Nomad Dreams (Fiction) | #249
December 2nd, 2023: Greetings from Barcelona! I did a bunch of experiments with ChatGPT this week, including having it act as my writing coach for a fiction piece, something I haven’t done before. While the initial drafts were pretty bad, I found it quite powerful to create an initial “world” to play with. What follows is the finished piece, something that was pretty fun to write, and plan to do more. Let me know what you think!
+ Cissy Hu is hosting a Pathless Path meetup in San Francisco on December 13th. Learn More
+ Shoutout to the 20 people who joined the community this week. We have a bunch of events this month as well as a holiday social. If you’d like to meet other pathless folks, check out this end of year special and join here.
#1 Home For The Holidays
In the warmth of her parents’ suburban home, under the glow of masterfully strung Christmas lights, Emma found herself the star of a celebration toast that she knew was coming. The family was gathered on the Saturday before Christmas, their annual tradition, and while she loved coming back home for the holidays, this time she felt different. At the dinner, her father initiated the toast. He looked across the table and said, “To Emma, and her incredible promotion to Associate at Madson Bailey. She’s always been our rock star.” Then he winked at Emma and added, “to her continued climb up the Wall Street ladder so that she can pay back private school tuition and help us retire.” Her dad had always cracked jokes like this. To her, she knew it was a party his harmless attempt to be funny sprinkled with some unresolved insecurities. In the past, these sorts of comments never bothered her but this time, his words felt heavy, like they contained some sort of explicit agreement about how she should spend her life.
Emma mingled among relatives and family friends after the dinner. Each congratulation felt like a weight added to the facade she felt compelled to maintain. Her father introduced her to a circle of his friends who had stopped by the house and they nodded approvingly at Emma's father’s bragging. One of the friends commented, that she wished her daughter had the same drive as Emma.
Surrounded by a chorus of praise, Emma's uncle, Walter, a veteran in the finance world, came over. Walter was one of the biggest reasons Emma decided to study finance in college. She used to love her conversations with him about the client trips he’d take around the world and even some of the more technical lessons on the efficient market hypothesis and his favorite economist, Milton Friedman. She became much more interested in investing after reading A Random Walk Down Wall Street, a book gifted to her by Walter, and around this time declared that she would become a big-time portfolio manager one day. But now she was a bit afraid to talk to Walter. He was still “just” her uncle, but they had never really talked about anything other than her career and investing. Could he tell she wasn’t as excited as she used to be?
His first comment was direct, “So what’s next B-school or PE?” A lot of her colleagues had started looking for exit options and “PE,” or Private Equity was one of the most popular options. They loved hiring pre-trained workers and for the analysts, it was an easy way to keep feeling a sense of career progression while getting a massive pay bump, Plus, it was one of the most popular paths, so people never questioned it. The other option was business school, which felt exciting to her, but mostly because it was an amazing cover story to take a couple of years off of school while potentially trying to find a path she might be a little more excited by. She knew that Walter’s connections could help her pursue either path and right as she was trying to shift the conversation away Walter said, “You know I have my Wharton 25-year anniversary this year, if you want me to put in a good word I can.” Walter’s love language was networking and this was his way of showing he cared. To him, Emma was his favorite person in the family. He was always a bit introverted and struggled to connect with people but knew with Emma, that there was at least one person that understood him. But at this moment, Emma, yearned for her uncle and father to see her as more than a successful worker.
As the evening wore on, Emma's smile became increasingly strained. Each mention of her 'bright future' and 'impressive trajectory' was a reminder of the self-doubt she had been feeling over the past year. The idea of transitioning to private equity or pursuing an MBA, paths laden with prestige and promise, were supposed to excite her, and at one point did, but now all she felt was a sense of dread.
As the night drew to a close, Emma lay in her childhood bedroom, staring at the ceiling. The party downstairs continued, a low hum of celebration that felt like it belonged to someone else's life. In her room, Emma grappled with a truth she couldn't voice – the life she had built, the life that everyone admired, felt less like an achievement and more like a beautifully decorated cage. The thought of disappointing her family, of stepping away from the path they so proudly watched her walk, filled her with a paralyzing fear.
