“These people you coach, do they ever actually change? I mean in any kind of lasting, notable way?”
He hesitated. This was actually something he’d wondered about.
“They change their behaviors,” he said, “some of them. Often people will simply have no idea that they’re perceived as needing improvement in a certain area, but then they see the report…”
She nodded. “You differentiate between changing people and changing behaviors, then.”
“Here’s the thing,” Dahlia said. “I’ll bet you can coach Dan, and probably he’ll exhibit a turnaround of sorts, he’ll improve in concrete areas, but eh’ll still be a joyless bastard.”
“No, wait, don’t write that down. Let me rephrase that. Okay, let’s say he’ll change a little, probably if you coach him, but he’ll still be a successful-but-unhappy person who works until nine p.m. every night because he’s got a terrible marriage and doesn’t want to go home, and don’t ask how I know that, everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious. And you know, I’m reaching here, but I’m talking about someone who just seems like he wishes he’d done something different with his life, I mean really actually almost anything—is this too much?”
“No. Please, go on.”
“Okay, I love my job, and I’m not just saying that because my boss is going to see my interview comments, which by the way I don’t believe he won’t be able to tell who said what, anonymous or not. But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think—this will maybe sound weird—it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite—”
“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”
“You don’t think he likes his job, then.”
“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”
What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep? He was nodding, taking down as much as he could. “Do you think he’d describe himself as unhappy in his work?”
“No,” Dahlia said, “because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction. You know what I mean?”
”No, please elaborate.”
“Okay, say you go into the break room,” she said, “and a couple people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word? You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”
“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing. The previous day eh’d gone into the break room and spent five minutes laughing at a colleague’s impression of a Daily Show bit.
“That’s what passes for a life, I should say. That’s what passes for happiness, for most people. Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”
He go through the rest of the interview, shook her hand, walked out through the vaulted lobby of the Graybar Building to Lexington Avenue. The air was cold but he longed to be outside, away from other people. He took a long and circuitous route, veering two avenues east to the relative quiet of Second Avenue.
He was thinking of the book, and thinking of what Dahlia had said about sleepwalking, and a strange thought came to him: had Arther seen that Clark was sleepwalking? Would this be in the letters to V? Because he had been sleepwalking Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for a while now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration? He wished he could somehow go back and find the iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier, apologize to them—I’m sorry, I’ve just realized that I’m as minimally present in this world as you are, I had no right to judge—and also he wanted to call every target of every 360° report and apologize to them too, because it’s an awful thing to appear in someone else’s report, he saw that now, it’s an awful thing to be the target.