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The Opposite of Love

Chapter One

Last night, I dreamt that I chopped Andrew up into a hundred little pieces, like a Benihana chef, and ate them, one by one. He tasted like chicken. Afterward, I felt full but slightly disappointed. I had been craving steak.

I plan to forget this dream. I will block out the grainy texture of moo shu Andrew. The itch of swallowing him dry. I will erase it completely, without lingering echoes or annoying daja vu, despite the possibility that my dream led me inexorably to this moment.

Because I already know that, unlike the dream --- this dead end --- this one is going to stick. I am living an inevitable memory.

Today, I break up with Andrew in a restaurant that has crayons on the table and peanut shells on the floor. A drunken young woman in the midst of her bachelorette party, wearing little more than a cowboy hat and tassels, attempts to organize a line dance. I realize now that I should have waited for a better backdrop. It looks as if I think our relationship adds up to nothing more than a couple of beers and some satisfying, but fiery, buffalo wings. This is not the effect I was going for.

I had imagined that disentangling would be straightforward and civilized, maybe even a tiny bit romantic. The fantasy breakup in my head played out in pantomime; no explanations, only rueful smiles, a kiss good-bye on the cheek, a farewell wave thrown over a shoulder. The sting of nostalgia and the high of release, a combustible package, maybe, but one we would both understand and appreciate.

Instead, Andrew looks at me strangely, as if I am a foreigner he has just met and he can't place my accent. I refuse to meet his eyes. I quell the overwhelming desire to run outside into the swill of Third Avenue, to drown in the overflow of people spilling out from the bars and onto the street.

Surely, that would be better than feeling Andrew's confusion reverberate off his skin like a bad odor. I lock my legs around the bottom of my bar stool and stare at the bit of barbecue sauce that clings to his upper lip. This helps assuage my guilt. How could I be serious about a man who walks around with food on his face? In all fairness, Andrew is not walking around anywhere. He perches there, stunned.

And I, too, am adorned in condiments. The ketchup on my white tank top makes it look like my heart is leaking.

"This was never going to be a forever, happily-ever-after sort of thing. You knew that," I say, though it is clear from his silence and from the last few days that he did not. I wonder if he wants to hit me. I almost wish he would.

Seems strange now that I didn't realize this moment was coming, that I hadn't started practicing in my head before yesterday. I'm usually good at endings --- pride myself on them, in fact --- and I always find people disingenuous when they claim that a breakup came out of nowhere. Nothing comes out of nowhere, except for, perhaps, freak accidents. Or cancer. And even those things you should be prepared for.

I guess I could have just let the weekend unfold, followed the original plan with military precision, and woken up tomorrow with Andrew in my bed and his arm thrown across my shoulder. Later, at work, I would have been able to tell some funny Labor Day anecdote around the proverbial water cooler, the weekend always better in rose-colored instant replay. But though I firmly believe that a tree does not fall in the forest until someone later tells an amusing story about it, I realize now that there will be no tidbits to share tomorrow. At least not funny ones. I have made sure of that.

Today, during the last moments of the Labor Day weekend, I find myself sitting across from Andrew, the man with whom I have spent the past two years, attempting to explain why it is we need to stop seeing each other naked. I want to tell him it is merely our ages --- I am twenty-nine, Andrew is thirty-one --- that are at fault here. We are acting under a collective cultural delusion, the one that demands random connection after the quarter-life mark, a handcuffing to whoever lands by your side during a particular game of musical chairs. This is the only way I can explain how Andrew went so out of bounds yesterday, with his intimations of a ring and permission, with his hints of an impending proposal. But I don't say any of this out loud, of course. The words seem too vague, too much like an excuse, maybe, too much like the truth.

We had never been one of those fantasy-prone couples who presumed a happy ending or named their unborn children on their first date. Actually, our first date was at a restaurant remarkably similar to this one, and rather than talking about the future, or even ourselves, we had a fierce competition over who could eat more hot wings. We left the restaurant with lips so swollen that when he kissed me good night I could barely feel it. Four months later, he admitted rushing the date because the wings gave him diarrhea. It took me two more months to confess that I had let him win.

He didn't take that so well.

Whenever the future did come up, though, we always included convenient "ifs" in our language, deflating whatever followed into something less loaded.

