98. Laura Gerson, Auditor

“Laura, waiting for a flight home.”

It hadn’t been easy. Laura had a lot on her mind in those days. The kids. The job. Sex. And it is all driving her slightly nuts. So, first things first. Laura lost her husband a while back. Heart failure. She’s got two kids. Back then, one was in junior high. The other was in her third year of an ivy league school. Each of them has their own way of freaking Laura out. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. That’s what she kept telling herself. Her shoes told her otherwise. Laura is a practical girl and never really liked high heels. And she walks heel first. Even the mid-height heels she wears take a beating and her shoes always have this squashed look as she often slips sideways in them. It didn’t help that she had to shlep a laptop and all these books in her bag when she visited clients – something she had to do at least twice a week. There was also at least one plane ride a week. Clomp-clomping around airports. Up-and-down stairs. It doesn’t take long for a new pair of shoes to look like hell and to give Laura the feeling that she looks a lot like her shoes.

Her sweet little daughter, Paula, never failed to drive the point home. At fourteen, Paula was very fashion-forward and troubled by her mother’s failure to measure up to her friend’s mothers. “Ma, you’re always wearing those boring suits. And those shoes. Not too cool!”

This Laura didn’t need. When stuff happens – and worse – she’s learned to take a deep breath, say to herself “What next?” Her goal was and is just gets things done without a lot of screaming and arm waving. Like when Paula announced her new dietary regimen, something her mother definitely did not need. Paula just decided to go on a nutrition kick with her friends. Not just vegetarian. Something else with almost no food at all except for these weird smoothies she made in the blender with celery and what she calls “detox oils.” When Laura told her, she will eat normal food, Paula was not very nice, even for a fourteen-year-old, “Do you think I want to grow up to be a pudge like you?”

And then there are Paula’s late nights with friends. One night, Paula came home after midnight, wearing an outfit her grandmother would call “next to naked” drenched in perfume. Laura thought the perfume smelled like cat piss and the outfit looked perverted. She was thankful her own mother, Glynnis, wasn’t there to see it. Glynnis was seventy then and hadn’t been well. But she still had a sharp tongue and had kept up her skill at making judgmental remarks. When Laura’s husband, a very successful architect, had his last and final heart attack, paid no attention to it, collapsed, and died on a job site, Laura’s mother’s idea of sympathy was to say: “Now, at last, you can find a real man.”

Glynnis never believed Laura’s husband was an architect. She insisted he was an interior decorator and therefore was “a man with no stones, if you know what I’m saying.” The only positive Glynnis ever said about Laura’s husband was, “At least he just didn’t come home one day and disappeared like my husband, the rat, did.” The day Glynnis said that, Laura had to run out of the house before she broke down in hysterical laughter. It was not a happy family.

It got less happy when Laura cleaned out her daughter’s closet and threw out Paula’s favorite party clothing. “You are fourteen and fourteen-year-old don’t have the brains to wear any of this stuff. It’s what hookers wear. And not even good hookers. Final. Done. And no more sneaking out or I call the cops.” Laura is pretty easy-going but when Paula came home obviously drunk or high on drugs and with a black eye, she decided some of this stuff has got to stop. Of course, it didn’t but it was a good try.

Laura’s older daughter, Joan, was different. Always a good girl. Studious. Thoughtful. Responsible. Helpful. Never got into trouble. A promising oboe player. So, her affair with a senior member of her university’s faculty came as a decidedly “what next” shocker. It was her junior year in college. He was married. Had two children, one about Joan’s age. It was clear to Laura that this was not going to have a happy ending. He was never going to leave his wife. If it got out, his career could be over. And Joan would end up looking like a jerk with little chance of getting the recommendations she’d need for graduate work.

And as smart as Joan was and as sophisticated as she thought she was, it was clear – Joan could be in way over her head. Professor Epstein’s wife was no match for her. A brilliant woman in her own right. Beautiful. An elegant dresser. She knew what was going on. And knew that one word from her and Professor Epstein would fold and come running home in terror.

When Joan came home for a weekend, gushing about the love of her life, Laura had just bought a new pair of shoes. She’d just been promoted and given a hefty raise. She’d been going to a trainer and had lost a few pounds. In one way, she was happy for Joan.

Joan had always focused on studies and music and avoiding getting involved with dating. Her only “outside” activity was running. She could do ten miles easy. And did it three times a week. It was about time for some adventure and romance. But, Laura figured, not this romance. When Joan went on about how wonderful and how right her love affair was, Laura listened without saying a word. It all seemed a bit artificial, as if Joan was trying to justify the whole thing, not just to her mother but to herself. So, when Joan stopped talking, Laura said, “Joannie, darling, we don’t need this.”

