So earlier I shared with you the first chapter of a romance novel I’m writing. This is chapter 2. There are several characters and stories in this novel, this is the second one. I’m calling in Sunset Perfect.
Jeff looked down at the spreadsheets that were strewn out on his desk in front of him and the certainty that Juan was gone hit him. It was a strange realization for ten in the morning on a Tuesday, fully two weeks after the funeral. Hell, he had had years to come to grips with Juan’s life ending since he had been diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago. All that time watching his lover cough, waste away physically, try chemo, radiation, and even thrown is hopes into more mystic, Eastern healing practices, double over in pain as he hacked up blood, and finally one day not be able to get out of bed and staying there till the end.
All those days of holding Juan’s hand through the trauma, cleaning up the messes, emptying bed pans, cleaning sheets, bleaching blood out of his favorite clothes, both of them knowing with a certainty that he would not survive long, knowing with each cough that ended with spots of deep red blood on the sheets, the pillow cases, the blankets and the t-shirts, that the cancer was spreading incessantly through him and there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it.
Jeff looked down at his desk again. He saw the spreadsheets. He saw the numbers spread out before him. All those numbers in ordered rows and columns that tallied sales and revenue and costs. He tried to focus. They started to blur in his view. Somewhere in the back of his mind Jeff was amazed that the numbers were actually blurring. It was something he might have seen in a movie, where the director wanted to show that the character was lost in thought, losing focus, literally and physically. He tried to laugh as he thought about it and the numbers in front of him continued to blur, but even when he tried to force the laugh, nothing came.
An analogy jumped to the front of his mind. As he thought it he realized how absurd it was that he would think about it, but the more he thought about the absurdity the more the thought formulated and took over his mind. It was an analogy that his accounting professor had told him when he got his MBA over thirty years ago. These numbers, they represented the life blood of his company, these numbers before him that stretched out month by month throughout the year were just like the pulsing of a heart rate on an EKG. He saw the still blurred numbers on the sheet without reading them and thought that he was looking at how healthy the company was.
Why couldn’t it have been as easy to read Juan’s own life, Jeff thought. The smiled disappeared.
Juan’s life had been perfectly steady and consistent up till three years ago. There had been no sign, no warning, just a long bad, persistent cough that eventually lead to the cancer diagnosis.
What was in these facts in figures spread out before him that Jeff couldn’t see that might be the indicator of a cancer within his company, he wondered. Was there some number? Perhaps that missed budget from their Toledo location, could that be an indicator that in three years the Toledo location would be nothing more than a shell of what it was today? Was there something that he could see today that might stave off that location’s demise or hell maybe even stop the entire company going under?
Jeff closed his eyes as the next thought came. What could Jeff have seen in Juan three years prior that might have made him be able to save him?
Jeff looked up and saw Sarah looking at him from the office doorway.
“It’s all so fragile.” His voice was usually stern and steady. He heard it quake as he spoke to Brad and he felt his face flush as he realized how pathetic he sounded.
“You may want to take a day,” Sarah said.
She really had no right to say that. She had been with the company less than three months. She came into his office with that damn, pathetic, pity-filled look that so many people gave him these days, dropped off a packet of papers, and left.
Jeff glanced at the papers she had left. A lawsuit from Minnesota. He threw it on the side table with his other legal papers. He would look at it when he was in a lawyer mode. Right now he needed to be in CFO mode.
He swiveled in his chair and looked out the window. His eyes had drifted to the view as he had thought about Juan.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Then the absurdity of actually having to shake his head to rid the thoughts from him mind made him smile. He swiveled back to his desk and forced his eyes back to the monthly operating reports. He studied them. He forced them not to blur, forced himself to really see the numbers. People were counting on him to do his job, he reminded himself. He saw that Long Beach was having a great month. They were ahead of budget and ahead of forecast. He looked at those two numbers and compared them to New Orleans. That office wasn’t doing well. New Orleans always did well and Long Beach usually struggled. Now they were reversed. Could that be the indicator of a cancer in the company or was that just business as usual?
The thought jumped into his mind. Juan had counted on him.
Jeff was smart enough to know what was going on. It was a crisis of conscience. His faith was being tested. He was being tested and right now he felt as though he was failing the test. All his life it was these numbers and spreadsheets that made sense to him. If you wanted to meet forecast, than you needed to goose your revenue or decrease your expenditures, it was as easy as that. If you wanted more revenue then increase sales. If there were no sales then you cut costs. Each number told a different story and each number could be massaged and changed and worked till the outcome was what he wanted. If you read the numbers right you could read the story and maybe affect the future, hopefully in a positive manner. Jeff had lost count of the number of times he had helped struggling locations overcome difficult seasons with phone calls with advice or tweaks to their operating budgets. Hell, Salt Lake City would have gone under last year if Jeff hadn’t stepped in when he saw them missing budget. Why hadn’t he been as prescient when it came to Juan? Salt Lake City was just one of fifty locations. Juan had been his life. Why, Jeff wondered, couldn’t he have seen something in Juan’s life that could have helped him save the one life that mattered most to him?
