When I was living in San Francisco’s Marina district in the mid-1990s, one of my boyfriend’s friends of friends was a woman named Giselle. She was small –maybe 5’4” in heels — and a sun-streaked, salon-assisted blonde. Giselle was a size 00 before the size existed. Maybe she was about thirty years old: a distinction, when most of the girls in the social group were in our 20’s.
Save for girlfriend types like me, most in this group had family money. They gravitated to the sailboat my boyfriend leased. It suited their cultivated pose: that of heavy drinkers who occasionally slept.
My boyfriend was not one of them. A man who would never know a truly easy time, he seemed to prefer domestic turbulence to any other state. I think fighting kept him from seeing how close to real distress he always was, as calm waters allow a clear view of what lies beneath.
One night after a summer volleyball game, Giselle announced she was getting married. First came the congratulations, then the question: “Who’s the guy?”
No one had ever met him. Born into a family of diplomats, Giselle had met her fiance on a recent vacation “back home” in Tunisia with her family. She’d return there to marry him, in what would be one of the social events of the year; many of those we knew would attend the wedding.
It counted as adventure travel, and they could afford it.
The marriage lasted less than a year. Giselle reappeared among us, still tanned, small, just a bit chastened. Everyone was sympathetic. She moved into the huge flat of a friend; another talked to her boss and got her a job at her PR firm.
This process took two weeks. It was as though Giselle had never been married.
More than a decade later, the year of the apology letter reminds me of the marriage that never happened. I started writing these — literal apologies, on behalf of my giant corporate employer, some months ago, to individuals and companies against whom the giant corporation or one of its subsidiaries had erred in some way. In some cases, these were system errors. In others, the errors were human.
In every case, I wrote the letters to cover the corporation’s responsibility to its customers — and help hold it harmless from any legal liability that might arise from an offended customer’s hurt feelings.
“Who’s better at apologizing than I am?” I have joked, on more than one occasion. These words come back to me now like a punch. Who, indeed.
Because let’s face it: I am good at the immersive listening, erasure of self, and procedural examination apologizing requires. What happened, when did it happen, and how can I help resolve this situation? I really moved that train along. You could say I was born to the role.
The review and approval process for one apology letter extended far past the usual few days to two weeks, and involved many people. On one of the scheduled review calls, a member of the product team challenged the use of the word “malfunction” to describe what the company did wrong.
“I don’t like that word,” she said. “It’s extremely negative. It makes it sound like we made …”
“A mistake?” I prompted. Thinking, You did.
“I don’t like that word either,” she continued. “‘Error’ is better.”
An error it was: in six instances, all the way to the end of the letter.
Last Friday, that giant corporation fired me. I had a contract, so my agency called me with the news, claiming there was “no reason” from my manager. (“We’ll try to get more information from her,” added the agency rep.)
I had finished a fraud protection communication the day before; the last email messages I’d received commended me on a great job. I had no idea I was getting canned, no warning at all.
But the company’s computer is still in my possession. There was never a central location on which I could place any of the documents I wrote — even the apology letters. Everything, from the communications on migrating credentials to those sad, sensitive little letters, is on that hard drive. All are encrypted; I don’t have the login anymore. Still, the company doesn’t have its computer, either. It sits next to me now, a black Sphinx.
Until the FedEx box arrives for its flight home, the laptop (which never did have a case) could be a giant coaster for beverages. Just about that useful. It might contain the evidence of why I was fired, but as the hours pass I am finding it harder to care about the why. If the problem is in that laptop, it is already gone — along with every document I produced.
If the problem is in me, it stays. But I will not apologize for it until I understand the problem. This was always my process.
Money can protect people from many things. It can allow those who have it to pick up and move — to new opportunities, from failed ones. It can help them hire armies for one purpose, deploy them for another, with little or no notice. It can erase crime and injury with nothing but the skills of those armies alone.
And it allows the powerful the one grace move of absolute wealth: the ability to step back from any act — from saying Yes, on this date, I did this, for this reason — and let the curtain fall instead.
This never happened. It wasn’t really a marriage, it was a youthful indiscretion.
Or can it? Can money really change the malfunction to an error of anonymous origin? Or does it occasionally result in the loss of an asset, a black box and a handful of sensitive information gone suddenly missing, a blank space in a life?
Can the person who has always found comfort in apologies suddenly tire of crafting them?
It can happen.
And she has.