were exiles from the sun. Livy had described the Celts of the xxx century, who had been lured over the xxx hills into, where they fell prey to wine and sunshine...
"Can I use this wisdom to get a job?" She smiled.
"No, only for higher level plans. For example, it would be useful to know these ancient truths if you were going to start a religion."
"Start a religion."
"Well you asked me about careers. One does something. Buys low and sells high. Becomes a trusty servant. Or a bureaucrat. Teaches. Starts a religion."
I think back -- is it five years now? -- at that gaze, at once curious, friendly, affectionate, tucked away in a deep chamber of my mind, along with a lot of other things that mean a great deal to me and that I will never forget. But soon enough, my life became crowded with other matters. I knew that in that backpack she had some kind of form, a reference to business school or the like, and that the objective of all this was to have me fill it out so she could move on to some new institutional program. But I despised programs. I thought that people whom I liked had unlimited potential and it was easy for me to imagine Cessair wearing a white toga and sitting on one of those uncomfortable Greek chairs, dispensing justice.
How did she feel about graduating? Her comments said she was. Dissatisfied. She had done all the right things. But it didn't mean much to her. Now she was going to take a job with a management consulting firm in Dallas. She had a boyfriend there. She had dated guys at the University but they were, you know, just University types. She was interested in industrial productivity." Already I had some different ideas for her. I thought she wouldn't have sought my advice if she were really interested in industrial productivity. Had she ever taken any courses in poetry, creative things? Hemming and hawing. Time. Did it in high school. She should do that. Well never mind the should.
We talked harmlessly on the subject of careers. Law. Management consulting. The United States Army. Arts and Crafts. Government work, how accountants used to work for the IRS to establish their credentials. Analogues thereto. Like any students she visualized life as s series of applications, programs, institution acceptances that repeated the crowning experience of their life, admission to the University. It was a style of thinking that I thought needed to be broken. I decided to do begin the job.
Are you sure you want a career? I've always thought of careers as being like job descriptions, artifacts of the industrial revolution. Limited upward mobility for selected members of the teeming masses. I'm the last person to ask about careers. I don't know anything about them. I think they have paperback books about careers. Library books. I don't know. The whole idea seems insulting to me. Fetch and step it for the white lower classes."
A pained look. Theatrical, but hiding the real thing.
"Well, I am an airline ticket agent's daughter. I didn't go to some arty New England prep school, you know."
"No no. I'm sorry. Did I hurt your feelings? What I meant was that I admire you. I think you're too good to waste on a career. Submitting yourself to the judgement of people who..." who aren't me, I knew I was thinking, knowing that I was getting a little out of control here, telling this girl that I could see beneath the surface beauty and sparkle and wisdom, all invisible to common men. My pygmalion.
"But what else am I going to do? I mean you can say that, but where does it lead me? You think I should start a religion?"
"Never mind that now. Just work at being what you are for now. Be loyal and true and determined with people and causes that are worth being loyal and true and determined over, and you'll just be discovered. I promise. Don't plan so much. It's like friends, or dating. It just happens, that's all. And you get what you deserve." "Oh great. That just adds to my depression."
"Well at least I have some hope for my career. It's all downhill when it comes to dating or whatever you want to call it."
"Oh come on now. You're an attractive woman, and you're witty besides. There are probably a thousand great guys within a mile of here who dream of meeting someone like you."
"Up to the point when we get back to my room and I say thanks, that was really fun and either I don't mean it and I have to spend the next ten minutes trying to just GET THEM AWAY or I do mean it and they stand there wondering what's going on and then I never hear from them again." She was smiling, but her eyes were filling with tears and if I didn't change the subject one of them was going to spill over her lower lid and then I'd be in deep trouble because I really wanted to just step up and reach out and hold her shoulders and look into her eyes. Fall into the grey, like flying into a cloud. Once, I had flown a little plane into a cloud. I wasn't trained to do it but it was dangerously delicious, just disappearing into a universe of grey, leaving everything else behind in the world. I'd just take care of everything for her. That's what those old chiefs did, they'd end up with mistresses and kids all over the countryside. Older men of sweet words and temporal powers, their seed was as lively as any twenty year old's, carried the best genes in the tribe.
Pretty racy stuff, Dad. Don't let Ruth read this one! I like it, because I can just hear you saying it! (Well, teaching has to have some rewards!)
She didn't know much about it. Raised in Dallas. Irish, the dark side of the family.
"Tell me about the most ancient Sullivan you've known."
"I never met my grandfather. He was from Ireland."
"What have you heard?"
She hesitated. "He was shot in a bar. In Saint Louis."
"In the nineteen thirties."
"Really? That's interesting."
"I've never thought of it as interesting. Sort of a family secret, actually. I don't know why I told you," she said. Her eyes soft as rain.
"How about your father."
"He left us when I was twelve. He's weird. We don't really get along very well."
"Why not. What kind of a guy is he?"
"Oh I don't know. He majored in philosophy. He changes jobs a lot. Now he lives in Montana."
"You don't like him."
"We've never gotten along. All my life I've had two choices when I talk to my father. Either we scream at each other, or I keep my mouth shut. I've never been very good at the latter. It's been that way since I was in the crib, or so they tell me. He's cheap, too."
"Do you have many of his character traits?"
"I worry about that."
"Of course. So tell me about your love life."
To be continued..........
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