Like she had many times before, she convinced herself to ignore her feelings. She put on a short non-sleep deep rest podcast that seemed to be more effective than the sleeping pills that her colleagues relied on and drifted off to sleep.
#2 The Pitch
Back at work after the holidays, Emma's days began to blur into indistinguishable days of numbers, decks, meetings, and relentless expectations. The skyscraper that housed her office stood as a monument to power and ambition and on her first of work, she remembered going out of her way to walk past the famous Merill Lynch bull before turning the corner to look up at her building. Its reflective surface seemed to absorb the aspirations of thousands like her who had come seeking some feeling of specialness in the modern economy.
It was on the 23rd floor where Emma spent almost seven days per week. In her first year, she pushed back against the constant assault of work from her Associate and VP and negotiated with colleagues to cover her in order to get the occasional Sunday afternoon off to explore, but by now, in her third year, she had started to find a weird sort of comfort in the consistency of making the daily trek down to her office. She consciously existed in a first-world problems sort of Stockholm syndrome where she knew that her environment was probably not having a great effect on her but she still clung to the story that it was all worth it. Plus, so many people would have done anything to have her position. Shouldn’t she be grateful?
Her weeks blended into each other and while she had enough seniority to get the occasional weekend off, she built her life around the expectation that she would always need to be close to the office in case of an urgent client issue. She had given up making plans with many of her friends, having lost touch with most of them, and had focused on the 2-3 friends who lived nearby in West Village who didn’t get frustrated by her last minute, “free in 15 for a drink?” texts.
As she walked into the expansive office that morning, she knew today was the day she would make her pitch. She had been thinking about it for weeks and had been pulling together a collection of slides over the dinner each night, which she always ordered from the company DoorDash account at 8:26 each night. She didn’t remember why she started ordering at that exact time but the habit had stuck. As she made her way past the rows of the men in her group in their matching Patagonia vests which they bought as a joke, she looked around and thought, “Wow I’ve spent three years of my life in this room.” She sat down at her desk and printed a copy of the pitch she had been working on, went to get it, and sat down back at her desk.
It was a straightforward ask, right? Her plan was to propose a new role that would enable her to stay staffed on multiple deals but also spend half her time as part of the training team. She had already talked to the training manager, Rachel, who loved the idea of getting Emma on her team. She could do more in a few hours a week than some of the junior members of her team. A year ago, Emma bumped into Rachel at a happy hour, who mentioned that they needed someone to help facilitate training for the new hires. Emma volunteered as part of her “magic time,” the tongue-in-cheek phrase that people used to describe the time they were expected to devote to internal initiatives above their day jobs. Emma instantly realized how much she loved creating the training materials and working with the new hires. She was able to help people with building models and making pitches but also understand how to think about getting better at communication, managing up, and working on teams. Throughout the year, she ended up doing seven training sessions, and while she loved the sessions, she felt like she was being disingenuous by withholding some of her uncomfortable feelings about her life, but remembered back to her own early days, realizing that no matter what anyone would have told her, she wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
The previous night after all the senior people left at 11 pm, she shared her pitch with Ricky, one of her closest friends in her group. He rolled his eyes and said, “You know Dan is going to laugh at this, he hasn’t taken off a single day since he graduated from Princeton six years earlier.” Dan was the VP of her group and although they had a great working relationship, she had a hunch this would be his response.
Walking over to Dan’s office with her proposal, Emma took her time. He was more than a finance bro, he actually lived and breathed finance and genuinely loved it. Emma was inspired by Dan’s curiosity when she started. He was still an Associate then and he stood out compared to some of his more cynical peers who ended up there not because they loved finance but because they were good at competing and playing the game. Dan felt that the finance industry was a place where the most impressive young people of his generation should want to work and he looked down at people taking cozier BigTech jobs. He would often claim in earnest that his role models were Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan and argued that “it was still early” for the industry, despite Emma being a bit more sympathetic with the sentiment that software really was eating the world.
Emma walked into the office and sat down. Dan, noticing her strained expression, leaned over and asked, "You look stressed, you're not going to quit too, are you?"