At which point Joan dropped the charade and agreed. “Ma, don’t worry, this is an experience. And it’s been great. But it’ll be over by Christmas break. I’m not the first undergrad Professor E had his paws on. And I won’t be the last. So, don’t worry. We’ve been as careful as we could be and no one is going to get hurt. He is very smart. And generous. He’s taught me a lot. And made sure I wasn’t really in love with him. In some ways, this has more about the reading list he keeps giving me than about romance.”

So, Joan went back to school and, just as she predicted, the romance with the great Professor Epstein soon drifted into history, another experience for Joan to add to her education. It may have also been an education for Laura as well. She had to admit, “Joannie is a lot smarter about this stuff than I was at her age. No tears. Not as far as I know.” She also had to admit, she envied her little Joannie. She could use a bit of that sort of excitement herself.

And one thing she knew for sure, there was not likely to be any excitement of any sort, at least not for a good while.

Looking back on that realization with the advantage of ten years’ distance, Laura had to laugh. Her job provided more than enough craziness and excitement for a lifetime. When she got a promotion, things got more challenging than she could have imagined. Somehow, her company expected her to become a very different person. They talked about Laura’s “great leadership potential.” The trouble was that Laura did not see herself that way. She suddenly had to manage a couple of dozen people and the politics that went with each of them. There were two or three of her “reports” who were real snakes. Laura put up with them for a year. She hated firing anyone for any reason. But in the end a friend of hers in personnel told her it was going to be her or them and she should get rid of them as soon as possible. “Do it for any reason or no reason whatsoever. Just do it.”

On top of that, Laura was expected to bring in business. She hated the idea of selling. She saw herself as an auditor, someone who handles data and finds and solves problems, not as some sort of huckster. But just when the pressure from management to “grow your business” began to get serious, she got lucky. One of her clients was recruited away from his company to a very senior position in another company. And he immediately hired Laura and her firm to be his accountants and advisors. Laura went from someone who might not have a bright future in her company to being a star performer.

And that’s where things began to go wrong for her. ‘I just wanted to be a good number cruncher. Not some hotshot. I like working with numbers. It is fun for me. I can figure out what’s kosher and what isn’t and how to make things right if it’s needed. I don’t want to go to fancy client lunches or boozy dinners with clients who might embarrass themselves by trying to put a hand up my skirt. At my age, I can’t believe they do it but just shows to go you on what a little booze will do to an otherwise sane mind. And I felt like a fraud in management meetings. I’m just not that kind of person. Bad at making tough decisions about people. Not that good at making nasty decisions about client’s companies or corporate raiding. Not for me. About a year in as a vice president, I knew it was going to be time to get off this train.’

It came sooner than I thought. The director of HR sleazed into my office and asked if I were happy. I told her I had a draft resignation letter in my laptop. ‘It’s nothing to do with the company. It has been wonderful to me. It has everything to do with me. This ain’t me.’ We worked out a deal for a severance. I still had my hooks into what turned out to be the firm’s largest client so they had to be nice to me. Down the road, I had a ton of money in my 401k. So, the only thing I had to worry about was what the hell was I going to do for the rest of my life? One thing was for sure: no more fancy shoes for me to destroy.

A couple of job offers came in right away. But I turned them down. I told them I needed time to cool off a bit and figure out what I wanted to do next. And then, there was this guy I’d met. Al was kind of jerk in a way. But the sex was amazing. He was fifteen years younger than me and did something in video production for one of the local TV stations. He also worked with a couple of local musical groups. When I say he was kind of jerk, I don’t mean he was dumb. He’s actually pretty smart. He was just immature and had some odd views about life. He had absolutely no notion of where he was headed. He’d been married, had a kid, and got divorced. He’d been bankrupt, maybe twice. He had one tattoo too many. All done without too much thinking. And what’s he doing with me, an older woman who had problems of her own and looked on him as sort of a pleasure machine?

At the time, I didn’t care. I was lonely. I needed a bit of fun. And one-night stands were not it for me, especially with men in my age range. They were having the same problems I was having. Who needed it? So, Al was going to have a good time for a while at least.”

It lasted for about six months, until about the time Laura’s mother, Glynnis died. It had been expected for some time. Glynnis had a long history of heart disease and paid no attention to it. Her attitude toward doctors (and her daughter as well) was, “What do they know? Bunch of pompous idiots!” It was hard to tell what finally did her in: the cigarettes or the booze. And Laura was not exactly sorry to see her go. Glynnis had always been nasty towards Laura. But, still, it got to Laura. A kind of wake-up call. The fun with Al could only last so long. They had nothing in common but the sex. What is she really going to do for the rest of her life?

