Every now and then, I’ll be reminded of Sally. Maybe I see a woman in a suit and heels who moves the way Sally did or cocks her head the way Sally would when she was listening closely to someone. Today it was a woman ahead of me in line at the coffee shop. She was too short to be Sally, but she looked very much like her, so much so that I had to stare at her for a while to convince myself that she couldn’t possibly be Sally.
I worked with Sally a couple of lifetimes ago at one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. She had both a much better job than mine and an awful job at the same time. She was a salesperson at a wannabe ad agency where I was a customer service rep. Her job gave her a better salary, but it also meant she had to work with my boss, the buffoonish, boorish, pea-brained head of sales, a man she was infinitely smarter than, classier than, more skilled than, a man who couldn’t respect her as a salesperson because she was “just a working gal.” He must have driven her even crazier than he drove me.
She reminded me of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (yes, I just really wanted to write all of those names out). She had a Jackie O quality, a Jackie O look. She had the same squared brow, the same sweep of hair – blond, not brown – up from her forehead and back. Even the same set to her jaw and the way she held her mouth. And she had style. She wasn’t flashy, but she was noticeable. Her face was striking to look at, and she had a commanding presence. She dressed well – conforming to the late 80s businesswoman style guide, but with her own spin.
Back then, Sally wasn’t the model I aspired to. But I paid attention because I wanted to understand her. She was clever and talented and that made so little sense in that place where we worked. I didn’t want to be her, but I wanted to know why she was in that shoddy office, that low-rent agency, why she put up with the fools who were her superiors.
Yes, of course. Sally, like everyone else, needed a job, needed to get the bills paid and food on the table. Sure. But it’s so hard to believe real ad agencies wouldn’t have snapped her right up if given the chance. If she could be a good salesperson when she was selling our crap ad space, she could have been amazing when working for a real company.
I felt that way about the two other saleswomen at that agency. They were smart and funny and had their shit together in ways the men around them could only pretend to. But I focused more particularly on Sally because she was separated from those women. Every salesperson had a big window with an office, but Sally was in a cubicle like mine. She didn’t take all the working lunches and business trips the others took. She was on the outside, and it wasn’t clear why.
I wonder if it was how fabulous she looked – sharp, pulled together, hair like a lion’s mane, but in a way that still somehow looked sleek, that Bouvier forehead. The men in the office were more than happy to watch her walk, to salivate behind her back, but none of them treated her as a partner, as an equal. They didn’t pull her into their brainstorming sessions and rarely invited her to client meetings.
And I’m not trying to play a tiny violin for the beautiful woman who wasn’t part of what was surely a fairly scummy clique – no one should have wanted to hang out with those terrible, oafish men. But the other two saleswomen were sometimes included, were sometimes consulted. And maybe it’s the island-unto-herself feeling I got from Sally that explains why she’s the one who filters up in my memory from time to time.
And it’s surely also because of what Sally represented. She was young, but not in her 20s like our little customer service crew. Maybe her mid-30s? She was young, single, living comfortably in Manhattan, dressing to the nines. She was the successful businesswoman, the idea we were all sort of trying to be or thinking we were supposed to want to be. More than the other saleswomen, one of whom had ambition but didn’t seem wedded to the idea of the job, the other was definitely a go-getter (ugh, I can’t believe I just wrote that!) but she couldn’t have come close to Sally’s glamorous style and flair. And, too, both of them were married, so they weren’t like us.
But the thing about Sally, and surely another reason she comes to mind all these years later, is that she didn’t seem even the least bit happy. Not at all.
That held a fascination for me. How could she be and have seemingly everything I was supposed to covet … and still have such a bored sadness in her eyes? The set of her face when she wasn’t “on” was melancholy.
I wasn’t friends with Sally. We never spent any time together socially, not even the occasional chat in the breakroom. I didn’t see myself as being in her league and never made an attempt at office friendship. Thinking of that now makes me sad about young me. I was so far from beginning to embrace myself, of course I couldn’t make room for whatever Sally’s story was. But how unfortunate. What, really, would it have taken to include her in our ridiculous jokes, invite her out to lunch or drinks with us? We probably wouldn’t have been friends, but maybe she would have been less of a puzzle to me, a conundrum that continues to hold its secrets all these decades later.
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