There was comfort to be found in the verticality of the red neon Ernst & Young sign visible down Seventh. To Daria Rahill, the laddered letters practically screamed highway motel and clam shack. That was funny, wasn’t it? Why couldn’t she splash up the funny like some smiling woman in a Dove commercial?
She’d never been more nervous about a job interview. First because she never had an interview this high up the food chain; second because she was flat-out broke. It was at Hap for God’s sake—the Hap, with its Ivy League hotties making Changing Your Life Today seem so simple. She couldn’t believe they even called her in. The job was for an “associate” with “significant constituent interface experience at nonprofits.” The recruiter couldn’t tell her anything else. Daria had no idea what it entailed. It could be booking their travel and picking up their cleaning. She didn’t know and didn’t care. She’d passed the breaking point and needed a job.
Daria’s working life coincided with a surge in upper-middle-class interest in do-gooder-ism—a.k.a. fundraising/advancement/development. The not-for-profit world had once been a cottage industry for the wives of business and finance titans; now it was a place for the idealistic and well-bred to pursue careers in “development” right out of college, as a first-choice vocation rather than something like HR, which you did only after failing at practically everything else. Girl Power! Water! Microfinance! Banking Accounts for the Poor! It seemed to her that people started nonprofits just to put up cool-looking websites about some god-awful, unfixable problem.
Daria’s first job—procured in the long ago of 2005—was both in fundraising and at the mecca of fundraising. Harvard, that is—black gold, Texas tea. She was ambitious, went for the brass ring internally, in job after job, stepping on more than a few toes in the process. She lost her final job when many of Harvard’s endowments tanked in 2009. That expulsion, however, turned out to be her liberation. She looked at the sprawling university basking on its dollar laurels across the river from a C-list city—basking and making like Boston wasn’t really there. If Harvard can dis Boston, Daria figured she would dis both.
The next year she moved to New York and proceeded to get fired from three nonprofits in a row. The experience not only made her broke; it made her eternally mystified at the great number of people her age who were so accepting of encumbrances and so “good.” None needed his own office, none needed to shut doors. They drank a lot of water, moved as nomads from workstation to workstation—standing, sitting, whatever—and never complained about the lack of heat, the lousy benefits (“pay is lo-no-deferred”), or the failure of tech support to fix a printer. And that’s because at the end of the day they went home to money. They had their own personal economies, completely separate from their paycheck economies. Their nascent careers in “development” provided a modern version of pin money. They had the best schools and graduate programs their parents’ money could buy but managed to be appalled by peers who had their own cars—like the kids of state troopers in Jersey. It made no sense, but it was the name of the game all along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor.
And she was sick of it—this calm exemption from feral panic among the well-intentioned well-to-do.
At the moment, however, anxiety and frustration were having their way with her, causing her to grip her phone like it was an instrument to casually administer potentially lethal shocks to offsite strangers à la the Milgram Experiment.
Instead of shocking strangers, Daria decided to call her best friend, Quentin Donahue.
“Where are you? I thought your interview was, like, now.”
“I’m standing on the corner. A woman in the deli window is about to cut into a cheesecake and I want to see how it turns out.”
“Daria, you have to go in there.”
“I don’t want to. I want to keep standing here talking to you.”
“If you don’t go in there you’ll never get a job.”
“I’ll never get a job whatever I do.”
“I’m going to go now, Dar. Good luck! Love you!”
She refused to release him from her grip: “Did I tell you the CB2 on Third Avenue is so gay the clocks run backward?”
Three people sat in a conference room that was air-cooled despite it being the first week in April. Daria shivered as she shook each hand briskly, with the one decisive pump she was taught at Harvard. Them on one side of the glistening table and her alone on the other made it feel like a tribunal. She glanced briefly at the vacant chair to her left. Where was the well-known DC trial lawyer glued to her side so that she wouldn’t trip up? She thought of Amanda Knox and got even more of a chill thinking how she could easily kill her own roommate without remorse.
Each of the TV-ready individuals was anchored by a pristine coordinating iPad. The three-and-one arrangement of the four glasses of water was so precise it could have been a Mediterranean board game.
Daria found Jude Elsevier handsome in a way that foreign girls would more readily appreciate. His bent nose caused her to look off to one side, which she found distracting. Mariette Bonilla was beautiful in the way she always hoped guys would find uninteresting—but, sadly, this was never the case. Mariette’s hair was pulled back insanely tight, prompting Daria to wonder how girls with plain or outright offensive faces could dare do the same. Looking at Mariette, she understood the lyric Ugly girls be cryin’, cryin’, pretty girls clap clap like this. Ted Brand was like the boy band member always mentioned last, the kid whose lack of any memorable feature was outweighed by eleven-year-olds’ consensus that he was hot by association.
Mariette immediately and insincerely complimented the blouse under Daria’s jacket. Daria immediately noticed how she said blouse and not top. “Thanks,” she replied. “It’s from Target. Broke is the new black.”
“You stole our joke,” said Ted. “We have it that broke is the new chickenpox. Everyone gets it sooner or later.”