Just a few weeks earlier, another Associate, Blaine, had abruptly risen from his desk in the middle of the day and walked out, never to return. But Dan didn’t think Emma was going to quit. She was the top Associate in her class and they had worked well together on several deals. Not only was she reliable and consistent she was actually better than most of her peers in communicating with clients and building relationships. Dan thought it was worth paying attention to Emma, figuring they might both one day be Managing Directors.
Emma forced a smile at Dan's comment, shrugging it off with a nonchalant, "Just another day in paradise." But inside, his words echoed, amplifying her own simmering doubts about what he might think of the proposal. While the chances of "pulling a Blaine" as people around the office were calling it were low, she hadn’t really thought through what would happen after she made this pitch.
Before pulling out the printed slides she had prepared, she shared how much she cared about Madson Bailey and still loves working on client projects. Dan interjected, “Suuuure seems like you’re about to qu…” “Relax Dan,” she said and then kept going. She shared the work she had been doing in her magic time and how she thought that the two sides of the role she was proposing might actually make her better at both. She could stay engaged and last at the firm for many more years. Though it was no longer a popular sentiment to think someone really could “have it all,” she held out hope that it might be different for her.
Dan, however, was skeptical. He scrunched his eyes and pulled the printout toward him. His model of work was one where you always did your best and anyone taking a step back was not to be taken seriously. He sat there in silence a bit shocked at first. He had thought Emma was all in. He was also nervous. He would look like an idiot to his Managing Director, who was one of the most intense guys in the firm if he had to go pitch such a plan to him. He knew that if they made this change for Emma suddenly everyone would want an easier setup with all the perks of working at Madson Bailey.
He looked at her and said, “Emma, you know this place is about putting in your time. You’re so close to being promoted to VP, why would you give that up?” He reminded her that she had a golden ticket, one that endless people try and fail to get every year. Everyone followed the path or opted out. After a long, deep breath, he looked at her barely holding back his disappointment, and told her that he’d think about it. Inside, he knew he would never ask the Managing Director, it was too much political capital to waste.
Emma left the office feeling a wave of frustration. She recalled her full-time interview years ago, where her creativity and active engagement in college were called out by the interviewers as things they saw as strengths. After she got the offer, a Managing Director who was an alumnus of her school had dinner with her when she was in the city. She sold Emma hard on the role. She told her how Madson Bailey would be in a much better position than working as a brand associate at Procter & Gamble, where should also had an offer, and that she’d progress twice as fast in the finance industry. She told her about the firm’s Give Back Program, and mentioned that employees often take days off to volunteer, adding that she’d have even more flexibility after the first couple of years. Yet, now three years into her new life in high finance, she realized she had never considered that the job might actually change who she thought she was. It seemed silly to think she’d even have the energy for volunteering, not to mention actually asking to take the days off, which was a faux pax.
Walking back to her desk, Emma's mind replayed the meeting. She thought about the countless hours she had invested in her job, and the personal sacrifices for future career options. The realization stung – in the pursuit of this success, she had traded away pieces of herself, molding into the archetype of an ideal Madson woman..
The office around her, once a place she was able to feel a lot of pride in, felt constricting. The rows of screens, the hushed conversations about industry news, the constant contortions to impress clients and land the next deal – it all seemed part of a performance for which she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep auditioning.
As she stood up to leave, Emma felt like she was about to commit a crime. She had been frustrated all day and it was her suspicion that Dan was not actually going to bring the idea for a new role to his Managing Director. When she saw the clock hit 5:00, she stood up and started walking toward the elevator. It wasn’t something she planned, it just happened and once she started walking, she didn’t stop. As the elevator doors opened on the ground floor she made eye contact with the security guard and for a split second she swore that he was about to stop her.
She texted Cheryl as soon as she left the building, one of her friends who always seemed to be available. "Free for a drink?" she messages, something she had never proposed before 9 pm. Cheryl's response was immediate and laced with surprise. "Did the bank fail? Absolutely! See you at that wine bar in West Village?"
Spending time with Cherly was always a pleasure. She worked at a nonprofit and came from money. She never seemed stressed or anxious and her relaxed energy always helped Emma take a deep breath and put her work stress into perspective for a couple of hours.
