The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college was chaotic to say the least. I’m generally an upbeat guy, so I figured I’d have one of those idyllic summers where I worked a bit, partied a bit, went on a date or two – that type of thing. I was dead wrong.
When I returned home from Tufts in mid-May, I thought for sure that I would have an internship lined up. After all, I’d been applying for positions at various companies since February, and I had a lot of experience and good recommendations under my belt. Every morning I would wake up hoping for an acceptance email. Instead, I would be jarred to alertness by notifications like this:
“Thank you for applying. We regret to inform you…”
“Unfortunately we have selected another candidate…”
“We appreciate your time and hope you apply next year…”
It sucked getting loads of rejections. There was no getting around it. At first I decided to just continue to be patient. Yet as time wore on, I found myself becoming more despondent. I binge-watched shows that should’ve never been made. I hit the gym as if my girlfriend had cheated on me with my best friend. I began applying to retail jobs. Finally, I got an offer letter:
Congratulations! You have been selected to be a pre-law intern at Harris and Associates.
I was pretty excited. I would get to learn skills I’d need in the future while earning money. On my first day, I walked into a large building with several floors and elevators. I’d received instructions that I’d be working on the eleventh floor. When I got there I was buzzed in by a white haired legal secretary donning purple glasses and red lipstick.
‘‘Hi dear,’’ she crooned in her Boston accent. ‘‘Where ya headed to?’’
‘‘I’m Paul Wilkins, and I’m a new pre-law intern here.’’
‘‘Oh.’’ Her face darkened. ‘‘Come with me.’’
She led me through the corridors of cubicles into a room so small I wouldn’t have noticed it existed otherwise. She quietly shut the door and locked it. Instead of turning on the light she lit a scented candle. Now I was freaked out.
‘‘May I ask what’s going on here?’’
‘‘My bad for all the drama, kid. I’m Helena. I rushed you to this room because I wanted to warn you of what’s to come.’’
I gulped. ‘‘Warn me?’’
‘‘This internship lasts three months. Well, it’s supposed to. But I’ve never seen anyone make the entire summer. The strongest intern I’ve witnessed tapped out at two months and a week. That’s why I’m telling you what goes down at this place ahead of time so you can avoid the traps.’’
‘‘What types of traps?’’
‘‘Well for starters, take notes on everything. Your boss will only give an explanation once.’’
I nodded silently.
‘‘Don’t question anything. You will see and hear a lot of strange things in this office. It’s just part and parcel of working here. If you see anything weird, simply walk away.’’
‘‘What types of things?’’
She rolled her eyes. ‘‘You’re already dropping the ball!’’
‘‘And–this is the most important one–do not accept coffee from anyone. Good luck, kid. I’m rooting for ya.’’ She blew out the candle, turned on the lights, and unlocked the door to head back to her desk.
A sudden feeling of dread lodged itself within my stomach. I wanted to run for the hills right then and there. Unfortunately I’ve always been more on the passive side, so when it comes to fight or flight I tend to choose flight. But I had promised myself upon acceptance that I would stick to the end with this internship, even if it meant the end of the world. And sure enough, with trudging feet and an apprehensive heart, I made my way to my cubicle.
Cole, a guy in his thirties with a thick frame and muddy blond hair, ended up being my boss. He was a family lawyer who specialized in divorce cases and adoptions. Ironically he wasn’t very family friendly at all.
He had given me three main tasks: prepare the legal documents for each client’s meeting, set out the refreshments for said meetings, and take notes during these times.
‘‘Whenever you prepare the documents for the meeting, never bring all of them at once,’’ he instructed while chowing down on some animal crackers. ‘‘I get paid by the hour. If the clients have to come back another day, that means more cha-ching for me.’’
‘‘Okay,’’ I said, pretending to write down what he was saying while actually writing the word asshole on the paper strapped to my clipboard.
‘‘As for the divorce meetups, always set out a box of tissues. Trust me, those suckers can really cry. Oh, and set out a plate of ten cookies. Exactly ten, preferably Oreos. And for Pete’s sake, don’t ever set out any snacks for the kids who are getting adopted. It makes them too hyper. I’m a lawyer, not a babysitter.’’
‘‘The notes thing is a piece of cake. Make sure you get all the juicy details when things go sour! I like to tape them up in my room and read them when I’m having a bad day.’’
‘‘Not a problem,’’ I murmured.
A few days later I found myself preparing for my first adoption meeting. I had forgotten that the cookies were only meant for divorce meetings, so I put out a packet of Oreos. Cole gave me the evil eye when he walked in, but still helped himself to a few before the clock struck the appointed time.
A man and woman came in with a boy who was almost a teen. The man had an undercut with cornrows that were fastened neatly at the back of his head. He smelled like aftershave and wore a navy blue suit. The woman’s hair was in long twists and she was wearing a teal dress. The curly haired boy was wearing a Nike tracksuit.
‘‘Hi,’’ began Cole, his teeth encrusted in sugary dust. ‘‘You’re the Pierres, right? Are you ready to make this guy your son?’’
‘‘He’s been that to us for a long time. We just wanted to make it official,’’ explained the dad. All three of them beamed.
‘‘Alrighty. Well I’d just like to remind you that you don’t have to do this, y’know.’’
‘‘What?’’ The kid recoiled in shock.
‘‘A lot of people nowadays try so hard to be good people. Feeding the homeless, taking care of the environment, it’s just too much. They should learn to be more selfish.’’
‘‘We love him,’’ spat the mom. ‘‘What part of that do you not understand?’’
The boy looked like he was about to shed tears. Even my conflict avoidant self couldn’t let this happen.
‘‘Guys, I’m so sorry. There’s another firm a few minutes from here where you can actually celebrate your family’s new status.’’
