Sarah hoped her face wasn’t red. She kept her gaze downward, desperately trying to avoid making eye contact. Her sins were public now. A few people had admonished her, but most of the judgment came in the way of averted eyes and insincere smiles. Even Jade, who had steadfastly supported Sarah during some of her worst days, had finally given her that how could you, Sarah? look.
As she walked into the room, Sarah could feel the heat of shame rising within her. The walk across the room seemed endless. Dead man walking. Just get to your chair, she told herself. She made it to her seat and breathed a silent sigh of relief then faked a good morning nod to several of the people already gathered at the table. Thank God, she wasn’t the last one into the conference room.
When Ross walked in, all smiles and charisma, everyone’s attention turned to him. His entrance was, as always, a bit of theatre. Everyone loved Ross. His way with people was as effortless as his seeming grasp of all things business. He was perfect. A Greek hero without the tragic flaw. Adam before biting into the apple. Sarah wondered if she might be Eve soon to be banished from Eden, but alone.
Sarah tried to pay attention to the litany of performance measures Ross was spewing. New clients. Revenue per client. Average daily sales revenue. She was busily making notes in her planner, while her mind was on other things. Did her parents know? Would her marriage survive? Would there be a please see me after the meeting moment soon to be followed by a blank-faced HR staffer sent their to deliver the message, We’re grateful for your work, but considering the circumstances…
“So what do you guys think we should do?” Ross asked the group. “Any thoughts, Sarah?’
God. He must not know. There’s no way he would ask me if he knew. Doesn’t he read the paper? Or look at the internet. Maybe, he’s just trying to embarrass me. But that’s not him. He couldn’t possibly know.
“Um. I’m sorry, Ross. Could you repeat the question? I was making notes and I’m not quite sure what you want me to comment on.”
Later, Sarah wouldn’t be able to remember what it was she had been asked or how she had answered the question. But she must have managed to say something that satisfied him. When the meeting came to it’s merciful end, she couldn’t decide whether racing out the door, feigning the need to be somewhere, or pretending to add things to her list of Things to Do Today. Unfortunately, her hesitation only left her mired in the bog of humanity all trying to get out the door at the same time.
Just as she thought she had freed herself from the glass-walled prison, she heard Ross call her name.
“Sarah. Hey, Sarah. Hang on. Can I walk with you.”
Here it comes. He knows. She muttered a curse under her breath, tried to reassure herself that she had a good bit in savings and maybe a fresh start in another career would be good no matter what circumstances had led to it. Sarah braced herself for the onslaught when Ross closed the door to her office behind him.
“Look, Ross. I’ll save you the trouble. I’ve already typed up my resignation. I’ll clean out my—“
“Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Who said anything about a resignation?”
“I know what I’ve done. I know it looks bad—and that the company can’t run the risk of bad press from my foolishness, from this dumpster fire I’ve set in my life.”
“Hang on, Sarah. Just hang on a second. I’m not here to ask for your resignation. And I’m not here to throw any stones or give you any lectures. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of that already. I’m guessin’ your weekend was pretty close to horrible.”
Moisture pooled at the corner of Sarah’s wide eyes. She said nothing, fearing that an attempt to speak would lead to her coming completely unhinged.
“Look, I’m not gonna sugarcoat this. Yeah, I’ll admit the possibility someone over my pay grade will want to avoid the risk of getting embroiled in your personal situation. But the truth is, the last thing you need right now is judgment. The stuff you’re going through is difficult enough. And I’m pretty sure you’re beating yourself up already. And some people are gonna want to abandon you. I just don’t want to be one of those people. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Sarah had prepared herself for almost everything except this. Compassion? Understanding? Given what she had done, they had never figured into her calculus.
“I—I don’t know what to say, Ross. I mean—thank you.”
“There’s no need to thank me, Sarah. None of us are perfect. Heaven knows, I’ve slid along the razor’s edge of calamity myself. Most of us, if we are honest, live no more than a few decisions away from being in situations similar to yours. Maybe it might be a different kind of trial, but the magnitude of them would be about the same.
“When people go through something like what you’re going through, well, they just don’t think how vulnerable they really are. Admitting that would just be too frightening for most people. So they hide behind their pride when humility and compassion would be so much more appropriate. Not the kind of trite “but for the grace of God,” kind of humility or “bless her heart” sort of counterfeit compassion that is so commonplace. I’m talking about the real deal. The kind of humility and compassion that might cost them something.”
Sarah offered Ross a smile of gratitude as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Any way, if HR calls me, I will be the first one to defend you. I can’t promise you any more than that—except that I will shoot straight with you. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough, Ross.”
“Now, I gotta go see who I can boss around today. You should get to work, too. I know it will be hard to concentrate but do your best. And don’t forget to breathe.” With that, he smiled, pivoted, and left Sarah to contemplate what had just taken place.
A few minutes later, Jade was at Sarah’s doorway.
“You okay?” she asked, her voice full of repentance.
“I’m okay,” said Sarah.
“What did he say?”
“Not much. But just the right thing.”