The wine bar was a cozy, dimly lit space, and Emma reflected that she hadn’t been out wandering the city in daylight hours for months. She grabbed a seat at the bar and impulsively ordered two glasses of Champagne. Cherly walked in a couple of minutes later, looking a bit worried. "Emma, is the warden looking for you? Is everything okay?"
Emma pushed the glass to Cheryl, managed a wry smile, and replied, "It's great to see you, Cheryl." She took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts. "Dan shot down my proposal," she started, "his message was clear: stick to the script and wait for a promotion that, to be honest, I'm starting to question if I even want."
Cheryl sat there a bit confused. She had no idea what Emma was talking about. She knew Dan was her manager but when they hung out, they didn’t really talk about career stuff. Emma appreciated this. Talking with Cheryl was a way to escape the numbers on a screen that she had even started dreaming about. Their typical topics centered around Cheryl’s latest romantic interests, Emma’s failed attempts to actually show up to dates, or their commentary on the latest episodes of You. Emma then blurted out, "I think I should quit.” Hearing the words come out of her mouth scared her as it was the first time she had ever said such a thing out loud.
"I mean, who am I? What the hell are we all doing here in New York? What is the goal? Get rich? Then what?"
Cheryl sensed that Emma needed someone venting time and sat there patiently listening to what appeared to be the start of a quarter-life crisis.
In some ways, Cheryl felt relieved. Every time they hung out she felt like she was always the one going through some crises despite having what she knew was a pretty comfortable life.
Emma's questions hung in the air, rhetorical yet demanding answers. "I feel like I'm on the brink of something drastic, Cheryl. But I'm scared... what am I supposed to do?"
As the evening wore on, shifting between topics, Emma's thoughts about her position at work started to become more clear. She needed to do something. She couldn’t just keep going through the motions. She might wake up ten years later not knowing how she had lost track of her life. The decision to propose a new role at work had been a step, but now, she realized it was time for a bolder move. "I need to step away and clear my head," a newfound determination in her voice.
Cheryl said, “Why not take a vacation? You literally haven’t taken more than a day off outside of your sister’s wedding in three years.”
Emma thought about it. Something about walking out of work without telling anyone that afternoon seemed to light a fire inside of her. It was as if she was proving to herself that she still had enough agency to make changes in her life. She was becoming sick of playing by the rules, being Ms. High Achiever.
Leaving the wine bar, Emma felt sad. There was no excitement about the next steps but a sense that something was shifting inside of her. As she walked through the streets of West Village, she decided to walk in the opposite direction of her apartment. Given how early she got out of work this was the first time she had actually walked around her neighborhood before 9pmon a weeknight in two years. As she wandered she started to feel a small seed of excitement inside of her. But it quickly disappeared when she remembered tomorrow meant she’d have to wake up again and ride the 2 down to the office.
"Pura Vida!" The call rang out across the dirt streets of a small Costa Rican town, pulling Emma out of her drifting thoughts back to her work. She turned to see Juan, the helpful local who helped her with her stuff when she arrived the night before. His smile was as warm as the morning sun, and he handed her a fresh mango, “want one?”
Two days earlier, Emma had been in New York City, helping to finish another urgent pitch to a new client. The decision to escape to Costa Rica had come spontaneously after her walk home from the impromptu meeting with Cheryl a few weeks earlier. She booked the flight that night and although she looked forward to it, she had a hard time getting excited about it. Dan had surprisingly and quickly agreed to her vacation request, probably more out of concern for retention rates than anything else. Emma figured he was relieved that she had brought up her pitch to split her role again after the initial meeting.
In Costa Rica, Emma found an entirely different world. It wasn’t just that she was on vacation or taking a trip. She was feeling something different in her body. Surrounded by the chirping of tropical birds, the monkeys that played in the backyard of her hotel, and the break of the waves a couple of blocks away, she was able to be present for the first time in what seemed like years. It was lovely.
On the third morning of her trip, Emma set off on a hike she had discovered through a quick search on Google Maps. The trail was relatively short, a manageable 40-minute trek, leading to a hidden gem she had read about – a secluded waterfall, known for its beautiful position among a thick canopy of trees.
As Emma walked, the cacophony of noises pulled her into the present. The air was fresh and filled with the scent of damp earth and foliage. The path wound through the lush greenery, with occasional glimpses of exotic birds and the distant chatter of wildlife.