“Though now with the vaccine,” said Jude, “it won’t turn you into Bill Murray.”
Daria laughed. “I wish there was a vaccine against being broke.”
Wan smiles all round.
“Well!” said Mariette. “Some background on us.”
“Alan Hapgood used to be a priest,” said Ted, “when he was younger.”
Daria nodded; she’d read that of course. She hoped he hadn’t molested boys.
“There is life after priesthood,” said Jude. “Look at James Carroll.”
Who the hell was James Carroll? She smiled, ready to say that she hadn’t heard of him.
“He was one of yours, right?” pressed Jude. “At the Div School?”
Holy shit, she thought. She completely forgot.
Mariette brought it home: “Harvard’s the town you can never get out of.”
“We were at one point going to rename ourselves A Harvard B,” said Jude.
Mariette laughed. “As in Happiness is like a Harvard B—anyone can achieve it.”
“Too esoteric,” said Jude.
“Can’t give away the secret sauce,” Ted added.
Daria made a gesture she immediately regretted—lifting her shoulders gleefully like someone in a musical. Oklahoma! maybe. “So you all went to the College?”
Mariette looked at Ted. “He’s twenty-five, so he was a student while you were working there. I’m thirty and Jude’s thirty-four. You can do the math. Before your tenure.”
It pained Daria the way Mariette said tenure in regard to her ridiculous admin jobs in fundraising.
“Hap had been lecturing and doing consulting work by himself,” Mariette went on. “He started the company in September 2008.”
Ted laughed. “During the meltdown after Lehman Brothers.”
Jude nodded. “Like ya do.”
“Jude was hired first,” Mariette continued, “then Ethylynn, then me, then Ted.”
Daria smiled and nodded.
“Ethylynn died,” said Ted abruptly. The room got colder.
“I’m so sorry,” said Daria.
“At 125th,” he added, “the Clayton Powell intersection. She was killed by a garbage truck.”
“Making a right from the center lane,” said Mariette.
“Like ya do,” said Jude.
Daria doubted it was possible to recover from such a slap of solemnity. She felt nauseous. “So can you tell me something about this job? What does the associate do?”
After another big chunk of silence, Ted spoke. “What Ethylynn did.”
They can’t be serious, she thought, feeling the sarcasm slash ribbon strips inside her stomach. Normally such an idea would make her laugh outright, spit out her coffee like Jon Stewart. Now, with so much at stake, it made her panic at the organ level.
Jude seemed amused by this apparently noticeable reaction. “You look unsettled, Daria.”
“I’m not a performer,” she said.
Mariette smiled. “But you certainly ripped through quite a lot of schools to get a bachelor’s.”
Daria couldn’t believe that she did what she obviously must have—messed up between sending the recruiter the real résumé that you’d use only for ConEd or the federal government and the fake one that went out to everyone else. “It’s amazing how you were able to read between the lines,” she said.
“Oh, we did a little extra checking.”
Daria grinned and nodded.
“An internship at the Guggenheim,” Mariette went on. “Well, well. That’s impressive.”
Daria realized she’d begun sweating despite the cold room—sweating in little driblets to match the trill of her laugh.
“A semester in Florence, and now you’re fluent in Italian.”
Daria continued to smile and nod.
“You worked at Harvard four years but went through quite a few jobs. Was it your intention to climb the nonprofit ladder quickly?”
What came to Daria’s mind was Patsy from AbFab. Did you need to have multiple plastic-surgeries and wear crotchless underwear to earn the right to shout “Don’t question me!”? Daria couldn’t believe she and this girl across the table were practically the same age.
“There is no nonprofit ladder,” she replied. “Some get beamed up, and the rest die.” She meant it as a joke, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile.
“And then since 2010,” Mariette continued unperturbed, “you’ve worked at these three little nonprofits. Let’s see . . . that would be less than one per year, right?”
Seized by a perfect state of answerlessness, Daria was prepared to say anything when Ted intervened: “Why did you go for fundraising anyway?”
Why did she? It certainly wasn’t because she was virtuous. No, not virtuous. In fact, she was the kind of person who used the word ghetto as an adjective long after picking it up at high school in Milton. She was a shallow embarrassment to herself until she was twenty-six. Her family was shallow and aggressively remained so, not noticing the difference. Her self-awareness, however, she would classify as brilliant—this not-quite-pretty, never-thin girl whose physical failings were offset by the miracle of cosmetic dentistry and the fact that her brown wavy hair was always shiny. A brave girl too, willing to show serious cleavage when consensus had it that her commodious boobs sagged in the wrong directions. And now, at twenty-nine, she felt the clock ticking on the one thing she still had claim to—girlhood.
“It was completely random” was all she could think to say.
Jude smirked as if he’d just told himself a joke. “Your use of the words random and like is a bit excessive.”
She opened her mouth but nothing came out. Funny, because she had a lot to say. She owed fifty-eight thousand dollars in student loans to Bank of America. Her father worked all his life managing an Auto Zone and dropped dead in 2007, when he was fifty-one. Her parents divorced when she was twelve. Her inept stepfather was messed up financially. The family—one sister in junior high, the other a jobless slacker, mother a nonworking menopausal yoga fanatic—was living on credit. “I guess I’m an ignorant person.”