"If we ever have kids, I hope they have your eyes and my toes," I would say, while tracing circles on Andrew's stomach with my fingertips.

"If we ever have kids, I hope they have your intestines. That way, we could enter them in competitive eating contests and retire to Mexico on their winnings," he would say, and gather my hair into a ponytail and then let it slip back through his hands, like the strands were only on loan.

Perhaps the lesson here is to pay attention. There is always a lesson, isn't there? There has to be, because without one, what would be the point? So maybe this time it is to be vigilant, to watch out. Because somehow, sometime yesterday, without my noticing, without my perceiving, our fault line shifted.

The plan was to walk up to Central Park with our friends Daniel and Kate, to jointly celebrate our limited free time by wantonly wasting it. The curtain of Manhattan humidity had been replaced with a whistling breeze, and after a choking August, we were relieved to be balancing between seasons. Since the rest of the city had better places to be over the holiday weekend, we took advantage of having the sidewalks to ourselves. Andrew and I weaved back and forth, elbowing each other in the ribs, sticking out our feet to trip the other, pinching sides in a game of gotcha-last. I was feeling pure pleasure, not dithering happiness. No buzz of anxiety or free fall in my stomach to warn of what was to come.

Daniel and Kate walked in front of us. Her engagement ring, whose presence loomed out of proportion to its size, would occasionally catch the sun and paint shadow shows on the sidewalk. Our closest friends --- we could still say "our" yesterday, we were still a "we" then --- and somehow, more than that, they were also symbols of how things can be for some people, how effortless commitment can look. Daniel and Kate were the adults leading this brigade, though at a languid pace, since it was clear that we should savor this last bit of summer before the trees shed their leaves to make room for the snow.

After I caught Andrew in a sneaky gotcha-last move --- the never-fail distract-and-mislead maneuver --- he ended the game by lacing his fingers in mine. We walked that way for a while, hand in hand, until I felt him start to toy with my empty ring finger, wrapping it with the whole of his palm in an infant grip. And though he kept quiet, it was as if he said the words out loud. He was going to ask me to marry him.

His thoughts, I could tell, were wholly methodical --- the hows of proposing, not the ifs or the whys. Finding a free day to take the train out to Connecticut to get my father's permission or to Riverdale to ask my Grandpa Jack. Conjuring up the name of my favorite restaurant and his family jeweler. No meditation on whether he knows me well enough to zip together our futures, no concern that he can't decipher the infinite thoughts that run through my inaccessible brain at any given moment. But that's who Andrew is, ultimately; someone not overly bothered by the ifs and the whys.

Before I could wonder if my rising panic was merely the result of an illusion, he pulled me toward a jewelry-shop window, his arm cupped around my back. I imagined the rings winking at me, laughing at my discomfort.

"Do you like anything?" he asked.

"That bracelet is pretty," I said. "Oh, and those earrings are gorgeous. I like how dangly they are. I never wear dangly. And, look, they have a one hundred percent money-back guarantee. I like when you can get your money back."

"How about those rings?"

"Too sparkly. I prefer the dangly earrings."

"Come on, what kinds of cuts do you like? Princess, oval, marquise?" The man had clearly done his homework. This is not the first time he has thought about this, I realized.


"I don't know the difference. It's not my sort of thing," I said, which was true. I thought Marquise was an island in the Caribbean. And then, because I didn't know what else to do, I pointed far into the distance.

"Look!" I said, like a child who has just learned a new word. "A puppy."

The rest of the afternoon unraveled like a well-scripted sitcom, with the four of us playing a silly game of monkey-in-the-middle in the park, jokingly competitive, and tackling one another unnecessarily. I was perhaps the silliest of all, overcompensating for the dread I was feeling, somehow believing that goofiness would stave off the inevitable.

But there was no way out, really. I had made a promise not to work this weekend, even "accidentally" left my BlackBerry behind in the office, something I had never done before in my almost five years as a litigator at Altman, Pryor and Tisch, LLP. I was off my leash, which had seemed like a good idea before the weekend, when I thought I needed a break from the billable hour, not from my life. I hadn't known I would want to dive right back into the pile of papers on my desk, run away to a place that has no room for words like "our" and "we."

But work would have been mere procrastination. I had come to my decision in front of the jewelry store. I was going to break up with Andrew before he knelt down and asked an impossible question. I would shatter our naive and comfortable world like the kid who plays with a gun in an after-school special.

