Wait for the Tone

I missed the bracelet the second I took off my right earring. I stood staring at my reflection in the dim mirror over my bureau, as if looking at myself would help me remember. Of course, I'd known it was missing some time before, in that weird unconscious way you know when you've done something dangerously stupid. I just shouldn't wear that thing, it was always falling off. Never again. My hand shook so hard as I dug around my big black bag at my feet for my mobile. How could I dial him? Even if I found the company phone sheet my hands were shaking so hard I wouldn't have been able to punch in all 10 numbers. I'd been in Amsterdam, what? 8 months? and I still hadn't gotten around to programming in any company numbers. Only US ones. Very revealing.

Wait. I looked at the thin black phone in my hand, remembering. I'd called his mobile before I left work! Thank God for redial. I pressed the call button twice and put the phone to my ear. Of course it went right into voicemail, it was 1 a.m., he'd have turned his mobile off. "U heeft something something de voicemail van Errr-Day-Pay tay-leh-comb something, something.

Of course, now I know I should have waited till I calmed down a little, but I got fixated on the thought that his wife was coming back in the middle of the next day, that day, the 21st of December 1998, when we'd all be frantically scrambling to see if we had a hope of making our numbers for Richard's presentation to the Board on the 22nd. This was his last chance to look good in front of them this year. What a year.

I straightened and watched my mussed up self say with a wince, "Richard, Lisa. Don't kill me, but my damn bracelet came off some time tonight. It just does that all by itself. You better look for it before...Well, you know. I'm really sorry. You can throw it out when you find it. I'm not gonna wear it again. Anyway, see you sometime tomorrow." I pressed the little down arrow, slid the phone back into my black hole of a bag and wished I didn't feel so shook up. Otherwise I could just be happy and daydream about our first night together. I mean, he wanted me.


I didn't look in the mirror when I thought that. Oh well, this was definitely an excuse for Dalmane. I still had some left over from last year when they did that laparoscopy that turned into a full-scale operation when the cyst turned out to be so big. One ovary left. Well, I'd pretty much decided I didn't want children anyway.

Eventually I found the bottle in a kitchen drawer and took the yellow and red capsule without water. I turned on the TV and lay down on the couch. When CNN started in about Clinton and the impeachment proceedings in the House I turned my back and put a pillow over my ear. I couldn't decide who I was madder at: the Supreme Court for being so out of it they all decided a civil trial wouldn't distract the President running the country; or Ken Starr for being an out-of-control self-righteous wannabe; or Bill Clinton for being such a jerk for such a long time. It may be embarrassing being a US citizen in the States, but it's ten times worse when you're over here and just about every European you meet asks, "Why is your country doing this?" As if I knew.

It was the next morning almost right away. I was so fogged up from the pill hangover I didn't fully come to until the cold air hit me as I left my building. This country specializes in grey, even when the sun isn't due for hours. I'd been fighting depression for a month now. Not that it's an excuse for breaking rule one and getting involved with a married man, I mean, if I needed an excuse I could use gross homesickness at having to stay in Holland over the holidays because three big contracts had stalled. Last week we'd fought all kinds of bad luck to make our numbers for the year. The Board had no business setting the sales target so high the very first year of deregulation. Deregulation. Ha. The Dutch government seemed to be doing everything it could to regulate RDP completely out of the telecom market.

I stopped on a bridge to watch a duck dive for something. Actually, I shouldn't feel sorry for a toppled monopoly. But when that monopoly turned into actual people, good, smart people who didn't have a clue what was about to happen to them, then it became a kind of cause. I waited to see the duck pop up -- man, they can stay under a long time. Okay. Two blocks left. At least the government's timing had been lucky for us. Thanks to the unexpected burst of growth in telecom around the world we'd been close to making our target two months ago. Somehow, though, the stock market seemed to be scaring everybody into re-think mode. Especially the Amsterdam Exchange. I passed half the Dutch banks on my way to the office every morning.

Hey, we could do it. If anybody could pull it off, Richard could. He's got this thing about him. When you're around him you get caught up in his energy, in how he gets right to the problem and comes up with this totally unique, really appropriate solution. Somebody once said, "There's nothing sexier than a man explaining the definitive answer." Something like that. I know it hooked me when I first got here. It wasn't Richard's looks, which are just okay, nothing special. His power? He is the head of all the sales managers responsible for Global Accounts, and, with a little luck, they'll bring in about a billion guilders (half a billion USD) in revenue for RDP Telecom this year alone.

