“I can see that you have made a great effort to blend in,” said Michael, the first time we met.
I met him when I first came to the US and worked for the international center of a large company. It was a huge property on the edge of the Potomac and the office was spread over five large buildings. Each building was color coordinated, meaning the curtains, cushions, screens and dividers of a building would be the same color and different from the next building’s color. On arrival the first day, I was assigned to the blue building.
I was wearing a blue shirt and a navy suit, with a light blue tie. That was the occasion for Michael’s initial remark. He had the eye for an interesting detail and the wit for a sardonic comment.
Michael was a six-footer, with reddish hair, strong arms and twinkling eyes. While most affected a dark suit, he usually wore a sports jacket and preferred dark-brown suede shoes. He came to work with a weather-beaten black briefcase, which he claimed his wife had bought him some years ago and he dared not change.
Our work group consisted of four people, a quiet couple, who kept mostly to themselves, Michael and me. About our projects we all talked often and met in meetings at least once a day. But Michael and I worked closely together or discussed issues more often. Our views were frequently very different. For me the context was important, and I would interview the client group, for whom a product was intended, repeatedly, to find out what their concerns were. Michael had what I sardonically called the engineer’s view of things. He would study the problems the client had reported and felt he knew right away what the right product should look like. We debated spiritedly, at times ferociously. But we always ended up friends, with a better grasp of the other’s preference. I believe the clients ended up getting a better result.
I particularly remember the time we had to design a training program for sales people. Each session was one hour, and I felt we should aim at covering three, at most four, main points. I wanted the trainees to understand the points and retain them, through exercises and illustrations. It meant we had to distil a lot of material into essentials. Michael saw this as ‘babying’ the trainees. He wanted to throw much more stuff at them and expected them to sweat through it and master it. Both the trainees and their bosses liked the program that took shape, but they never knew the blood and tears Michael and I had to shed to reach an accord on the material we should include (or, as Michael would say, the material I wanted to ‘crazily exclude’).
Yet we remained steadfast friends and I kept turning up for Martina’s pasta. Having heard of the South Asian bent for rice, she would serve me variations of risotto rich with butter, onions and seafood. I discovered then that she longed for New York, especially the east Harlem area called Little Italy, where most immigrants from southern Italy live and where Martina grew up. Frustratingly, she found that Michael longed as acutely for Childress, a conservative town in northern Texas where he had spent his childhood and which Martina found singularly unattractive. Big Apple remained for her a painfully elusive dream.
Two years later I left the center and took assignments that took me overseas. For a while I stayed in touch with Michael; then, as I spent long years in Southeast Asia, I lost contact. Seven years passed when I returned to Washington for a spell. I called my old company, but Michael no longer worked there. He had left no forwarding address. The house he occupied had been sold. The new owner suggested I call a number in New York.
The number was of a Brooklyn restaurant. The person who responded was Martina’s brother, an accountant who had been running the restaurant after his father’s death. He said Martina was the sous chef now. Martina was cordial as ever but shocked me by saying that she was now divorced. She gave me Michael’s phone number in Sacramento, California.
He pondered and finally took a nursing course. He worked briefly in a small hospital in Delaware. Martina had been increasingly unhappy, and Michael advised her to return to her father’s restaurant. They decided to part company. Now he works as a cardiac nurse for a large hospital group in California and feels quite content. As before, Michael was warm and gracious. He talked at length about how his life had changed. He said he was not as prosperous as before, but he was very much at peace with himself. He paused and added he was happier than ever. I believed him. I felt happy for my friend.