Self-awareness is a slippery thing, though, when you find yourself at odds with a "supposed to" in life. I understand that I am supposed to want to marry Andrew. That some women wait their whole lives to stand before a bended knee or fantasize about a sparkly stone that silently announces to the world, See, someone loves me. Someone picked me. That some women dream of that choreographed first dance with their new husband before the crowd erupts into a vigorous "YMCA."

Or, better yet, that almost all of us want someone to be our very own partner in crime, to drive us home from the airport, to cheer when we succeed, and to hold our hair when we vomit. And if I am honest with you, I do want that, in one form or another.

But getting married? To Andrew? 'Til death do us part? I can't do it. I would be nothing more than a fraud, a pretend grown-up, a con artist playing the role of bride. I don't even want to spend the rest of my life with me. How can Andrew? And how do you explain to someone you love that you can't give yourself to them, because if you did, you're not sure who you'd be giving? That you aren't even sure what your own words are worth? You can't tell someone that, especially someone you love. And so I don't.

Instead, I do the right thing. I lie.

"Well, I guess that's it, then," Andrew says to me now, his voice barely audible over the jukebox. His tone is hard and resigned, without even a hint of pleading. He handles this like a professional. Clinical acceptance.

"I'm sorry."

Andrew just nods, as if he is suddenly sleepy and his head is too heavy a burden to carry.
"I want you to know I care about you a lot," I say, like I am reading from a book on how to break up with someone. I even have the nerve to add "It's not you. It's me."

Andrew lets a strangled laugh escape. I have finally provoked him. He has moved from confusion to sadness and now, finally, to what I am most comfortable with, anger.

"You're fucking right. It is you, Em. Don't you worry. I know that this is all about you." He grabs his jacket and is about to leave. I want to stop him, to prolong this terrible moment before finality. But there is nothing left to say.

"I'm sorry," I whisper, as he throws some bills onto the table. "I really am." This takes the air out of the moment, and the tightness in his shoulders softens at the sound of my words.

"I know," he says, and his eyes bore into mine. Surprisingly, they are not filled with anger or sadness or love, but with something that looks a hell of a lot like pity. Andrew clears his throat, kisses me on the cheek, and walks calmly out of the restaurant.

Within seconds, he gets absorbed into the swell of Third Avenue. And it is me who is left sitting alone, watching the door and chewing on the bones of his leftover hot wings.

I walk the twenty blocks to my apartment, and it helps to clear my head. The air tingles in my nose, another hint that autumn will soon relieve summer. I take Madison Avenue and watch the crowds savoring the last few moments of the long weekend and the season, sitting with shiny cocktails on makeshift street-level patios. I envy them their last taste of freedom before the workweek. For a moment, I consider stopping for a cosmopolitan at a swanky bar; maybe I can pretend to be one of them, in camouflage, and postpone feeling anything for another hour or two.


Chapter Two 

The first time Andrew laughed in his sleep, I should have woken him and broken up with him right then and there. No one deserves to be that happy. 

Instead, though, I curled my body around his, pushed my belly tight against his back, and absorbed the vibrations. I had hoped that whatever made him that free, that pure, was contagious. It wasn’t. 

When I sleep through the night, I dream in black and white. I  see images of men chasing me through circular mazes, of getting sucked into an envelope shaped gutter, of disappearing into a crowd at Times Square. Some days, my anxiety dreams are prosaic, the kind that have all been dreamt before: teeth falling out, showing up at work naked, screaming until my throat dries up. Even the steamy ones can turn on me, switching genres from romance to noir. In those dreams, I stand up after passionate sex with a stranger, let cigarette smoke billow out a darkened window, and contemplate the person I have forgotten and wronged. 

I don’t always have nightmares. Sometimes the night brings only sweet relief. But I can tell you this: I may have laughed at my dreams, the next morning mocking their high-school-level special effects or grade B porn, but I have never laughed in my sleep. I am just not that happy. 

Last night, I lay in the middle of my queen-size bed in an effor to reclaim the space, to eliminate any evidence that it was once split into sides. I erase the crease Andrew left behind just twelve hours earlier by making vigorous snow angels on the ivory sheets. Sleep never had a chance. 