Had the decision been between saving Juan or saving the Salt Lake City office, there would have been no question of which way Jeff would have sided.
His mind drifted to Juan and the hospital, the EKG, and the last three months. Tears welled up on the inside of his eyelids. He turned away from his desk when he heard his tears plop onto the printed spreadsheets. He was back to staring out the window of his office on the sixteenth floor of the Humboldt building. He saw the end of Long Island through the horizon of the sky scrapers in front of him, as well as the East River and a few of the buildings on the southern tip of Manhattan. For a moment, his vision still clouded by tears, Jeff’s mind jumped to how much he loved his view and whether or not Juan had ever been to his office to see the view. He answered the question for himself as he realized that not once had Juan ever been to his office. He had known Jeff’s co-workers, but never been to his office. Juan was the one in the relationship who loved views. For Jeff they were While Jeff liked taking the long view, Juan had enjoyed being on the ground. Juan would have been more enthralled by a crack in a sidewalk that no one else noticed, or a sculpture that used rusted wire formed into loops, rather than something as prosaic as the New York skyline. Still, Jeff thought, Juan would have loved this view. He would have loved it more than Jeff ever had.
Jeff looked up from his desk. His door had been closed, hadn’t it? Sarah had shut it, hadn’t she?. Brad was standing in the doorway. Jeff quickly wiped his eyes and tried to look busy.
“I’m fine.” Jeff felt his face flush again at how silly his voice sounded again.
Brad was the CEO of ALC, Jeff the CFO. They were more than co-workers though, they had been friends through three different companies and over three decades as they both grew into greater and greater managerial and business roles. Brad was also one of the few people at PSC who knew that Jeff had been living with Juan and the only one who knew that Juan was gone.
“Seriously, are you doing alright?” Brad shut the door behind him as he came into Jeff’s office.
“Yeah,” Jeff tried to find his work rhythm again. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He rummaged through the pages and tried to find the sheet that showed that Long Beach had made the forecast for the month, something to prove that he was still on track, to prove to his boss that his personal life wouldn’t interfere with business.
“Did you see this?” Jeff found the page and pointed to it.
Instead of looking at the page, Brad came further into the room and sat down across from Jeff’s desk. He leaned back, steepled his fingers and cocked his head. It was Brad’s sympathetic mien. Jeff had seen it a thousand times.
“Jeff,” he said. “You should go home.”
“I’m fine, Brad.”
“I’m not really asking,” he said. “You should go home. We can handle the monthly operating reports without you for at least one month.”
“Really, Brad,” he tried again. “I’m fine.”
“You’ve told me you’re fine six times today. You’re not. You shouldn’t be. You should go home.” He smiled his smile that told Jeff that he was both not upset, but also not going to order again. “I’m not asking. You’re going home.”
“I can’t go home.”
“Then go somewhere else,” he said. “Go to my house and talk to Liz. Go to the gym. Go to the library or the museum. Go on vacation. Go anywhere but work. Come back to work when you’re ready. You’re not ready.”
Jeff knew it was not worth arguing, so he didn’t. Instead he said, “I have some thoughts on these numbers.”
“Great, email them to Andrew. He can present them to the team for you. But you need to go give yourself some time to work through this. I’m all for throwing yourself back into work, for getting back to the routine. But this is too soon. Even I can see that.” Brad got up and moved toward the desk.
Jeff started to speak but Brad cut him off. “If you say “I’m fine” one more time, I’m calling security.” Brad gave him that same smile, then a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll call you tonight, but you need to leave the office. I’m giving you ten minutes. If I come back around and you’re here in ten minutes,” he left the sentenced unfinished.
“You’ll fire me?” Jeff asked.
“No,” Brad was sliding out the door. “I’ll be disappointed. Go home.”
When he left the building, thankfully, Jeff didn’t see anyone else. He stood on the pavement looking out at sixth and wondered what he should do. It was mid-morning and the traffic was light. In another hour the street would be choked with people going to lunch and too meetings. Now, it was the calm before the storm.
Jeff knew that going home wasn’t the answer. Home was a reminder of Juan around every corner. Home was a den and a bedroom that Juan had decorated. Home was memories of every party they had ever hosted together, of every night they had curled up in front of the television to watch an old movie, a movie that Jeff reminisced about and that Juan went away from wondering just how much older his partner was than he. Home was not the answer. Even thinking about home made Jeff miserable.
Museums also weren’t the answer. Their first date had included dinner and the Guggenheim. He loved Brad and his wife Liz but he certainly wasn’t going to burden his best friends with his remorse and depression. So going to Brad’s house was out.
Maybe it was that final thought before Brad came in, the one about the view and whether or not Juan had ever come to his office that decided it for Jeff. Perhaps it was just that he had no other answer but eventually he knew where he wanted to go. To the right was home. To the right were the coffee shops, the bookstores, the restaurants and other places were he could find a spot for an afternoon of solace and quiet among the busy worker crowds but the right also meant memories of Juan. To the right were things he could understand and relate to. To the left, several miles of walking east, he would find the waterfront and a dock. Maybe just because usually he turned right, Jeff turned left.