Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.6

“Hello?” said Dr. Ann, my chiropractor back in Austin. After the small talk, I explained how my jaw had been aching, and how I’d been getting headaches, and how bad I felt, and how happy I’d be with a recommendation — anything, anyone — for help in the Bay Area.

“Uh,” she said, her voice modulating as though she was waving someone down in the background on her end. “That’s very interesting. Where are you again—Bay Area, right? Well, that’s fortunate. You won’t believe how.” It turned out that not twenty minutes from my office was a chiropractic college, just on the other side of the bay, and one of the senior students there was interested in buying out their practice in Austin. My docs in Texas wanted to move back north to raise a family, and so had been looking to sell.

“It would be interesting,” my former doctor said, “if we could get you in touch with her, and you could tell us what you think — if you think she’d be a good fit for our practice.”

I agreed. She gave me the student’s number and some days later I was on my way to the chiropractic college. The doctor-in-training was young, if only a few years younger than I was. Also, she was blonde and fit and smiling with professional clarity. She was probably the most attractive woman I’d stood beside moving to California.

“How long has it been since your last adjustment?” she asked.

“Since I moved out from Austin. Maybe six months — no, nine months.”

“And how often were you seeing the Starks, your doctors in Austin?”

“For a while, maybe for a year, I was going once a week. After that, I only went when necessary — like when a guy accidentally stepped on my skull, and I had these terrible headaches until Dr. Stark — Bart; he has hands like two very gentle stones — popped the plates of my skull back in place.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah.” I rubbed the side of my head. “I remember when I had my first appointment, they told me that it was less about having bones out of place, though that’s a common misunderstanding of the value of chiropractic. The problem is that my muscles had been trained to stress my skeleton in ways that weren’t good, and that puled my jaw out of place.”

She nodded.

“They said it might be a long time before I finally got to the root cause of why that was happening. That it probably wasn’t something as simple as ‘don’t be stressed out.’ Like, maybe my jaw was crooked on one side because my shoulders were crooked on the other side, and that was because my hips were crooked back the other way.”

“Huh,” she said, pressing her fingertips into the pained side of my head. “Was it Dr. Ann or Dr. Bart who said that?”

“They’re both very canny, but I think it was Ann.”

“And did she say exactly that, what you just said?”

“I think so. I have a pretty good memory for what people say — I hang onto the gist of things, at least. But I believe that’s what she said.”

The younger doc-in-training ran what felt like a thumb down my spine. “And did you ever get to the bottom of it?”

I think I slumped a bit. She withdrew her hand. “No,” I said.

She popped my jaw back in place and instantly I felt better, like I’d been underwater for months and simply decided to come back up. There even seemed to be more of my brain that there had been before. Colors seemed brighter.

We stopped in the lobby on the way out. “So,” she said, crossing her arms and fixing me with a sharp look. “What do you think?”

I knew what she meant. “I think you’d be a good fit for their patients. They’ll like you. You’re a lot like my old docs.” I took a breathe in. “It’s no wonder you and they started talking, really. You’ve got a lot of the qualities I miss in them.”

She narrowed her eyes and tapped a ball-point pen tucked into the front breast pocket of her lab coat. There was a red logo on its white clip, “VIRGIN”-something. A quick check once I got back to a computer connected it to a group of women who were determined to remain virgins until marriage. That was how Dr. Ann had lived until marrying Dr. Bart — maybe these two ladies met through the organization.

“Unfortunately,” she said, snapping my gaze back to her eyes, “this will probably be the last time we see each other, unless you’re visiting Austin. I graduate next month and I move shortly after that. You’re one of the last patients I’ll see here.”

“Ah,” I said, suddenly wrestling with words in my head. “My problem is that I don’t really know anyone else out here in California, outside of work. And work is…weird. Is there anyone you could recommend me to?”

She looked at me, unreadable.

“Anyone at all,” I added. “I’m really pretty desperate, I’m sorry to say. I mean, I feel great now — thank you! — but I don’t think I can go this long again without some help.” I swallowed. “I’d love to be able to get to the bottom of this thing.”

She kept looking at me. “If you’re serious,” she said slowly, “I may have someone I could refer you to.”

“I’d seriously love that.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Okay. We close down the school for the summer, but when classes start up again in the fall, the new wave of seniors will be doing what I’m doing now, working on people like you when they’re not in class in order to get enough hours in before they graduate.” She looked out behind me. “They’re actually moving the school to a new location starting next month, so it’ll be in a different place — nice, they say.” She looked back at me. “I have a friend who’ll be graduating next year. Give me your number and I’ll pass it along.”

She handed me the virgin pen and a card. “I really appreciate it,” I said, scribbling.

Taking pen and card back, she nodded, a white edifice of doctorly distance. “Good luck,” she said, and I never saw her again.

On the drive back to the office, I was elated. I could think, I had my whole mind available to me, I wasn’t in pain. I pulled into the parking lot at work, realizing that the rainy season was finally passing — the sun was teasing us with long if distant glances.

When I got back upstairs to my cube, Mary called me into her office. She seemed excited.

“As you know,” she said once the door was closed, “we’re closing in on the funding we’ll need to take this company to the next level. And after thinking long and hard about the team we need to get us where we want to be, we came to a decision: we’d like you to be our Vice-President of Marketing.”

She smiled broadly, eyebrows raised for my answer.

I thought about how my dad had always said he wanted to be a vice-president — it had been his goal to be a VP by the time he was 45. Instead, after chasing the brass ring, he spent many years unemployed in the wake of the stock-market crash ten years earlier.

“Hmm,” I said.

Mary’s smile cracked. She’d been holding it in place for several quiet seconds.

I said, “I don’t see how I’m the right person for the job.” My friend Matt would’ve taken the position in a heartbeat — it was his dream. It was my dad’s dream. But it wasn’t my dream.

Mary leaned back against her desk, the muscles of her face sliding into a set of neutral states.

I thought about the Yahoo stock price, not far from free-fall. Another crash was coming, it seemed, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being promoted to First Officer just as the ship was going down — even if, extending the metaphor, our ship hadn’t quite yet even set sail. It wouldn’t get me another high-ranking position somewhere else after the crash, and it might actually work against me. Better to spend my time in the engine room figuring out how things actually work — hopefully I’d be able to help fix the ship enough to keep us going, learning enough to keep myself going regardless of what happens to the market.

I only saw one viable option.

“I’m flattered that you think I could do it,” I said, “but I think you need to keep looking.”

“If that’s how you feel,” she said. “Of course.” She made a light gesture toward the door.

Back at my desk, I felt wave after wave of thrill roll up my spine. I had dodged a bullet, I felt — and I had. I would quickly come to regret the decisions that brought most of our marketing staff into the company, though I’d never once envy the guy who got the VP role.

Would I have made the same decision if I hadn’t had my jaw popped back into place? Maybe. I hope so. But I can imagine a world where I hadn’t. It wasn’t that far away, that world, even if it was a much darker place.

That was the last time I’d speak to Mary in the office, though. Weeks later her office would be empty, her name plate taken down. There was no room for her in the hot new startup world. Our paths never crossed again.

Yahoo stock had fallen 40% in the past three months, a bell-weather of the era to come, yet we were about to get $34 million to spend building a company. I had spent the past month of my life interviewing people to hire into the new organization — I hadn’t done any research or development in at least that long.

The rainy season was ending. The sun was coming out.

Goddammit, I told myself, if this place is going down in flames, I’m going to have some fun first.

And so I did. After nine months of struggling with my own doubts and inadequacies, it turned out that having fun was easy, really.

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