“But are you a happy person?” asked Ted.
Are they serious? Unemployed and on my own in Manhattan? “I’m looking for a job right now.”
“Tell us about a time you thought you were happy,” said Jude, “what the experience was like.”
What could she resort to, at this point, but the truth?
“Let’s see,” she said, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “It was in 2009, when I heard that the girl my then boyfriend cheated with—a twenty-two-year-rear-old who was also my sister’s best friend—had her foot broken. Her mother backed over the girl’s foot in the driveway. And when the girl screamed the mother pulled forward and ran over the foot a second time. I felt pretty good upon hearing that story. I remember thinking that this must be what real happiness is.”
The ensuing silence was not as painful as Daria would have imagined.
She could talk volumes about her first and absurdly long-term boyfriend—the rich, pampered, needlessly overweight, and directionless Jonathan Cantor. His dysfunctional family was fairly standard for the demographic—investment banker father idolized by his children but never home, bipolar alcoholic mother who never had to work but considered herself an interior decorator because she helped her sisters-in-law buy upholstery fabric, three children each fucked up in his or her own way (Asperger’s, anorexia, booze-bloated), South Shore McMansion with more laundry rooms than bathrooms, always being renovated.
And next up was Compton Pruitt, scion of the Business School superstar. Total opposite—smart, hip boy-man who . . .
“You want to go on record with that answer?” Jude’s voice came as a reminder of where she was—crumpled at the armpits, deflated, and now thrust into a more operatic form of brokeness.
“Sure,” she said. “And you know what else?”
They seemed ready to hear.
“The CEO of the nonprofit I just worked for? That woman was an absolute psychopath. Batshit. It didn’t take long to realize that she chose to work at nonprofits not because of The Cause but because she could get away with workplace abuses that wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate world. I should’ve known from my first impression. She’s really thin but was wearing an insanely long Eileen Fisher-type stretchy black jumper so that she looked like those old photos of Martha Graham dancers inside a bag. And her teeth! The bottom ones are just like the top teeth of Matt Groening’s rabbits. They reminded me of Wilma Flintstone’s necklace.”
The silence now was deeper but the pain was gone. She stared at the photo-shoot-quality glass of water on the table. So they think I’m a toxic person? So what? I live in a toxic world. Everything’s toxic. That glass of water’s probably toxic. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking up at them. “I don’t know why I said that. But it’s obvious I’m not cut out to be a . . . well, to be one of you. I thought this was a back-office job. I think I’m smart, but I’m not a thinker.”
Jude appeared in some way inspired by this observation. “It used to be theories involved a lot of thinking. You worked through layers and layers of thought to come to a hypothesis. Now you just take some data that indicate some human behavior—behavior you believe beneficial—is a random outcome. You spin your theory around that. Make it very simple.”
Mariette nodded. “The specifics of anyone’s life situation never enter the picture.”
“Chewing on a red rubber band makes you better at math,” said Ted. “The numbers don’t lie. That’s all you need to know.”
Daria had no repertory of reactions for this. She watched as Mariette looked down at her perfectly polished fingernail tapping the glistening table. After the sixth tap, she stopped. “It started off as a one-man show: all Hap, all the time. And then Hap started a family. Us. We call ourselves The Family with capital letters.”
Ted and Jude, sitting on either side, suddenly shifted uneasily in their chairs in a way that seemed choreographed. Daria’s eyes darted quickly from one to the next. Really? she thought. Like Charles Manson’s family? She now was proud to have said she wasn’t cut out to be one of them. She’d never call any of the random people with whom she worked “family,” except maybe Quentin.
Mariette, staring, seemed privy to these thoughts. “Here’s a quote from Helen Mirren: ‘I want to re-find the desire to pretend to be somebody.’ True or false.”
Daria smiled in a cockeyed way and shook her head. “You mean is it true that that’s what Helen Mirren said?”
“No, Daria,” said Mariette. “I want to know if you think wanting to re-find the desire to pretend to be somebody is a valid ambition.”
Daria didn’t know what to make of anything at this point. “I don’t think I can answer that,” she said, truthfully. “It’s hard to pretend to be somebody when you don’t have money and the world beats you down.”
Across the table the three glanced quickly as if to synch up for some predetermined purpose.
“Mariette,” said Jude, “why don’t you tell Daria Hap’s three guiding principles.”
“I’ll tell her the first,” she replied, “my favorite. Everything people do is for revenge.”
“Me next,” said Ted. “Complacency, servility, materialism, and consumerism are what most people strive for.”
“Every system in this culture undermines originality for paltry material gain,” said Jude.
Daria laughed. “Is that a joke? Because it’s a pretty good one.”
“If you’re unhappy,” said Ted, “it’s probably because your mother dropped you on your head and your father was on the road all the time.”
“Or because you’re dying of cancer and you don’t have any money,” said Jude.
“Or,” said Mariette, “because even after all of your special prayers to Jesus, Children’s Services still comes to put each of your little brothers in different foster homes.”