Housekeeping

My boss called me from Taiwan today, 4:30AM his time, which meant he was in a chauffeured car en route to the airport, where he’d board a small plane to Hong Kong and then from there, a larger plane to Melbourne where he is scheduled to play a few holes of golf with Tiger Woods, the world’s most famous philanderer.

Planning his trip, I asked him what else he’d like to do, should gambling or Tiger turn out to be rather uneventful. I imagined my boss tuning out as Tiger tried to show him the right way to grip a golf club. (“See here, you put your thumb here…the strippers love that.”)

“I’ve never been to Australia before,” my boss said, “I’d like to see the coastline.”

The words themselves were strangely romantic and he delivered them in an almost thoughtful way. I wondered if he would arrive at Lorne or Sorrento, kick off his shoes and run to the water. Calm, tiny waves (depending on the location of the moon), would lap at his toes as he stood with hands on hips, belly thrust forward, salty sea air whipping through his short hair. Perhaps he would wear a crisp white shirt. The collar, normally stiff, would bend and sway and eventually flip up and out, seduced by the sea. Perhaps he’d experience true quiet for a few moments – he would be in the land down under, surrounded by nothing but the sea and unfamiliar territory. There, he could be truly anonymous. As long as he put his phone on silent.

But I know my boss. He is half a dreamer, which means, give him enough time and he will inevitably retract the dream and replace it with something more immediate. A few days before he left he said, “Scratch the coastline. I don’t have much time. I think I’ll just walk around the city.”

I tried to picture my boss as flaneur, walking with his hands in his pockets, alone in a foreign city whose denizens were all uniformly tall, blonde, tanned, and great with wild animals (such is my stereotype of Australians). But this picture faded quickly; by now my boss was accustomed to being driven around. Perhaps his Australian chauffeur would be a washed-up ex-surfer who had been injured on the great barrier reef and who had tried his hand unsuccessfully at a string of jobs before discovering his love for the road. It was somehow comforting to drive powerful men around. The driver would be unusually chatty, intrigued by this portly Asian man with the furrowed brow and bulbous nose – who was he and why was he so important that he was playing golf with the world’s most famous philanderer? It didn’t matter. The driver would impress him with his knowledge of Australia. Why didn’t he want to see the coast? It was Australia’s crowning glory – a gift from nature, surely, but they did a better job than the Americans of keeping it clean. My boss would chuckle deeply in that misleading way of his, “Sure, sure,” and lean back, close his eyes, and remind whomever to change his driver tomorrow. This one was too chatty.

When the call came, I tensed up for a millisecond, the way I always do when he calls. He is, by all means, a low-maintenance sort of boss. He prefers me to email him, though not incessantly. I learned this on my first day, when the bubbly HR girl walked me up the stairs and said in a low voice, “Don’t ever, under any circumstances, just forward him things. He HATES that.”

I nodded solemnly. Of course. My job was to trim the fat – take away the million stupid little things that would irritate or worry him. So far, I think I have done alright, though in the beginning it seemed to be sort of a gamble: do I just copy and paste this message and pawn it off as my own? Does he want me to reply and then cc him? I did everything with bated breath and when all was quiet on his end, I accepted the possibility that my system, whatever it was, was acceptable.

So the call. On his last trip to Asia, his first since hiring me, he had warned me that there would be times when he would have to call me at odd hours.

“Just be prepared,” he wrote to me before boarding the plane, “I’ll try not to bother you, but sometimes, shit happens.”

I giggled, both endeared to the fact that he had said, “I’ll try not to bother you,” and that he had used such coarse language. If he was exercising the powers of reverse psychology, it worked.

“Don’t worry, Boss,” I typed back, “I read the job description.”

He was gone for a little over a week, and aside from the emails that pinged during the night, he never did call. People at the office who had seen the past two assistants slowly unravel were incredulous.

“You mean he hasn’t woken you up in the middle of the night?”

“Nope. Not once.”

“He never called.”

“Nope.”

“Not even when you didn’t respond to his emails right away.”

“No.” by then, I was wondering if we were still talking about the same person. Apparently not.

“Sounds like he’s changed a lot,” one of them said, “The last assistant always looked like a zombie whenever your boss went to Asia. She said the phone would ring nonstop sometimes.”

That’s horrible, I thought, and truly, every night when he was away I braced myself, wondering if I should just turn the phone off and feign to be a deep sleeper. But I left it on in case he were to call. I had read the job description. It said 24/7. But he never called.

Apparently, everything went smoothly. Before I knew it he was back in the office and certain executives stopped storming around my desk asking impatiently, “When is he coming back? Is he on vacation?”

But he called at 1:30PM this afternoon, which meant it was 4:30AM in Taipei. My heart constricted, so adept am I at handling stress. Did his driver not show up? Did the plane break down? Did he want to see the coastline after all?

I answered, my voice reminiscent of a strangled altar boy.

“Hello?”

“Betty?”

“Yes,” (ah, voice back to normal), “Hey Boss, what’s up? How are you? Is everything okay?”

“Haha,” his laugh sounded hollow and far away, not least because he was very far away, “I’m still alive.”

“Oh good.”

“So about my awards ceremony at the university.”

“Yes, yes, about that.”

I blanked out for two seconds before I remembered that he was being presented with an Entrepreneur of the Year Award at a local university’s school of business. Before he left he had mentioned buying a table and filling it with executives and VPs, as per usual.

“I want to do something a little different,” he said.

“Okay…”

“I think we can send out an invite to the executives, but if they want to come, they can buy their own tickets.”

“Got it. But do you still want to buy a table?”

“Yes, but I want to invite some younger people. We need to mix it up a bit.” he paused for a moment and I imagined him rubbing the sleep off his face, “Ask around. We have some younger employees with entrepreneurial spirit. I want them to come out to this event to represent our company. They can hear my story if they haven’t heard it before, and it’ll be nice for them to mix with the MBA students.”

“Got it.”

There was an awkward pause as I thought of something else to say.

“So… anything new?” He asked, “everything okay?”

I wondered if he really wanted me to fill him in on whatever was happening in addition to the emails he was sending me. Of course not.

“Everything’s fine,” I said, “Just housekeeping. Your uh, ice maker has been refreshed and the wireless HDMI kit is being installed. Everything should be ready when you return.”

“Ok,” he said. “that’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Okay. I just thought I’d call about the Awards thing rather than write it out. Well, don’t worry. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Have a safe flight, Boss.”

“Thanks, thanks,” he said.

We hung up and I looked around the office. A few coworkers were staring at me expectantly.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, “He was just checking in, I guess.”

“How nice of him to call during your regular working hours.”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking that maybe he would go see the coastline, “He’s cool like that.”

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