The alarm goes off at eight a.m., and I drag myself out of bed. A quick glance in the mirror confirms what I already know --- I look like crap. I have shiny dark circles under my eyes, as if someone attacked me with a purple Crayola marker. My stomach feels raw and empty. You did this, I tell myself. You are not going to start feeling sorry for yourself now. Get over it. 

I dress in my favorite black suit, which always feels like a costume, its thin pinstripes elongating my body, the cut managing to be both professional and sexy. When I put it on, I transform suddenly into the comic-book character that Andrew and I used to call, in unison falsetto, “SuuuperLawyer.” I wear it today for that extra boost. 

My commute seems strangely solitary. The number 6 train, normally packed by the time I get on at Bleecker Street, holds only two other people: a homeless guy, with ink-stained fingers and a pile of newspapers on his lap, and a young woman in a skirt and sneakers, reading Harry Potter. Neither looks up when I take my seat. The train lets me out at Grand Central, and I walk two more blocks to my building, a skyscraper that looks much like its neighbors and has thousands of small windows that do not open. They seal them to keep people from jumping. 

I flash my security badge at Marge, the guard at the turnstile. She is about six foot one, both in height and width, her biceps and thighs indistinguishable. A human palindrome. Her face, too, has an eerie symmetry, with features that form parallel lines; her eyes, set too close to the nose, mirror her lips --- thin, wide, and cinched in the middle. Every day, Marge wears a navy-blue polyester suit that pulls around her back, steel-toed boots, and hot-pink lipstick, the latter probably purchased to fight a rapidly approaching or recently arrived middle age. I wish I had Marge’s presence. When she walks into a room, I imagine people notice. This is a woman, they think,who can kick my ass in ten seconds or less. This is a woman, they think, whose makeup wouldn’t even smear. 

I have walked past Marge at least twice a day, five days a week, for the last five years, more than 2,600 times in all --- I once did the math --- and she has not once wished me a good morning. When I first started at Altman, Pryor and Tisch, it was dehumanizing, somehow, that our daily encounter would go unacknowledged, and it became my mission to get Marge to notice me. It was one way to make my work life more interesting, since the rest of my hours were spent locked in a conference room reviewing millions of accounting documents for a fraud case. Some of my male colleagues, I found out from my friend Mason, would numb their own pain by masturbating in the bathroom. I now, of course, avoid shaking hands in the office. 

Marge seemed like a more appropriate project. I was trying to carve out my own, friendlier New York. My tactics were harmless. I tried smiling and using her name, complimenting her hair. I even tried poking her once. I admit that was a mistake. 

Despite my valiant effort, though, Marge has never said a single word to me. Never even smiled at me. I like to believe this is because she was trained at Buckingham Palace and that, should she speak, she would have a posh British accent, and not the rough Brooklynese of the other guards. 

I like to believe it is her civic duty to stare straight ahead. After about a year, I finally gave up my crusade. I just ran out of energy. New York seems to do that to people; it finally wears you down until you do things its way. I now simply nod at Marge when I walk by and imagine that she feels something resembling maternal affection for me. 

When I get to my office, Karen, my secretary, has already left twelve messages on my chair, with a Post-it note that says Good Luck!!!! Four exclamation points, one for each message from a notoriously difficult partner, Carl MacKinnon, demanding to know why I did not respond to his six e-mails over the weekend. I write him a quick passive-aggressive message that is far less deferential than usual. 

I just don’t have it in me today to bend over. 

To: Carl R. MacKinnon, APT
From: Emily M. Haxby, APT
Subject: HOLIDAY weekend 

Accidentally left BlackBerry in office over the weekend, so
I did not get all of your e-mails until this morning. In answer to
your urgent questions, our hearing date on the Quinn matter
is August 29, 2010, approximately two years from now. And,
no, I have not yet started preparing. 

From: Carl R. MacKinnon, APT
To: Emily M. Haxby, APT
Subject: Re: HOLIDAY weekend 

Emily, you have been with the firm long enough to know
that “accidentally” forgetting your BlackBerry is an unacceptable excuse. See me in my office at noon. We have issues to discuss. 

A few years ago, Carl’s e-mail would have reduced me to tears; today, I laugh it off. If he wants to fire me at noon, it will be a blessing. 

