Afternoons when the light is limpid, she is still held by the spectacle, seized by the City viewed from the sixty-fourth floor, seized too by the immensity of its outlying wastes. From the black upright chair in her corner office she gazes out calmly, her mind shifting with apparent weightlessness on an untold number of abstractions amid the wispy clouds. The silver nameplate on the door reads: Suzanne P. Jacobs.
She considers hers a learned mind, conversant with the world, five floors above her and below, the world writhing in silence around her; she considers herself well informed of society, au fait with the heady set that compose its more dominant fabric – the colours, the ruling standard – well informed too of the fictional modes of life, urban in the main, which, when woven together seemingly fashion the greater societal cloth, the one that neatly covers up the gaping holes and the torn lining, seamlessly hiding the unseemly pockets deep within its fabric. In sum, hers is an expansive mind. Unmoored presently, yes, perhaps, and groggy too; but she is not duped for an instant by the illusion of the metaphorical cloth. For she herself knows that the moment stupor lifts, something will reel, and something deeper will shift; she knows that the instant she uncovers the inexorable, something may buckle – but what?
Reflecting, trimming her thoughts, for the moment she is merely composing on an air of abstraction, her regard fixed beyond the glass.
She remembers riding up the elevator shaft for the first time.
She remembers the anguished thrill of the climb, her senses quickened by the ascent, up through sixty-five floors of hurtling vertigo to the inclement shell of the boardroom: a mere cube, then, a grey husk of concrete, unbound to the four winds, vacant, attending the hands that would transform its walls into the beehive of wealth it has become. The summit, the commanding panorama, and her body’s reaction to it all: vertigo, the tongue leaded by the climb, her face bluish-grey, seen from the outside looking in, as she tends to do, adopting the observational stance, as she is presently doing, peering out so as to gain a better angle from which to peer inward, to peer and poke. Above all, what comes back to her now is not what she remembers of the encounter or of some ornament of the day or of any other that preceded it – however epigrammatic; however razor-sharp – no, what emerges with insistence is not episodic at all, but rather of an old grainy feeling, the advent of which transcends both that day and those, now lost to time, that went before it, an unremitting feeling she knows well, all too well, one that emerges hemmed-in by the same admonishing words – you must not put a foot wrong.
The morning had been blustery. Not a window between them and the low-lying jet space. No floor to ceiling glass to which her plaintive regard might yield. Just plain sky space and gusts of air. And below their feet, beyond the concrete lip, an abyss into an urban sprawl, and she, Suzanne, standing in a pall of construction incense soothing nausea, focused on the state for nausea and on keeping herself together. Alongside her anxious body, her guide, Jeremiah Cavendish – JC – elegantly chanting to a theme of empire, at ease in lyrical mode. Rise in haste; gloat at leisure; keep talking. Neither did he err nor did he um. By all accounts, he wove, methodically, word for word, line for line.
Without apparent difficulty he had gotten his tongue around the cabling detail of the fibre optics plan. His excitement neatly doubled in a breast pocket like a stoic handkerchief, he had proceeded to unfold, corner for corner, how the building was to be wired, wired to his very technical specifications.
Fifteen years ago the bits and bobs had been lost on her. In sway to giddiness, her ear dulled; no safe port for her eye, despite his tidy performance, which had not helped either way. Yet she remembers that while neither he nor his boast of cabling had been enough to make up for the distinct lack of material between he and she, the firmament above them and the off-grey sprawl etched in variegated shades of pale below their feet, she had, nonetheless, found mooring in the pitch of his voice, despite the man, despite the Double Windsor knot of arrogance quietly loosened about his throat, despite the polished show of self-assurance, despite the commanding repartee. In his pitch she had somehow found a mooring, as it were, and in the mooring she had discovered an urgent desire to overcome nausea. She will not deny it: her ambition, then, had been to bloom at altitude, thrive on the rarefied ether, to positively flourish.
Her eyes return to her desk, to the document, and particularly to the careful block letters on the third page, the third of three printed in the company’s official Ronstad typeface. Logo and typeface: insignia and corporate flag – the distinct air of empire about it all has always troubled her. Yet the response to the question – has the expansive tone of empire ever incited her to put a halt to doing business under it colours? – can only but disqualify her from taking her troubled airs too seriously. Nonetheless, the feeling lingers: things will only get worse.
Further down the page, hers eyes brush over what forms the ultimate impress of ink, an electronic address – should she wish to confer; should she wish to a query the nub; and after the lower-case print, the dedicated telephone number – should she be brought to implore, should she deign to protest, and hiss her invectives, one after another, into the film of spittle that would gather on her unique end of the receiver, while on the other end, some hidden resources clerk holds the element out of earshot, waiting for the tirade, like a pall of bad air, to pass by. No no, she will not conduct herself thus.
If at altitude she is still hermetically frantic, she has ways – beside herself – of dealing with what she calls her raptures of panic. This has not changed. Concealed in a minute gestural, it is a private repertoire, one that through harrowing repetition has gained the stage of mastery. Of course there are exceptions, moments when it fails her, moments too when she feels she is failing. It is a private body language. In response to each unbidden pang of panic, a minimalistic gesture, so as to allay the charge, so as to give Pan an issue, an exutoire; each sign a signature, each signature a motion clad in silence, for fear of appearing dysfunctional: her hand, for example, quietly raised to the breast-plate, and, finger for finger, an even pressure, as if she were playing the white notes of C major, pianissimo; a form of containment.
The usual conventions, knife and fork, say, set out like tin soldiers on either side of the diner serving, offer little hold to the panic that a mild colon spasm, say, might announce itself inopportunely. And so adding to the fear that her bouts of social dystrophy, brought on by sheer tedium, will be forced out in time, fugitive to both knife and fork neatly set there to remind one of place, she has learned to forge from the silence, beyond the cardboard of convention, more personable forms of alleviating restraint.
Insomuch she has learned to pretend, where pretence shows itself akin to self-preservation. There one must, there one owes it to oneself, as the saying goes. However, she knows that one soon tires of the kind of affectation that merely serves the order of illusion, the kind that momentarily pinches heartbreak, held in check beneath a galvanized smile. That repertoire is one she never quite got the hang of.
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