No, there's more to Richard than business. He brings out the best in people. When I came over in May as a marketing specialist, someone to "Americanize" the Dutch approach to "global" clients, my title was In/ex Communicatie Liaison. Then, in September, he asked me to participate in his weekly management team meetings. At first I thought he wanted another American to even things out a little, everyone else is Dutch Dutch Dutch. But he told me later he saw something special in me.

In me.

At first I felt really out of it, I mean, there's only one other woman manager, and the culture here is at least ten years behind the States -- make that twenty in RDP -- when it comes to taking businesswomen seriously.

Nobody on the management team wanted to hear my little suggestions. I felt totally out of place. Then one meeting in October they were all sitting around planning yet another one of RDP's parties. They're famous for them. Sure I enjoy them, who wouldn't? They have all kinds of fun themes, from outer space with Richard coming down in a starship, to A Night in Vienna with a whole acting troupe escorting employees through a typical 18th century Viennese ball. But come on, the time for those things is long gone. You can't compete when you've got that kind of expenditure. So I just couldn't help myself, I said, "Excuse me," in English, because even though I can understand Dutch from my dad's cousins, I can barely speak it. So I said, "Excuse me, but if you're really serious about motivating your sales teams, doesn't it make more sense to put money into sales training instead of all these parties?"

Well, that stopped everything. They looked at each other without talking for a long time. I felt my face go beet red, but I didn't regret saying it. Richard was so supportive, he smiled and winked at me and we waited, and, give the Dutch credit, they started nodding and discussing the possibility and pretty soon they came to a consensus that there should be more money for training and fewer parties and within a month they had a new training program up and running that already seems to be moving their sales force in a more competitive direction. My function became Executive Relations after that, which put me directly on Richard's team. That's amazing, I mean, how those managers listened. Here's a small country monopoly with a bunch of fixed products and their top people are able to adopt ways to become a complex solution provider in one of the most competitive markets around. That's how I know RDP'll do well.

If we can get past the 21st. I think I fell in love with Richard when he winked. I didn't plan it, just like I didn't plan last night. I mean, daydreaming isn't planning. I don't even know if he loves me or if I just make him feel less like the only American around. His wife is Dutch. A Dutch lawyer. Richard told me right after our first kiss, which is a whole other story, that he had no intention of getting a divorce. And I don't want him to, I don't think. I mean, I was married once already, right after school, and three years later I'm still not over it. No, I have no intention of going through that again, not for a while anyway.

So, Monday the 21st I got to the office on Herengracht real early, 7:30 I think. Menno, the financial director, was already there. That guy is dangerous. I know he thinks he should have gotten Richard's job. When our numbers looked like coming in 180 million short of our target the rumblings from the Board suggested that they, too, were thinking Menno might be a better Sales Director than an American outsider. That's pretty hypocritical, since it had been the Board's idea to put an American in that job to inject some of our famous American drive into their sales force. Menno is extremely good looking. He couldn't be more than 40, but he has that elegant white hair some Dutch guys have, and these piercing blue eyes. He's very charismatic, too. Not like Richard, of course, I mean, how could he be? Let's face it, he's basically a glorified bean counter. But he has that quality that makes him a serious contender for Richard's job. And he's been 20 years in telecom. And he's Dutch.

"Hoy-yeh mor-heh," I said, slipping my laptop and briefcase off my shoulders.

"Goede Morgen," he said, grinding out those rolling g's without looking up. He kept arranging papers into special piles on the extra table they'd brought into Richard's office. Several of us had decided to work on the presentation together in one room as the numbers came in from the sales teams. Richard had three appointments that day, each with those three accounts that could make or break us. Nobody plans those things, but they seem to happen all the time in sales. Not just telecom sales, either.

"I received your message," Menno said, still not looking up.

Message? Oh, yeah. I'd called him last thing before leaving the office to tell him that Branche Overheid had just signed a 20 million guilder deal that we'd previously thought wouldn't come good until next year. Something to do with emergency services needing to use a surprise surplus this year or lose it. Only 160 million guilders and 8 days to go. I must admit, I had called Menno to gloat a little because he seemed so openly smug that Richard wouldn't be able to pull it off this time the way he'd done the previous two years. Menno looked up at me then. He had one black eyebrow raised and this little smile. Right then I knew I shouldn't have gloated. I tried to back out of it, "I thought it might give you a running start with the spreadsheet this morning." It sounded pretty lame even to me.