From: Emily M. Haxby, APT
To: Mason C. Shaw, APT
Subject: FW: Re: HOLIDAY weekend 

Oops. Mason, can you please get Marge to go kick Carl’s
ass? I bet she would let you watch. 

To: Emily M. Haxby, APT
From: Mason C. Shaw, APT
Subject: Re: FW: Re: HOLIDAY weekend 

Will do. But from what I hear about Carl, I think he might
enjoy it. He’s the kind of guy who likes a good spanking.
Lunch Thursday? 

Thank God for Mason. At four o’clock in the morning --- when I am drowning in a pool of deposition transcripts and haven’t gotten more than a couple of hours of sleep over the course of the week --- Mason is the one who trots out well-worn imitations of the senior partners to keep me laughing. He manages to make the absurdity of our daily existence at APT an endless source of entertainment, magically manipulating tedium into a form of sport. Mason’s the type of guy who exploited the small victories of high school ---  simultaneously captain of the football team, student-body president, and deflowerer of the entire cheerleading squad --- but instead of peaking like so many homecoming kings of yesteryear, he continued to pillage all the way to graduating first in his class at Stanford Law School. He’s a serial monogamist with a short attention span, which means he always has a girlfriend but never for long enough that I need to remember her name. They are usually interchangeable, anyway: blond and silicone and placated by shiny objects. They demand little and get less. I am not sure Mason and I would have crossed paths and become friends outside the bizarre snow globe of law-firm life, but now that we have, he’s a keeper. 

To: Mason C. Shaw, APT
From: Emily M. Haxby, APT
Subject: Re: Re: FW: Re: HOLIDAY weekend 

If I still have my job on Thursday, we’re on. If not, you’re

Before I have time to respond to my other work messages and dig out of the big hole I created for myself by not checking e-mail this weekend, Kate swings by my office and pokes her head in the door frame. Her hair is pulled back into a tight chignon with a thin headband, and her tailored shirt is tucked in and belted. 

Everything kept in its place. Her look is softened, though, by the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes; somehow, the lines manage to make her look younger, playful even. 

“Em,” she whispers. “What have you done?” 

At first I think she is talking about my lie to Carl, and I feel a shot of fear that I actually may be fired. How did she know so quickly? How will I pay rent? But then I remember last night and see the hurt look on her face, like I broke up with her and not Andrew. 

“I guess good news travels fast.” My flat voice belies my smile. 

“Andrew called Daniel last night.” 


Kate sits down across from me and kicks the door closed with her spike heel. “I’m worried about you, Em. I don’t get it.” 

“I know. I’m not so sure I get it either.” 

“But you guys were happy.” 

“I guess. Sometimes. Us getting married though? Not a good idea.” Kate’s eyebrows crunch together, and she looks at me, really looks at me, like she is not sure who I am all of a sudden.

Chapter two, continued 

I’m still here. I’m still me, I want to say, but I don’t, because I am not surprised by her reaction. I knew she would be upset, mad at me even, for breaking up with Andrew, since she was the one who brought us together in the first place. Kate had arranged our blind date under the theory that it made sense to seal the friendship gap, that it was only logical that one of your best friends and one of your fiancé’s best friends would be a perfect fit. She wasn’t half wrong. When Kate first came up with the idea to set us up, she described Andrew as a “great catch,” which instantly made me reluctant to meet him. Though everyone I knew seemed to be either settling down or looking to settle down, I was never on a deep-sea fishing expedition to find a boyfriend. And a “great catch,” well, that seemed to be begging for heartache. 

Though Kate didn’t believe me, I liked being alone. As an only child of easily distracted parents, I have never had trouble entertaining myself. Preferred things that way. When I was kid, even before my mother died and I retreated into my bedroom and Sharpied the words GO AWAY onto the door, I spent much of my time tucked away in tight corners reading Nancy Drew mysteries, a place where kids seemed smarter and more capable than grownups. I barely noticed when my parents blew kisses on the way out the door to cocktail parties, unfazed by their desire to enter a world where I didn’t meet the height requirement. As an adult, I haven’t changed all that much. 