‘‘Looks like we’re headed over there,’’ declared the mom with a firm nod.
‘‘You guys suck! Well, not you, you were kinda cool,’’ the kid uttered as he and his family walked out of the conference room.
Cole gave me a lecture after that. He yelled that I made him look bad in front of clients. He blamed me for the fact that he acted the fool and insisted that he would’ve never made those comments if I hadn’t set out the Oreos that had distracted him. Mostly he was infuriated that a fetus in law like myself would think to correct him so openly. God forbid that we provided people with the services they were paying for.
I almost got fired that day. Well actually, I did technically get fired. Cole told me to get the hell out of his office. Luckily for me, that same afternoon I received an email from HR saying that a concerned custodian had overheard what had happened and spoken to them on my behalf. I was back in a few days. That had been enough time for them to assign me my next boss, Javier.
I worked under Javier for the bulk of the summer. He was an easygoing estate planning lawyer from Chile. He was around five foot three and had an office that looked more like a gaming setup. He got me right to work on some cases involving drafting wills. Just a few weeks into working with Javier, my schedule was full of client meetings. There were several families who I met with to help my boss resolve their cases. Then there was Dante Ricci.
‘‘I’m here to rewrite my will,’’ he began to tell me as he was still stepping into the conference room. ‘‘I’ve had to do this twice already. My first wife left me for a senator. Since then, two out of my three children have foolishly married people who share the exact personality of my ex. I now stand ruined, the shell of a once great man. I want to leave everything to my youngest. After that I can go in peace.’’ His Italian accent held a tinge of sadness.
‘‘I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Ricci. I’ll be sure to call my boss down so that we can get started.’’
But Javier’s office phone rang out without him picking up. I ran around the building trying to find him. I figured he was in a colleague’s office chatting and had forgotten that he had another meeting scheduled.
I knocked on each office door on the floor. The first one opened to a woman answering a client’s phone call while clipping her toenails at her desk. I barfed inside my mouth and closed it quickly. The next door revealed a man trying to process his workplace anxiety with his goldfish. The poor things stared at him for a few seconds at a time before swimming off in various directions.
If I had brought my Guyanese mom to work that day, she would’ve used the term proper schupidness to label the crazy stuff I was seeing. It’s a West Indian phrase that translates to ‘‘what a dumb move’’ or ‘‘how foolish’’. The thing that baffled me the most was that after trying ten different doors, I still couldn’t find Javier. Then I walked into the office kitchen.
‘‘Paul? What are you doing here?’’ He had his hands around a box of pasta.
‘‘I came to look for you since you weren’t answering your phone. There’s a client named Ricci waiting.’’
‘‘Ah, sorry.’’ He grinned at me sheepishly. ‘‘I finished all my work for the day already so I was wondering what to do. I just registered our firm as a restaurant on DoorDash, so that’s why you see me trying to make linguini.’’
‘‘I know, I know. It was kinda risky. But it’s been only a few hours and I already have eleven orders!’’ He smiled triumphantly.
‘‘Would you like me to tell him you’re unavailable?’’ I asked, not bothering to get into cheese and sauces.
‘‘That would be great,’’ he said, eyes fixated on the meal with a three minute prep time that he was about to serve someone for dinner.
That day wasn’t the only one full of incidents. Every week I ran into weirder occurrences whenever I was looking for my boss. Someone washed their clothes in the kitchen sink. Another person would eat peanut butter and pickle sandwiches for lunch. I think Javier sensed my discomfort and decided to try to help me out by handing me off to his colleague, Fatima.
Out of all my bosses, Fatima was the best. She was an organized and efficient tax lawyer. Her hair, which was mostly black except for a large streak of silver, was always kept in a bun pulled to the back of her head. Her tan face was framed by long pearl earrings. My main task was to research the tax laws pertaining to any cases she was overseeing. I quickly was able to build a rapport with her. It’s a bummer that as quickly as I earned her trust I lost it.
‘‘Paul, want some coffee? It’s iced.’’
It was half past three when she offered me caffeine. I remembered Helena’s words from my first day. Everything she told me had been true thus far. Plus, I knew I would be leaving in two hours and didn’t really need the extra stimulation. But things had been going so well with Fatima that I figured I’d oblige.
‘‘I’d like that, thanks.’’
‘‘Sure thing. Really, thank you for taking it. It shows your commitment to the team. No one wants to put in overtime anymore, but you’re willing to do that and you’re only paid in monthly stipends.’’
After that exchange I never worked from nine to five again. Instead, I was working from eight to eight. I wanted to say something but felt burdened to make a favorable and lasting impression on someone at Harris and Associates. There were so many laws to research, so many words. I was beginning to fall behind at my desk. At night I dreamed of towers of papers surrounding me, then engulfing me in their endless lines of syntax. Before working for Fatima I typically would only drink one cup of coffee every few days. Now I needed three just to stay up during the time I was at work.
Over time my boss realized that I was overwhelmed constantly, and she took a bunch of my plate. But as my to-do list vaporized, so did the positive elements of our interactions. She became cold towards me.
On my last day as an intern of the firm I didn’t feel like celebrating at all. I had been mentally checked out for a while. All I could think about was getting home and sleeping in the few days I had left before the new semester. I packed my things up for the last time and headed for the door. Helena ran after me.
‘‘You did it, kid! Why ya look so sad?’’
‘‘I had a miserable summer. More importantly, I don’t think I’ll get solid recommendations from any of my former bosses.’’
She laughed. ‘‘Paul, I know your bosses sucked. But you still tried to maintain good working relationships with them. My friends in HR told me you were also highly productive and progressed many of our cases. For your accomplishments and efforts you deserve all the recommendations in the world.’’
I smiled. ‘‘Thanks Helena for having my back this summer.’’
‘‘Of course. Now get out of here and go do something fun.’’