"Morgen!" Chantal, Richard's secretary, carried in two tiny coffee cups with the RDP green and blue dots and squares around the edge.

"Mor-heh." I took one cup, Menno took the other. "Bedankt, Chantal. Hoo haat het met jow?" No matter how hard I try I can't make the gutteral "grai" sound, so I just say it like an h. They correct me all the time. I think they like it like that.

"Hoe gaat het," she corrected, then answered, "Prima!" Every morning was prima with Chantal.

It got crazy pretty fast that morning. Normally I love doing PowerPoint slides, trying to figure out how best to explain things through pictures and symbols, taking dull words and making them really effective, which is what they trained me to do in school. But nothing went right. The guy who was supposed to sign the offshore oil rig satellite contract worth 37.5 million guilders in the first year alone got stuck in traffic outside Rotterdam and missed his meeting with Richard. His secretary and Chantal went around in circles trying to set up another one, anywhere, that afternoon. At one point four of us were on the phone, Menno on Richard's line, Auke, our best business consultant, Ewoud, Branche Finance manager and I all talked away on our mobiles. I put my mobile down as Ewoud took his away from his ear, looked at it, said, "Shit," and flipped it into Richard's wastebasket. He rubbed his eyes and sat back on the paper strewn table.

"What?" I asked, not wanting to know. Finance had to come through. What with one crisis after another, they were over a hundred million short of their target.

He smiled at me like I was a little girl. "You had better calm yourself, Lisa, you will make yourself ill."

"Okay, calm me down, explain 'shit'."

His smile spread into his tired Dutch sky grey eyes. "I must assume you mean my comment, you do not want a discussion of shit in general."

Auke was off his mobile. "For shit in general, we could, for example, discuss Kundera's essay."

"As in the definition of kitsch?" I asked.

Auke smiled happily. He has a Ph.D. in physics. For some reason there are a lot of physics guys in Global Accounts. I think, though, Auke's true love is philosophy. "Yes," he nodded with approval. "'Absolute denial of shit. Unbearable Lightness of Being."

I looked at Ewoud, "Something to do with the Council of Trent deciding: if God is made in the image of man, must he shit?"

Our exchange had impressed Ewoud. I sighed. No matter what I did the day before, people always forgot it in the morning and went back to thinking I was a ditz. I really should just break down, hack off my long blond hair and dye it dark brown, add the 20 pounds all the magazines said businesswomen needed to be taken seriously, and buy only IBM blue suits and white shirts with those little girl collars. Those collars do not make any sense whatsoever to me. Anyway, that I knew all that Kundera stuff was pure luck, I'd only skimmed the book my last year at NYU, but I'd done a paper on it because I'd found out it was my professor's favorite Kundera essay.

Ewoud wanted to know what the Council decided. Auke lowered his voice and announced slowly, deeply, clearly, just as it must have been announced 4 or 5 centuries ago, "God does not shit." Auke loves Wagner, too. "Of course He does not. He is not human."

"I'm relieved," Ewoud said. He looked at me, "So, how do you define kitsch?"

I thought about how hard it would be to explain kitsch out of culture. I shrugged, "Traditional Family Values?"

Auke said, "Some people would say our windmills."

"Are we finished with the discussion?" I asked, "Will you tell me why you used the word, Ewoud?"

"I said it because Richard is not at ING and Martin is leaving for the Antilles today for 2 weeks, so if Richard doesn't catch him today, we can forget any contract until next year."

60 million guilders for worldwide teleworking.

"Maybe he's busy looking for something?" Menno asked.

What did that mean? We all looked at him. He smiled briefly at me and went back to his spreadsheet.

On one horrible level I knew all of it. All at once. It hit me so hard I had to sit down. Survival kicked in, though, so I could breathe while things started to fall into place. The missing bracelet. The automatic redial on my mobile. RDP voicemail instead of Richard's voice. Shit. The last person I'd called last night hadn't been Richard. It had been Menno. "I got your message." Shit. I'd automatically redialed Menno's number. I'd left that message in Menno's voicemail box. Of all people -- What had I said? Oh, God, something about finding it before his wife came home.