But to be fair, Kate was absolutely right; Andrew was a catch. Irresistible, if I had been inclined to resist him, which I wasn’t. He checks off all of the boxes: He is smart, successful, and funny. He is good-looking, but not scarily so. His left eye dips just a tad lower than the right, and he has this endearing way of cocking his head to the side to even them out. He always takes out the garbage, changes the toilet-paper roll, cleans the hair from the shower drain. Sure, he leaves his toenails behind on the coffee table, consistently runs twenty minutes late, and secretly enjoys Internet porn, but I have no doubt that he will make a wonderful husband to some lucky wife. The truth is, he would have been wasted on me. 

“Andrew really liked you. He told Daniel. You did well,” Kate reported to me after our first date. As if the date was a performance and I had gotten good reviews. And later, when Andrew and I had officially become a couple, Kate would gloat about her matchmaking abilities. I now feel guilty for tarnishing her reputation. She had wanted to put a marriage on her résumé, and she would have been excited about being one of my bridesmaids. She actually likes that kind of stuff; her smile is eerily unaffected by the prospect of head-to-toe taffeta. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had already ordered me a T-shirt that says Mrs. Warner on the back. 

“Em, please just tell me why,” she says, and suddenly, with all of the strength I have left in my body, I want to make my friend understand. I am just not sure how. I am not sure I even understand. 

“I don’t know why. I just couldn’t see myself as Mrs. Warner. Or Mrs. Haxby-Warner. Or whatever I would be called. I can’t marry him, Kate. I can’t. I’m not sure I would still be me if I did.” I concentrate on doodling empty hearts on my legal pad. “Whoever the hell that is.” 

“You don’t have to change your name.” 

“I know that. It’s not about my name.” I start drawing large bouquets of flowers, making circling loops for the petals. 

“But I don’t get it. He hasn’t even asked you yet. You guys don’t have to get married right now, if you’re not ready.” She glances at her ring and covers one of her hands with the other. 

“I’m never going to be ready, though. Andrew is great. We both know that. But it’s just not enough. I can’t become his other half. You know what I mean?” I ask, though I know she does not. She has never had to question things between her and Daniel. She has always just known. Kate’s charm lies in her placid consistency. 

“Maybe you are holding out for something that doesn’t exist,” she says. 

“It’s not that I am looking for someone better, or anything like that. He’s the best. But he doesn’t understand me.” I know I sound full of lame excuses, but I can’t bring myself to say what I really want to. I ate him, Kate, and he tasted just like chicken. I ate him, Kate, and I barely felt a thing. I keep these thoughts to myself, because I know I don’t make any sense. 

“I guess the truth of the matter is this isn’t about Andrew at all,”
I say instead. 

“No. No, I don’t think it is,” she says, and the look she gives me now is identical to the one Andrew gave me last night; it looks something like pity. She crosses the room and kisses me on my forehead, a gesture only she can get away with. No condescension or judgment, just a move to bring the mood back to level. Kate never leaves a wake; instead, she makes sure to smooth things out. 

“All right, we’ll talk more about this later. I’ve got to get back to work,” she says. Kate is three years senior to me and is aiming to make partner next year. If she does --- and she will if there is any justice in this world --- Kate will become the second woman litigation partner in the two-hundred-year history of APT. I, on the other hand, was told at my last review that I need to work on mydedication to the firm. 

“By the way, be careful, Em. Avoid Carl today at all costs. He is looking for someone to work on the new Synergon water case.” 

“Please, please tell me you’re making that up. I already have a meeting scheduled with him this afternoon.” 

There is no doubt about it, the look in her eyes now is definitely
pity. I am screwed. Day one at APT, we were taught by the senior
associates that there were only three things you needed to avoid at
the firm in order to survive: Synergon, Carl MacKinnon, and the
Chinese take-out place on the corner. 

“It gets worse. Carisse has already been assigned to it, so she’ll be the most senior person under Carl.” 

Now, I like to think that I don’t hate anyone in this world, but that would be a big, fat lie. I hate Carisse. Even Kate, who does not hate anyone, makes an exception for her. Carisse is one of those women who should be kicked out of the Sisterhood. Her transgressions, beyond sleeping with various married partners, include playing games with her underlings, such as Passing the Blame and Do My Work for Me and I’ll Take the Credit, Thank You. She’s famous for saying things like Wow, you look terrible/tired/bloated, or congratulating you on your nonexistent pregnancy. Although she is only two years ahead of me at the firm, just another cog in the associate ranks, she commands as if she is managing partner. I sometimes think that if I could murder her and get away with it, it would not be hard to pull the trigger. The world would be a much better place without her. 

