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“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings -”
Being let go from my job was like taking a dip in the ocean in January with the Polar Bear Club. It was exhilarating to be free of a position that had become burdensome, and to have the prospect of a new start before me, but my pride and self-esteem were doused in ice water and I was left spluttering. I stared at the new manager, who was part of the company buy-out package, as he tried to break the news to me gently, his language couched in compassion that was not inherent to him.
“So uh, should I work the rest of the day or am I just supposed to get my things and go?” I asked him, my face red, although the humiliation had not come as a complete surprise.
“You can just get your things and go,” he answered with a tight smile before turning towards the door.
Some of my colleagues had suffered a similar fate, and I bluffed my way through the packing up and handing over of my sales documentation. One of the perks of being let go was that my commission would be paid in full right away, when it wasn’t likely that the company would ever recover the advertising debt that some Asian banks had incurred during the crisis. Another perk of losing my job was that this was no longer my problem.
I took a deep breath when I was out on the street, and I started to walk uptown, feeling strangely light-hearted in spite of the sting to my pride. Ignoring the heavy bag in my hand and the absence of a steady income, I wandered into the Ann Taylor Loft store that was around the corner from my office. I tried on a few clothes, enjoying the near-empty store of mid-morning and trying to embrace the feeling of playing hooky. But eventually, the store left me feeling dejected and I headed home.
At the time, I was living with two roommates, Neyra and Sue, in a luxury high-rise apartment on the corner of 91st Street and First Avenue. I had left my former roommate on excellent terms, having explained that I needed an apartment where I was living with people closer in age, and who would be around more often. Neyra had a job with flexible hours, and she looked up in surprise when I opened the front door. “What are you doing here?”
“I got fired,” I said, laughing, my attempts at making light belied by the tears that had finally started to fall. I may have been glad to be released from a job that no longer held pleasure for me, but I needed my home base to put everything in perspective again. I sank down on the couch next to her, and covered my face with my hands.
The following Monday, I plunged into searching for a new job. It wasn’t that I needed the money right away, but I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting still. I had decided to look for something easy and routine, like a secretary position or a similar post with eight-hour days. Beyond that, I didn’t have any clear idea of exactly what I was looking for. The economy wasn’t as favorable as it was when I was interviewing for my previous job, but I was just naïve enough to assume I would get a job in no time.
I went on a few interviews, with nothing really panning out until the agency sent me to an Eastern European boutique bank on Fifty-Second Street – right around the corner from my old job. I walked in and was conducted to the conference room, where I sat, facing the hallway through the glass doors. The atmosphere in the office felt oppressive and the few people who came within view seemed dowdy. I thought to myself “There is no way I am ever going to accept a job here!”
The building was narrow with just five floors, and the only windows to be seen were in the executive offices on one side. When I was given a tour of the bank, I was shown the desk that I would be occupying, and it was was right outside of the executive offices, facing the elevator. There was a quiet murmur as people conferred with one another or sat at their desks typing. It couldn’t have been more different from the lively atmosphere in the office I had just left. The Director of the bank seemed pleased with me as he looked over my skills and tested my level of Chinese with one of the employees who spoke it. But I was absolutely sure it was a wrong fit for me. I was a woman with high aspirations, one who was used to adventure. I was destined for something greater.
I needed a job, but I didn’t really want that job so I decided it was time to pray for specifics that would make God’s will crystal clear. I had already tested God in this way before. Months earlier when I had started to grow weary of traveling, I was approached by a friend to star in a Chinese made-for-TV movie that needed Chinese-speaking Westerners. I prayed that they would offer me $30,000 to do the part, which was the yearly salary I was earning at the time, not counting commissions. I wanted to make sure I would have a cushion to fall back on if I was going to leave my stable job for an engagement that would last just a couple of months. They only offered me a third of that amount, so I turned the offer down – regretfully, but faithfully according to my answer – and ended my career in TV before it even began.
So I was set on the idea of prayer determining the path, and was willing to obey the call when the prayers were answered, no matter which way the decision turned. But my plan was to offer prayers that would make it too difficult for God to answer, thereby preventing him from putting his stamp of approval on a position I didn’t want. First I prayed that in the second interview, already scheduled for later that week, the Director would offer to pay for my continuing education without me even bringing the subject up. I prayed it, knowing how unlikely it was that he would ever do such a thing, which is usually negotiated along with the contract and not during the interviews. And it was just not something that was ever offered without first having to ask for it.
In the second interview, though, he looked over my resumé and said, “The agency told me you would like to continue your studies.” I nodded. He paused for a moment before looking up at me and saying, “We would pay for that.”