As Emma approached the waterfall, the powerful surge of water she had been hearing gradually revealed itself. The water cascaded down with a mesmerizing, almost hypnotic force, its waters crashing into the pool below with a thunderous slosh. Sunlight filtered through the canopy, creating a play of light and shadow on the water's surface.
Emma found herself completely alone, the solitude amplifying the sense of being in a world far removed from New York not only in environment but her sense of place in the world. As she gazed up at the water, a surge of conflicting emotions welled up inside her. She felt freedom, yet there was also a sense of becoming unmoored. As she stood there, the joy and confusion exploded into tears. She sat down and for nearly five minutes, wept. With tears streaming down her face and the roar of the waterfall enveloping her, Emma experienced what she would later describe as a mystical moment.
The next couple of days were uneventful but she felt as present as she had been in years. The last time she remembered feeling like this was when she studied abroad in Florence during her sophomore year of college and spent every Sunday without her phone, wandering from plaza to plaza, reading by the river, and watching the sunset from Plaza Michaelangelo.
On her fouthy night, she went to a local bar and sat down to have a drink by herself. She walked to a local bar by the beach and took a seat facing the water. She had been sitting there for about ten minutes, sipping a local beer and lost in thought, when she noticed a small group at a nearby table. From this group, a tall guy with curly hair and a friendly smile stood up and approached her. “Hi, I’m Roger,” he introduced himself, with what appeared to be a British accent. “Or was it Australian?” Emma thought, always frustrated at her inability to tell Brits apart from South Africans or Australians.
“Do you want to join us?” His invitation was warm and genuine, and something about his demeanor put Emma at ease. As she joined the group, she found herself pulled into a world of fascinating stories and backgrounds. Roger, who had left a law career in the UK seven years ago, now lived in Costa Rica for six months of the year and “wasn’t sure where he was going during the rainy season.” He called his lifestyle a “slowmad” one, preferring to only move between a couple of locations where he spent his time writing online, surfing, hanging with friends, doing occasional legal work when money got tight, and enjoying a simple, relaxed life.
Next to Roger was Carla, a Costa Rican local who had become a vital part of the entrepreneurial community in the area. She spoke passionately about her initiatives to promote sustainable tourism and her efforts to support local artists. Completing the trio was Isabella, a spirited entrepreneur from Colombia. She was in Costa Rica for a month, exploring business opportunities and taking a break from her startup in Bogotá. Her stories of business adventures, challenges, and triumphs painted a picture of a determined and resourceful woman, unafraid to take risks.
As the night unfolded, Emma found herself captivated by the conversation. Each story was a window to a world of possibilities she had never considered. To the people in the group, it was normal, but to Emma, it seemed radical compared to her world of prestige and next steps. At one point, Carla, stopped and asked Emma, “how do you spend your time in New York?” Emma found herself hesitating, feeling that they would think she was boring, "I uhh, work a lot, in finance," her voice quieter than she intended. The group nodded, without judgment. They seemed more interested in her as a person, not in her job title or her career achievements. It was a refreshing change from her colleague’s constant arguments about whether HBS or Wharton was the better B-school.
Emma knew she was an outsider but felt a sense of connection that night. It was less that she felt like them and more about their openness and curiosity. At the same time, she was painfully aware that they all seemed to exude a vitality that she both lacked and desired. As the night drew to a close, Emma walked back to her room. The air was balmy, carrying the salty taste of the sea and the faint rustle of palm leaves in the gentle night breeze. Her mind buzzed and for the first time in a long time, she felt filled with energy.
The next morning, Emma woke up feeling refreshed and more at peace than she had in months. Eager to start her day, she headed to a local restaurant famous for its authentic Costa Rican cuisine. As she sat down and ordered rice and beans, she heard a familiar voice. "Going local with the cuisine, I see! But where's the Wall Street power breakfast?" Roger joked as he approached her table. "What are you up to today? Want to go search for some sloths with me?”
Emma didn't hesitate. Spending the day with Roger felt right, an opportunity to be spontaneous and get out of her comfort zone. As she finished her breakfast and grabbed her bag, she followed Roger, walking out of the restaurant. She caught a glance of him from the side and realized he wasn’t too bad-looking either. She let out a slight laugh and caught up with him.