“Sorry, Em,” Kate says, and walks out the door. I look down at my notepad and notice a new set of doodles. I have been drawing little daggers. 

At noon, I walk into Carl’s office in what I hope is a defiant way. 

Maybe my unfriendly demeanor will change his mind about assigning me to the case. I channel Marge. She brings me strength in times like these. 

Carl sits behind an enormous mahogany desk that is empty except for a sleek flat-screen monitor. Although not a tall man, his chair is pumped up to what seems like ten feet off the ground. I notice that his guest chairs rest about two inches from the floor. He is on the phone, and he signals me to enter with a flick of his wrist. I sit on the minuscule seat. The chair thing actually works. I feel like a five-year-old getting scolded in the principal’s office. Impressively framed degrees line the wall, and the names jump out. Princeton. Wharton Business School. Harvard Law School. Could he possibly have gone to all three? An award from Save the Children hangs beside them; apparently, Carl was Donor of the Year in 1994, 1999, and 2005. A picture of him hugging a skinny African kid shares the frame. 

Carl stares at me, evaluates me, while he sweet-talks a client on the phone. I cradle a legal pad against my chest to avoid him taking a peek at my cleavage. He’s the type who somehow thinks it’s perfectly acceptable at one moment to scream at an associate and in the next, if the associate happens to be wearing a skirt, to put his hand on her thigh. Rumor has it that though his partnership shares have been cut more than a few times for sexual harassment, he’ll never be fired, because he could take too many big clients, like Synergon, with him. There is also firm lore that he once threw the annotated New York Civil Procedure and Laws Rule Book at an associate’s head. 

That had to hurt. 

Oh, and did I mention his pregnant wife? She’s expecting twins. Usually, if I know I will be meeting with Carl, I wear my dowdiest clothing, leave my makeup at home, and pull my hair back in an old-lady bun. I like to believe this is why he has never hit on me. Of course, I am firmly anti–sexual harassment, but I have to admit that I worry about the fact that my costume works so well; I’m the only woman in the office he has never made a pass at. 

“So, I am assigning you to the new Synergon water case. It will be you, me, and Carisse, though as the most junior person, I expect you to do most of the legwork on this one,” Carl says, after he hangs up the phone. There it is. My stomach drops. The fact I already knew it was coming does not cushion the blow. 

“I expect you to devote one hundred and ten percent of your time to this. It requires all the manpower we have and is a great opportunity to show your dedication to the firm. I expect that there will be no incidents like this weekend?” I nod, and Carl sniffs the air as if he smells something bad. 

“Of course, Carl. I’m sorry about that.” The apology slips out before I can stop it, and I am ashamed of myself for giving in so easily. I might as well just give him a blow job and get it over with. “All right, now here are the details. Synergon is being sued by about fifty different families in Arkansas state court. Basically, we are defending against a bunch of Erin Brockovich–type cases, though fortunately that bitch isn’t involved this time. You know, she looks nothing like Julia Roberts.” 

“Oh,” I say. 

“All these poor people in the middle of nowhere Arkansas have gotten cancer and are growing third eyes and the like, and they are claiming it’s because we have been dumping chemicals in the water.” 

“Is there evidence of dumping?” 

“Yeah, Synergon has been dumping petrochemicals in the Caddo River for over fifty years. They just assumed none of the WT who live nearby would be smart enough to sue.” 

“WT?” I ask. 

“White trash. But, honestly, dumping does not necessarily equal cancer. Yeah, they have been spilling chemicals, but no one has proven this is why these people are getting sick.” 

I look up at Carl and see a small smile playing at the corners of his lips. He enjoys this, I realize, this squashing of the little guy. Carl must have been pantsed daily in high school, been beaten up in the cafeteria, perhaps even swirlied. There is just no other way to explain his level of evil. His aimless revenge. 

“Really, this case is simply the plaintiffs’ bar trying to squeeze some more money out of corporate America,” he says. 

“But if there was dumping --- ” 

“Do I really need to repeat this? Write this down, Emily. Dumping does not necessarily equal cancer. Dumping equals dumping. Not cancer. Got it?” 

“I guess...” 