I was astonished that this prayer was answered so succinctly, but even that was not enough for me. If I was going to be serving people coffee and staring at elevator doors every day, I had to be sure this was the right fit. So I also prayed that if this was the job for me, they would call me the very next day to offer me the position, and that they would offer me ten-thousand dollars more than what I had been making as a Regional Director.
The next day rolled around, and five o’clock came and went; six o’clock came and went. I thought – that’s it. God has made it clear that this is not the place for me. The workday has ended and I didn’t get the offer today. Phew!
I think it was around six-thirty in the evening when the agency finally called and said the bank wanted to make me an offer of thirty-eight thousand dollars, plus a guaranteed bonus of two-thousand dollars.
I hesitated, as I processed the fact that only half of my prayer was answered because I was not being offered the base salary I had prayed about. So I stuck to my guns. “I’m not interested in the job for that salary,” and then I told her what I was asking.
There was a pause as she digested this, and then she spoke with some degree of scorn, “But you will be getting that amount if you include the bonus, and it’s still way more than what you were making in your last job. And they’re willing to pay for your education!”
But I remained firm. “I’m sorry. I’m just not willing to accept the job for that amount.” The agent told me I was crazy in so many words, and slammed the phone down on me.
I was smug at first; after all I hadn’t wanted the job. But then I started to feel pressure over the fact that nothing else was really forthcoming, and I did have to earn money at some point. Then I started to get insecure, thinking that everything the agency said was true. I was a fool to turn down such a good offer when I wasn’t sure I would get another one as good as that. Past commission doesn’t effectively count towards negotiating a future base salary, so what was I even thinking? These ruminations served to humble me overnight, and by morning I decided that – although I couldn’t call the agency back – if they called me and tried to offer me the job one more time, I would take the offer as it stood.
About mid-morning the agent did call back, and asked me with a pep in her voice, “If the base salary is forty-thousand, will you take it?”
“Yes!” I said without hesitation. And she said, “Well you’ve got yourself a job then. I can’t believe he came up to your price, but he did!”
So I started my job with fresh enthusiasm and proper gratitude. I think there should always be some level of gratitude at having any job and earning money, which is not everyone’s fortune. But it’s hard to obtain that humility when you’re young.
My new title was Executive Assistant, Assistant in Human Resources. I would be managing the director’s schedule, and also doing the legwork in payroll and retirement, plus miscellaneous other human resources duties. Ironically, as much as I had been certain the position was not for me, I was really happy there. Granted, it took almost two years before I was able to enter the very tight-knit circle of employees who crowded around the lunch tables and left no room for outsiders. One of the bosses – not my immediate one – had a temper that was astonishing and highly irrational. And I still had to stare at the elevator every day.
But I was able to have peace and quiet, and an easy rhythm that went on comfortably until five o’clock each day. I found that I liked crunching numbers in payroll, and that I was good at editing and drafting letters. I found pleasure in organizing the files and ticking off my manageable to-do list each day, and I got along really well with my boss. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a span of time where everything fit so neatly into place – in work, as in life.
I was happy in my home-life too. I had a stable living situation, with roommates who made up a tight family to counter the loneliness of living in a large city. And our collective social calendar ensured that there would always be friends coming and going, breathing a lively cheerful air into our apartment.
My roommate Sue was Korean-American with large doe-like eyes, and she combined a tender heart and soft speech with a no-nonsense approach to life. Neyra was Peurto-Rican-American, and her intense suffering as a child had transformed her into a worldly-wise, laid-back woman with a deep, infectious laugh. In spite of being busy, we held on to our “family nights” once a week, where we would make dinner together and rent a movie or go out.
“Jennie!” Sue would welcome me as I walked in the door after midweek, accenting the last syllable of my name in that dulcet voice of hers. “Just be his friend,” stressed Neyra in her lazy drawl, whenever I would rhapsodize over the new crush I had, as we sat cross-legged, eating lime flavored tortilla chips. Neyra and Sue each had a boyfriend, but I had only my crushes, and I put my head in the clouds every time I lost my heart. Neyra deemed it her affectionate duty to put my feet back on the ground.
Neyra also set me up with Matthieu.
I had spoken to Matthieu before. I knew that he had gotten baptized around the same time that I had, and that we had some very good friends in common. We had had a few brief encounters but ironically, instead of piquing my interest, it only served to make me dislike him. The first conversation we had was when I bounded up to him at church and told him I spoke French, confident he would be impressed with me. But he didn’t smile at all; he just nodded his head and muttered something.
That quickly deflated my generosity, and I thought he was rather haughty for someone so skinny.
Some time after that, I was at a friend’s house and her roommate was prepping to go out with him on a date as friends. I said casually, “Oh I should get to know him better too,” thinking I would be doing him a favor because he would have someone to speak French to. But she turned on me instantly, “Why? Do you like him or something?”