As they jumped on Rogers ATV and drove toward a hiking trail he liked, Emma wondered what she had gotten herself into. She didn’t really know this person but she also didn’t really care. She hadn’t had any sort of adventure in her life in years and was excited to see what would happen.
When they jumped off Emma asked, “So, have you always been into hiking?”, breaking the silence. Her voice sounded louder than she intended, and she felt a bit embarrassed. Roger laughed, "Not really. I never left the city before leaving Law. I was more worried about partying with my friends than taking a walk in a forest.”
Emma smiled, feeling a bit more at ease. "I can't say I'm a seasoned hiker myself. This is probably the most adventurous thing I've done in a while," she admitted. Their conversation stumbled forward, a mix of getting-to-know-you questions and observations about the jungle's various animals that seemed to appear out of nowhere. At one point, as they crossed a narrow stream over a series of stepping stones, Emma lost her balance slightly. Roger reached out instinctively, steadying her with a hand on her shoulder. "Gotcha," he said, a playful twinkle in his eye.
Emma laughed and was a bit embarrassed but grateful for the assistance. "Thanks, I guess my city legs aren't quite used to this yet." As they continued their hike, the initial awkwardness began to fade, replaced by a growing sense of ease.
After the hike, they stopped by a cafe for a coffee and the conversation deepened. She let him know about her struggles, why she was here, and what she was trying to escape. Roger shared a bit about his own experience in Law and reflected back on how broken he had been before he eventually quit. It was comforting knowing that someone like him was in a similar situation as her at one point. It also gave her a sense of hope. She loved the energy and excitement that Roger had for life and thought that perhaps a similar transformation was possible for her too. Back in New York, she had started to adopt the outlook that life is supposed to be busy and stressful and you just had to learn to cope, or at least earn enough to hire people to help. She knew she was going back to in a couple of days but she sensed that this trip loosened the grip of prestige and success on her identity and this day with Roger was giving her a new perspective on how to live.
As the afternoon sun began to dip below the horizon, painting the sky in shades of orange and pink, Emma and Roger found themselves wandering through the quaint streets of a nearby coastal village. Their conversation had flowed effortlessly since their coffee break and it even became a bit flirtatious. They eventually found themselves at a small, open-air bar by the beach, the sound of the waves providing a calming backdrop. The bar was a mix of locals and long-term travelers, all dressed in loose clothing or bathing suits. As they took a seat, the bartender greeted them and then brought them a couple of Imperial beers.
They continued to talk, their conversation meandering through various topics – from the trivial to the personal. Emma found herself captivated by Roger. The atmosphere in the bar grew more lively, with the distant sound of a guitar strumming and people laughing. Emma and Roger, however, seemed to exist in a bubble of their own. At one point, their conversation paused as they both took in the serene beauty of their surroundings. Roger turned to Emma and paused. Without a word, they leaned in and shared a kiss. It was a gentle, lingering kiss, one that seemed inevitable a couple of hours earlier and finally found the right moment for it to happen. As they pulled away, there was a comfortable silence.
They finished their drinks and said their goodbyes. Although she might have been open to spending more time with him that night it felt right to end it there too. As Emma walked home, taking the route on the beach, she soaked in the peaceful sound of crashing waves. She felt a flood of emotions – excitement, hope, but also dread, of having to go back to New York.
Emma stepped off the plane at JFK and immediately felt her body tighten. It was only a vacation. She knew she had to be back but didn’t expect how hard it would be. She wondered if she ever should have taken a vacation at all. If she had just stayed in New York she might not be questioning things and could easily power through a couple more years in her career. As she stepped out of her cab in the West Village she was overwhelmed by the city. She found the combo of honking, construction, scaffolds, a homeless man on the corner, and trash sitting out on the curb in front of her building to be an intense jolt to her nervous system. Had she been numb to all of this only a week earlier?