"Ewoud," Chantal called out, "That was Richard. He's driving Martin to Schipol. They're having their meeting in the car. He'll drop Martin off and pick up his wife at the same time. He said to tell you that Martin signed in spite of your tie?" She looked confused. How could she be confused? Ewoud has the worst clothes sense of anyone. That day little pink seahorses swam in a fern green sea. His olive green shirt made it even worse. He brushed the seahorses flat and looked down with pretend dejection. I had to laugh in spite of the fact that my whole world was about to cave in. Ewoud looks just like Deputy Dawg when he makes that face.

Auke used the same Council of Trent voice, "This is great news. I smell victory. My phone call was from Peter. Transport got the GSM contract. That is 28 million guilders, Menno. We shall do this thing. We shall meet all our numbers and crrrush," he made a profound fist, "our competitors with our bare hands."

I started laughing harder, partly out of hysteria I think, and got up and hugged Auke.

Chantal came back and said, "Oh, yes, Lisa? Richard asked me if I dropped a bracelet in his office yesterday and when I said I hadn't he asked me to ask you?"

I managed to NOT look at Menno. I even sounded appropriately relieved when I said, "Oh, I'm so glad he found it, I thought I'd lost it for good."

Ewoud said, "Well, my branch made its numbers. Who knows about the others?" That was a typical Ewoud exit line.

"I know," Auke proclaimed to me and Menno. "We shall do this."

"Quick," I said, trying not to cry, "Where are we?"

Menno put the numbers in the spreadsheet. "72 million to go." He added, "Richard has room to cut up to 20% on the offshore bid. They will have to take it at such a price. No one else can do it for less. That will be 31 million."

Chantal came in again with a fax in her hand. "Paul said his people have an extra 2 million because AHC is going into..." she looked through the papers then gave up and handed them to Auke, "I don't know, another country."

"39," Auke said. "This is another good number. I will be 39 next month."

Birthdays are a real big deal here.

Auke put the faxes with his other papers and closed down his laptop. "Yes. I go home to my wife now. It is already 5 o'clock. We have not bought our tree yet. Do you go home now for Christmas Lisa?"

"It's a little late." I sighed about something completely unrelated to Christmas. Auke looked so concerned I said, "That's okay, my dad's cousins have invited me for the weekend."

"And where are these cousins?"

"Den 'Bos."

"Ah, a good place for Christmas. Well, see you tomorrow. Oye."

He and Chantal had another conversation in Dutch outside Richard's office. I sat there alone with Menno because I didn't know how to leave. He kept working on his laptop for a while then looked up.

"Have you seen the Herald Tribune?" he asked. He skidded the folded paper across the table towards me. Upside down a picture of Clinton, eyes downcast, was all I needed to see. "Clinton's Fate Is Now in the Hands of the Senate" was more than I wanted to read, upside down or right side up. The whole thing made me so sick to my stomach I didn't want to know any more details. I realized my teeth were clenched.

"This would never happen here," Menno said.

No, probably not. The Dutch make an art of being tolerant. They're incredibly civilized like that. Europeans on the whole, though? Perhaps most leaders over here would have found a way to short-circuit this kind of thing. Then again, there was the Royal family in the UK, and that Belgian pedophile, and greedy old Switzerland. It made me homesick. I miss lots of things about my country: the relentless self-criticism, the laughing respect of irony, the destructive need to let things play out at any cost in the name of democracy and free speech. This wasn't the first time we looked like idiots, it certainly wouldn't be the last. Maybe Americans are silly and crazy and get themselves in impossible situations in the most public circus possible. And Italians, or whoever they were, had Councils to decide if God shit.

I felt myself relax for the first time that day. I'd made a terrible mistake, God only knew what the outcome would be, but at least I was enculturated to handle it. I'd go one further, I bet I had the specific genes to handle it. I looked Menno in the eye. Do your worst, my look said. He smiled. "Do you understand what I say to you?"

Suddenly, I wasn't so sure. I shook my head and waited.

"Dear Lisa, we understand and accept that people are human. Sex is not a good basis for winning. Everyone loses." He picked up the Herald, put it back in his slim briefcase and with two sinister clicks, the discussion was closed. "Would you join me in celebrating making our numbers?" He paused then smiled, "This year, at least?"

Janet Holmes