It dawned on me then that, not only did she like him, which I hadn’t realized, but that I most certainly did not. So I gave her a resounding no! as well as my blessing to have a great evening.
Over the years a few different people would say things like, “I know someone that you would totally like,” or “I know just the person you should get to know better – you have so much in common.” But as soon as the name Matthieu cropped up, I stopped listening. Or if required to respond, I would say, “Oh, he’s really not my type.”
Once, and I can only vaguely call up the memory after José reminded me of it, he and I were headed somewhere after a church event and I spontaneously grabbed his arm and asked, “José, where is my future husband? Who am I going to marry?”
Matthieu was crossing our path at that instant and José pointed to him and said, “Him!” He had gone white-water rafting with Matthieu a few weeks earlier, and had joined the ranks of the enthusiasts in aligning our future.
“Hm. Mm,” I shook my head. “Come on. You know he’s not my type,” which was exactly what I had said the first time he mentioned it.
Our church had the culture of greeting each other with a hug – you know, the casual across the back type of thing? Once I found myself standing right next to Matthieu at church before the aisles started to fill with people, so I gave him a smile, and he smiled back, and then he gave me a hug.
It was such a good hug! It wasn’t wimpy like I admit to thinking it would be – it was friendly and firm and welcoming. It took me aback for a moment, as it occurred to me that he was both warmer and more confident than I expected him to be. In a split-second, I considered the options. “If I started a conversation with him he would probably ask me out on a date.”
But then I thought, “Naa.” So I moved away and looked for other people I deemed more interesting to talk to.
I lost my job traveling around the world right about the same time that Matthieu put his foot down on travel in his own company, even threatening to quit if they didn’t find him a local project to work on. He had just spent an entire year living in Denver during the week and in New York on the weekends, and he decided that he just couldn’t do that anymore. The stars were aligned, as the saying goes, and we were ripe for an encounter.
Neyra, and another friend Betsy, were two of the people who had been pushing for us to meet, and I could have trusted their judgment. I should have trusted it, as they knew us both well. But I pushed back by force of habit until there was absolutely no one else on the horizon. I finally came to the conclusion that he was probably a nice guy, with whom it would be fun to speak French. And with that internal pronouncement, I gave Neyra permission to give him my number.
Strangely, he didn’t get in touch. So I questioned Neyra. “Did you give Matthieu my number?” When she assured me she had, I was quietly surprised that he hadn’t called yet, and a little piqued.
Neyra spoke to Matthieu a second time on the day he had just experienced a “disappointment” in his love life. He was standing at the sink washing dishes and mulling over his situation. Finally, he was inspired to pray, “God, not only do I not know what I need, I don’t even know what I want! I pray that you find a wife for me.”
When in just a few short hours later, Neyra reminded him about asking her roommate Jennie on a date, he thought to himself, “Could this be the answer to my prayer? So soon?” But that would have been ridiculously immediate. “No, no – it can’t possibly be!” he thought.
By this point, nothing – I mean, absolutely nothing – of interest was going on in my own love life so I sheepishly hinted to Neyra that I was surprised he hadn’t called yet. I was desperate for a date with someone I could at least have a good conversation with, even if he was not meant to be the love of my life. Shaking her head and shrugging her shoulders, she responded, “I reminded him.”
And then with her twinkling smile she added, “You’ll just have to wait til he calls you.” I started to feel frustrated. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t call when he had a chance to go on a date with me!
Neyra might have even reminded him a third time about asking me out, but it was as if the subject was wrapped in cotton wool for him, with all sense of immediacy was blunted. He had some vague thought that “Oh yeah, I need to call her like I said I would.” But he wasn’t sure who I was and wasn’t really motivated to go on another blind date.
One day things changed when I saw a mass e-mail with mutual friends, and his name was on the list of recipients. I couldn’t miss it – it was the only one where the entire first and last name, and lengthy e-mail address, were all in capital letters. His name stood out from the rest like it was heralding the presence of a prince amongst the court.
Without thinking twice, I copied his address and pasted it into a fresh e-mail, and wrote,
I’m friends with Betsy and roommates with Neyra, and everyone tells me you’re a great friend to have. We should hang out sometime.
I think if I had liked him I wouldn’t have had the courage to do this, or I would have been weird in what I wanted to say. But as it stood, I had nothing to lose.
When Matthieu got this short e-mail, he thought, “Oh, so this is Neyra’s roommate! I had better get on the ball.” He lost no time in writing back and setting something up, cushioning the date well after Valentine’s Day. He also let on that he wasn’t sure who I was, so I told him that I was the one who spoke French and said, “Bonjour” whenever our paths crossed.