Her first day back at Madson Bailey was surreal. The office seemed like a scene from a movie she had once starred in. Faces she knew well greeted her with smiles and inquiries about her trip, but their words felt distant. As soon as she sat down, Dan summoned her to his office. He was excited, outlining a new project that was big, lucrative, and perfect for 'a rising star like Emma'. As he spoke, detailing the role she would play, Emma's gaze drifted to the skyscrapers visible from his office window. The buildings that once represented ambition and success now seemed like cold columns of steel.
The walls of the office seemed to close in on her, the air felt stifling, and Dan's voice became a distant drone. If she could have teleported back to Costa Rica she would have. In a moment that felt both terrifying and liberating, Emma stood up abruptly. Dan, caught mid-sentence, looked at her in confusion. "I'm sorry," she uttered, her voice a mix of uncertainty and resolve. Without another word, she turned and left the room, leaving a stunned Dan staring.
Emma walked out of Dan’s office and broke into a jog. She went for the elevator which luckily opened immediately. Colleagues stood and stared at her as she started running, not knowing what was happening. She arrived in the lobby and ran out into the street. She started walking and then resumed her light job. She ran all the way to Chinatown, not knowing where she was headed. She reflected that in any other city, a random young woman running in a black pantsuit might attract more attention but alas, New York. She slowed down in Chinatown and walked in a random route to Alphabet City, stopping to sit on a bench in StuyTown. She opened her phone and saw that Dan had called her seven times. She responded with a text, “have to deal with something, I’ll be back later” and then turned off her phone. By noon, she found herself all the way at the top of Central Park. She looked around and thought, “These people don’t know I’m making a break for it” as if she had the world’s biggest secret.
From the movies, she thought moments like this were supposed to be exciting with bold soundtracks cheering her on. But she was simply confused and sad and a bit scared. It felt like she was at the start of blowing up her life. Was she wasting everything she worked for? She wanted to cry but couldn’t feeling constrained by the constant noise of the city. What should she do? Should she go back to the office? Quit? Call Dan and apologize? Her behavior at work had been erratic for more than a month but she had enough of a good reputation that she might be able to get her career back on track.
As someone who always knew what to do next, she sat there on the wooden bench, immobilized, for the next few hours.
As she sat there, she saw a man in the distance that looked familiar. As he walked closer, she saw it was her uncle, Walter. She knew he had a penthouse apartment in Harlem a couple of blocks from the park and was senior enough at his firm that he could take walks in the park whenever he wanted. But his life was work and she knew that he was probably on his way to a client meeting or about to take a call.
"Emma, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at work?" Walter asked, both surprised and concerned.
"I’m taking some personal time," Emma replied, her voice steady but revealing little.
"Didn’t you just get back from vacation? Your mother said she tried to reach you to see how it went, but you haven’t responded to anyone in days," Walter probed, his eyes searching hers for an explanation.
Emma hesitated for a moment before replying, "Yeah, I did. I just needed a bit more space, that’s all."
Walter nodded, understanding yet curious. He then shifted the topic, "Listen, I heard from the admissions director at Wharton, an old classmate of mine. Apparently, they haven’t hit their targets for admits this year and are opening a special program for banking associates, and are pretty eager to get some people to fill some of the open spots in their MBA class that starts in three months.”
Emma felt a surge of conflicting emotions. On one hand, she wanted to run away but on another, Wharton had been the school she decided she would go to when she was back in college and mapped out her ten-year plan. Wharton was the best for finance and would open the doors to any opportunity she might want to pursue. And maybe she could change careers. Perhaps the problem wasn’t working, it was just working in finance. She reflected on the job she turned down from Procter & Gamble her senior year and wondered, “What if?”
"Thanks, Uncle Walter, I’ll think about it," she said, her mind racing.
“What just happened?” she thought.
She started walking back home, thinking through her next steps. She started picturing herself in Philadelphia in a few months, with a bit more freedom. She knew business school would be a fun way to take a break before resuming her career. And she knew her company would pay for it if she returned to Madson for two years. It didn’t seem so bad. And then she thought back to Costa Rica. The waterfall, the lightness she felt, her day with Roger, and the way she was able to reconnect with herself. But being back in New York, that kind of life seemed unreasonable. She wasn’t like Roger and the others. You can’t just quit your job and live on a beach, right?
As she arrived back in the West Village that night, she knew what she would do next.
It was obvious.