What we talk about when we don’t talk about cancer

“Who are you when you aren’t writing about breast cancer?” this blogger asked.  “What brings you alive? I know a little about some of my blog sistahs, but I want to know more. So..why not join me in either writing a blog post on your own blog entitled ‘My Other Life’ ?”


I edit a trade magazine. All of my suits–which I seldom wear–are black. But, back in the day, I once owned a red power suit. Here is that story:


Shortly after I graduated from college, my brother Patrick offered me some interview tips. “Put some Vaseline on your gums,” he said. “You’ll be so nervous you mouth will go dry. The Vaseline will keep the inside of your mouth from sticking to your gums.”

Patrick also suggested a surefire response to a popular interview question. “When you’re asked about your greatest weakness, say that those are for losers. What you have are weaknesses that will soon be converted into strengths.” This was excellent advice. Unfortunately, I wasn’t meeting with companies that were seeking an inexperienced yet arrogant candidate with really shiny gums.

A friend recently mentioned she spent a brief and unhappy span with Arthur Andersen. This reminded me of my own near conscription in Arthur’s Army. It was about 15 years ago. I really hated my corporate communications job and was eager to make a change. I interviewed with Paul, a guy about my age who managed Andersen’s technical writing department. He then took me to meet his boss, an older woman named Shelley.

As Shelley and I made small talk, I glanced around her office. It was neat as a pin, but absolutely devoid of clues as to what Shelley did outside of work. There were no family photos, kids’ drawings or anything like that. But there was no shortage of what specialty printers call “trinkets and trash”: t-shirts, stress balls, water bottles, coffee mugs and so on. All of it celebrated some Arthur Andersen team building effort or social outing.

Shelley saw me looking at photograph of rows of Arthur Andersen staffers standing on the steps of what looked like a college building. “That the St. Charles campus where we do all our training,” she said. “We implant a little chip behind your ear and teach you the Arthur Andersen way.” She chuckled at her own wit.

Shelley went on to describe what the job would entail. Hours were unpredictable. “Some days you’ll come in and you’ll notice your co-workers are wearing the same outfit they had on the day before,” she said. “That’s because they’ve stayed here all night to get a project done.”

Faint alarm bells clanged in my ears. Aside from the unappealing prospect of pulling all nighters with Arthur and his friends, I wondered why they wouldn’t have thought to bring a change of clothes for just such an emergency. Shelley droned on and I noticed an elaborate gold ring on her finger.

One of my second grade teachers, Sister Albert Therese, often rapped her ring on a desk to get the class to come to order. Sister Albert Therese explained that the plain gold band she wore signified that she was married to God. I wondered if Shelly was a Bride of Andersen. “. . . and sometimes it will be a bit slow, but we encourage our associates to keep busy,” Shelley was saying. She noted with approval that Missy, the other technical writer, had spent a stretch of recent downtime re-organizing the department’s filing cabinets.

After meeting with Shelley, I had to take a writing test. It proved to be a one-question essay test: “How would you teach someone to drive a car?” I don’t drive. I know how to drive, I even got my license. But I just never felt comfortable driving. So while I knew the rudiments of driving, I had very little practical experience and what little I did have was from about six years prior. But, luck was with me.

I’m not a loyal New Yorker reader, but I do occasionally flip through it. Martin Amis, novelist and son of even more famous novelist Kingsley Amis, had written an essay that began “Poets don’t drive. They intuit they have no talent for it.” So I started with that. The combined Kingsley and Martin name dropping coupled with the casual New Yorker reference was like hitting for the cycle in the World Series of Literary Pretentiousness.

Having achieved this triple-word score right out of the gate, there was no stopping me. I wrote effortlessly and concisely and far above my usual abilities. I wrote about how my father didn’t drive either and the various O’Brien family theories surrounding this mystery. Did he have a Jeep accident while driving down Mt. Fuji during his WW II service? Was it true that back then Japanese people drove on the wrong side of the road and my father could not make the transition upon his return to the U.S. ? I wish I had a copy of what it wrote, I could have gotten it reprinted in the “Norton Anthology of Job Essays” and been set for life.

I had my doubts about the job, but I figured why not see where it went? I knew my essay would earn me a second interview–it was as if E.B. White submitted “Once More to the Lake” with his resume or George Orwell stapled “Politics and the English Language” to a job application.

The second interview was to be held over a group lunch. We all met at the Arthur Andersen office. I could tell Paul really liked me and was lobbying for me. Missy was neutral. Shelley seemed to be on the fence. It was raining so we took a cab over to the restaurant, a fancy Italian place. I admired my new suit during the ride over. It was a bold red color with many decorative buttons on the sleeves and front. I never had a red suit before–I’m not sure why I chose it.

I don’t have much fashion sense. I’ve often bought a blouse, unsure of my attraction to the color or pattern and then later realized I used to have a similar tablecloth or couch and I probably bought it because it seemed familiar. In this case, maybe I was thinking of Nancy Reagan’s Adolpho suits or Michael Jackson’s military tunics.

We got to the restaurant, which must have been part of a swanky hotel because a uniformed doorman with an umbrella raced over. He was wearing EXACTLY the same jacket as me. Had I been in the market for some pants to match my suit, I am sure he could have hooked me up. It was not a good omen.

Never agree to an interview involving a meal. You’re always on edge about spilling something and, since you are doing most of the talking, it’s not like you’re going to savor the food. I avoided pasta–too hard to manage and too much sauce spillage potential. I decided to get the risotto because it was the easiest thing to eat. It was rabbit risotto, which sounded nasty, but I figured I could just eat around the bits of meat.

The conversation was not going well. I had an uncomfortable out of body sensation, as though I was not really in this group, but floating above it, watching myself respond to questions. My trance snapped as my teeth crunched something that should not have been in the risotto. Rabbit bone! It was jagged and it seemed like a huge fragment.

There was no way I could swallow it.

Shelley was talking about her management style. It didn’t sound very democratic. “So you’re saying “It’s my way or the highway?’” I clarified.

I then expectorated the rabbit’s foot or whatever the hell it was into my napkin.

A frosty mist enveloped the table. Shelley looked at me and didn’t say anything. Paul regarded me sorrowfully, perhaps realizing we would never see each other again. Missy, a born gap filler, finally broke the silence. She chattered about the food and her own attempts at cooking.

I saw Shelley studying her big gold ring and I got the message: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. I never heard from them again, but I did think of Arthur Andersen every time I wore that red suit.


9 thoughts on “What we talk about when we don’t talk about cancer

  1. Suzanne says:

    Another good one…hilarious!

  2. A red power suit? That reminds me of politics, and not mine!
    Still, it’s a good story –

  3. katie says:

    LOL! Great story!

  4. Editor says:

    I laughed right out loud reading this story – what a talented storyteller you are – and I am so glad you took part in my blog challenge of telling something of your other life. This was terrific! Marie, Editor, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  5. Stacey says:

    Great story. I actually felt nervous reading about your lunch. I think we’ve all known a Shelly in life. Best to leave them at the office. No doubt you were much better off for not getting that job.

  6. Katherine – My last job was at one of the big accounting firms. In this case I would definitely say the rabbit bone was a blessing. Plus, I’m not sure that shredding documents would have been that great of a resume’ builder. 😉

  7. You wouldn’t have liked that job anyway. Rabbit’s foot! Funny:)

  8. feistybluegecko says:

    Marvellous account of a very lucky escape!! Your ability and talents would have been wasted there!!

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