The first thing she did was to drop Al. He wanted her to go into business with him. He called her at all hours with ideas for his new company. He would be the boss and run things and she would handle all the details like the bookkeeping and getting financing. That way, they would each take advantage of their respective abilities. It couldn’t lose. And he was beginning to manage her time. “Al, this is your idea of a life, not mine.” That was that.

She took some consulting jobs. It was a good way to fill time and make some money. She met some new people. She had dinner with some old friends. And she had grandchildren now. Paula, her wild teenage daughter, had in her last year of high school turned into serious student, got into a good college, went to dental school, established a thriving practice, gotten married to a fellow dentist, and popped out two adorable grandkids.

Paula’s idea was to have Laura look after the kids a couple of times a week and on the weekend. Laura loved the kids but that was not for her. The consulting work was a good excuse. “I have clients. They pay me to be available when they need me. And my time on the weekend is tied up with work. And, who knows, I could have maybe a bit of a social life. Paula, this isn’t going to work. And you have plenty of help as it is.”

Laura knew the “work excuse” would only go so far. So, she did something completely new. She and a pal went on a road trip, right across the country. About a week in, the pal dropped out and bought a plane ticket home. Laura kept going. She’d land in some little town, find a half decent motel, find a diner, and hang out around town until she had enough of the place and move on. It was fun. Laura had always been an East Coast, big city and upscale suburban girl and her business travels were always strictly business with no time for just nosing about.

She was just on the border of Colorado when her oldest daughter, Joan, called.

Joan had done alright. Professor Epstein may have been a molester but otherwise was as good as his word. He got Joan into a top-notch graduate program with a teaching assistant stipend to pay her bills, and, later on, paved the way for her to get an instructor spot at a leading English Lit program. And, after all that, he helped her get an assistant professorship in English Lit at a very exclusive and very hip liberal arts college on the West Coast. She would probably have done all this on her own but, as she put it, “A little help never hurts.”

Joan wanted Laura to visit. At first Laura wasn’t interested. Joan’s school was not on her route. But Joan made it sound interesting. “It is a gorgeous campus. I have a lovely house with a great spare bedroom. And anyway, I want you to meet Seymour, the guy who wants to marry me. We’ll do a little hiking. There are some great restaurants. And I have a cat you’ll go nuts for. We will have fun.”

Joan was right. They did have fun. Seymour, a molecular biologist, turned out to be a sweety-pie. Joan’s cat proved to be an expert at seduction. And Joan’s house and her college campus were not just picturesque but “out of a story book.”

Laura stayed for three days and got back on the road. Joan’s way of life was too inviting. Laura knew it was not her world and staying longer would begin to be an imposition. Three months later she landed back home and an old question started buzzing through her mind. “OK, smarty pants, what’s next?”

Back when she was a single mother, dealing with kids and work, she’d ask that question out of exasperation. And sometimes, desperation. Not now. It was something to think about. She wasn’t young anymore but not that old. She’d taken care of herself. Liked to have fun. And most important, after all those years working, raising the kids, handling one obligation after another, she was not tied down to anyone or anything, pretty much free to do whatever she wanted. But what about down the road? What if she got sick? It happens.

“I spent about six weeks getting back from my cross-country travel, putting everything I let slide back in order. Turned down another full-time job. I’d work for them but on a consulting basis. Nothing long term.  Spent some time with the grandkids. And I kept wondering about the ‘what next’ bit. Anyway, about three months later, I headed for Nova Scotia. Why Nova Scotia? Sounded interesting. But a place, I discovered, was not for me. Maybe too many trees.”

“So, I came home again. The travel urge was over. Did some more consulting. Everyone seems to need a good accountant. It kept me busy. And I met someone. I’d been ducking that sort of thing but this guy was kind of interesting. He’s a package designer. Works when he wants. Older than me but still pretty cute. Good in bed. Laughs a lot. And most important, makes no big demands. But you know, if there was anything more than a nice night or a weekend trip with him, I’d have to make room for him in my world. I’d be tied down again.

It’s the last part that did it for me. Settling down with someone. Sharing a bathroom. Cleaning up. Not for me. At least not right now. Maybe the two of us should take a trip somewhere, like maybe in Europe for a couple of weeks or three. I’ll have to think about that. Maybe, I’ll see what he thinks. Who knows? I know my daughters would love it if I settled down. It’s like I’m the kid now and they are the adults. I mean, really.”