That jogged his memory. He had always wondered what my name was when we exchanged greetings, but he gave it no more than a cursory thought. However, there was one incident that stood out in his mind. A few months before we went out for the first time, he remembered seeing me in a moment of incertitude and awkwardness. He was sitting with a friend at a diner, and he watched as I came into it and was hailed by a large group sitting at a nearby table. I looked a little out of place, blushing, and unsure of where to sit. It softened his heart towards me, this girl he knew by face alone. He thought to himself, “Aww I’ll be your friend!” This is what he remembered about me when he realized who I was.
The night we finally went out, I wore a black circle skirt and boots with a crimson top. I was excited to go out with him, even though I wasn’t expecting anything more than friendship and a fun date. He picked me up at the door, said “hi” to Neyra and Sue, and then smiled at me as we waited nervously by the elevator. He was friendlier than I expected.
As we were crossing the street to head towards the subway going downtown, he put his hand on my arm and said, “No, it’s this way.” I looked at him blankly. I thought we were going to Twenty-Third Street, so I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to turn down Second Avenue.
“My car. It’s over here,” he explained, smiling.
I couldn’t believe I was going on a date with a man who had a car – in Manhattan. He opened the door for me, and waited until I settled into the leather seat, before walking around and getting into the driver’s side. My nerves were bouncing up and down.
We went to a tea house first, because the place we were going for dinner promised to be loud and crowded, and this would give us a chance for conversation. As we talked, the thought flitted through my mind that he almost perfectly matched what I had been praying for in a husband – a man who loved children and classical music, a man who was from a different country and spoke a different language. But I wasn’t thinking of him in that role. The man I had been praying for would have black curly hair, and Matthieu’s hair was red. He was going to be my friend.
Eventually we walked across the street from the teahouse and met the others for the buffet style dinner. Even though there were many people whom we both knew, we were still wrapped up in our own conversation as we ate. After dinner, the salsa music started playing, and Matthieu lifted his eyebrows. “Shall we dance?”
“Sure,” I said nervously. I was not one to say no. But I had no idea how to dance salsa or how I was supposed to dance it with him, or whether he even knew what he was doing. But it seemed like he did know, because he led me confidently to the middle of the dance floor. And as I stood there with my eyes frozen wide and my mouth slightly open in panic, he sashayed his way over to me and grabbed my hands.
“Holy coooow,” I whispered to myself, giggling, as he grabbed me with firm hands and sure feet, and swept me into the turns.
“Here, hold your arms firm like this,” he said as he showed me, his feet unable to stay still when the music was pulsing. I laughed nervously, unable to take the stupid grin off my face. But he didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness, and kept adjusting his steps to compensate for my own that were faltering.
After a short time of his guiding me with strong hands and spinning me without hesitation, I felt like I was starting to follow where he led more smoothly. It didn’t seem as if he would ever tire, and every so often, would glance at me and smile encouragingly, as I focused on not making a mistake. I forgot we were supposed to be friends when he held me like that. When his hands pushed me one way, grabbed me around the waist and then spun me another way, my stomach quivered in a way that didn’t feel like we were friends.
Instead, this man who was “not my type” was inexplicably causing my heart to fall into my stomach in a very strange way. And when the evening was over, I could barely see my way off the dance floor because of the stars in my eyes.
I knew Neyra would be seeing him at her midweek service that Tuesday, so I made him a thank-you card and a small batch of Indian samosas, a nod to the fact that I remembered he had also traveled to India for his job. I was very excited for her to bring it to him, and to come home and tell me all about their conversation – to find out what he thought of me.
“So?” I asked excitedly, a stupid grin plastered on my face, as soon as she walked through the door. “Did he like the samosas? Did he have a good time on our date?” I peppered her eagerly.
“No,” she said firmly, shaking her head.
“Wait … what? He didn’t like the samosas? Or he didn’t like me?”
She continued to look at me, her face serious and resolute.
I couldn’t believe it. My face fell, as I was overcome by the sensation that my entire future was being stolen from me. There was no way … I knew this guy! He had to have felt the same way about me that I felt about him. The chemistry was so obvious the earth had shifted! My expression took on tragic proportions.
“Ha! Gotcha!” Neyra said laughing at me, as I sat down feebly at her change in demeanor. “He had a great time.”
“But just be – his – friend,” she stressed with her twinkling grin.
Sometimes God gives you a respite from the hardships and pressures of life so he can shower you with blessings. You hold firmly to the roundabout, and you run and run with the other children until you can’t keep up any longer. And then you throw yourself onto the roundabout as it whirls around and around. The scenery goes by in a pleasant blur, and you sit and watch it, and feel your center of gravity tugged at deliciously.
Before long, the panorama starts to slow down until you are able to notice the trees glinting in the sun, the sand on the playground, the small insects darting here and there in the sunlight. You feel the fresh breeze on your skin, and you keep spinning around without having to do anything at all.
This was that period of blessing for me, and I was spinning dizzily.