“So here is our plan of attack, though I will leave the details and the heavy lifting to you. We are going to go A Civil Action on their asses. Did you read that book?” 

“Yup, it was required my first year of law school.” I don’t add that it was for an ethics class and that the point was to teach us how not to practice law. 

“Good, good. Here is the big picture. First, we get some expert reports from a few scientists who will say that there is no causal connection between the chemicals and cancer. Which, really, I don’t think there is.” Carl looks down at his notes. “There is a list of experts Synergon always uses. We’ll also serve the plaintiffs with tons of discovery requests and file as many motions as we can get away with to ratchet up their legal costs. Synergon has piles of money to throw at this, but the other side clearly doesn’t. “After we win on summary judgment, which we will because they can’t prove a damn thing, then comes act three. We sue them for our attorneys’ fees. We probably won’t get ’em, but it’s still a win-win for us. Synergon is impressed by our aggressive stance, we get to bill more hours, and best of all it teaches people not to mess with Synergon.” He smiles again, and I swear I see his chest puff out. “Get started drafting the first set of discovery requests immediately. I expect them on my desk tomorrow morning. Also, plan on traveling to Arkansas a lot over the coming months. Get some decent luggage. And one more thing.” He pauses and waits for me to catch his eye. “Nice suit, Emily.” And with a wink, I am dismissed from his office. Somehow he leaves me no doubt that he just pictured me naked. When you take a job as a litigator at a large law firm, you know that you are selling your soul. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either lying or fooling themselves. But, until this moment, I had always thought about it as selling my life, and not really my soul. I knew going in that the job would require all of my time, leaving little for anything resembling a social life. As an associate, canceling plans, doctors’ appointments, and vacations all comes with the territory. 

Most of us spend Friday afternoons keeping our fingers crossed, praying that this week will be the exception, that a partner will not drop work on our desks that invariably “needs” to be done by Monday morning. But soul-selling aside, being an associate is still a pretty good deal. Though most days I feel overworked and understimulated, the salary leaves me enough room to pay off my gigantic law school loans and to rent my own studio in the Village. Though the space is only four hundred square feet, in Manhattan, where people sell their organs for an apartment, having my own little corner carved out feels luxurious. I start looking over the complaints that have been filed against Synergon. I read about some of the plaintiffs, impoverished people from a tiny little town that no one has ever heard of: Caddo Valley, Arkansas. Population: 565. The first complaint is from the Jones family, and they are suing because their mother, Jo-Ann, died from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Mr. Jones has five kids to raise alone now, all between the ages of two and nine. They live .25 miles from the Caddo River, and Jo-Ann is the seventh person in Caddo Valley to get the diagnosis. This gives the town a cancer rate five hundred times the national average. While I consider the details of the complaint, I sit on the forty-fifth floor of a high-rise building smack in the middle of New York City. My office is a large box constructed from gleaming steel and glass, a lofty perch, with a view of the city’s grid of organized chaos. The only thing I have in common with the Joneses is that my mother, too, died of cancer. That suddenly doesn’t seem like all that much. A wave of shame passes over me when I realize that this is my job. This is what I am paid to do. I get a check every two weeks, a 401k, and health-care benefits (which cover me should ever get cancer), and in exchange, I will spend this evening, and the next six months, manufacturing ways to prevent Synergon from redistributing a tiny portion of its wealth to fifty families that need, and deserve, the help. I wonder what Andrew, who paddles people back to life every day in the E.R., whomakes the world a better place, would think about the case, but I push him out of my head. I then wonder briefly, like a flicker, what my mother, whose own hair fell out strand by strand and whose breasts were carved out of her chest, would say if she knew who I have grown up to be. I don’t want to know. Instead, I click over to the American Cancer Society Web site and make a hundred-dollar donation, a small penance, nothing in comparison to the fifty million at stake in the litigation. And then I begin drafting the countless discovery requests for Carl and block everything else out. I don’t look up until my window has gone dark and night has fallen on Manhattan. The only sound, the periodic bleating of distant sirens, is soothing, a New York lullaby. It does not once occur to me to quit.

Excerpted from THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE © Copyright 2011 by Julie Buxbaum. Reprinted with permission by The Dial Press. All rights reserved.

The Opposite of Love
by by Julie Buxbaum

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385341229
  • ISBN-13: 9780385341226