Cleopatra Fermi entered a room like a Broadway musical showstopper. Or maybe like vintage Cher. Or Pink in her Las Vegas residency. One day she might wear a purple boa, another day a hot pink blouse with ruffled shoulder pads. If she wore a more appropriate business suit, which was unlikely, it might be paired with a leopard print vest or a red bow tie, or both. She was, needless to say, a larger-than-life, flamboyant person who decorated her sentences with words like “scrumptious” and “delectable”. She might call you “honey buns” or “sugar pie” regardless of your disposition or rank. She laughed loudly and often. She regaled others with fantastic tales of her “debauched life”, college shenanigans, lecherous bosses, dangerous lovers. I’ll never forget the time when a potential client showed up at a business lunch and Cleo remarked, “Did your blind boyfriend buy you that dress?” When we lost the account, Cleo told Old Man Fitzhugh, “Trust me, sweet cakes, we don’t want clients who dress that badly”. After landing the Little Bear Bookstores account, or so the rumor goes, Mr. Fitzhugh offered her a five percent raise. Company lore says she took the offer slip, added a one before the five, and slid it back to the old man. The next week, she announced a vacation to Turks and Caicos.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, I have never discerned which, she was also an advertising rock star, a creative muse who led the charge for our little agency to land the Allaya cosmetics account, cementing our place on the regional landscape and securing all our jobs for the foreseeable future. Her winning slogan, “Helping you live your truth” was simple, pithy, and perfect when paired with its soft, elegant logo, her genius at its peak.
After she sealed that legendary deal, an elaborate celebration was planned, and Cleo did not disappoint when she burst into the fete, showcasing a silver sequined dress that clung to her strapping body like latex, a tiara atop a pile of curls, and silver, glass-studded Christian Louboutin platforms. Staffers and their guests audibly gasped when she burst into the room, smiling like a beauty pageant contestant. Whispers explained to the uninformed, “That’s her, Cleopatra. The one I’ve been telling you about.”
The Fitzhugh family had indeed opened their coffers wide for the affair and lavished us with cocktails, a jazz trio tucked into the corner, and maybe the world’s most fabulous charcuterie display cascading like a waterfall with cheeses, meats, sauces and dips, bread and crackers, and a panoply of fruits. Wait staff circulated crab puffs, bacon-wrapped scallops, stuffed mushrooms, and bruschetta with goat cheese. An eyepopping dessert table was tiered with cherry cheesecakes, pear and hazelnut tarts, coconut macaroons, and decadent red velvet cupcakes. But all of that paled when compared to Cleo, who worked the room like a member of the royal family, breathing in praise and adoration like oxygen. Speeches were made, toasts were offered, jokes were told, and, as the evening wore on, some of us began to dance when we discovered the jazz trio, headed by the Old Man’s nephew, had a much wider repertoire than anticipated. At one point, I returned from the restroom to discover Cleo belting out “If They Could See Me Now” in her throaty alto. Tall for a woman but graceful, she undulated around the trio, wildly gesticulating almost as if she had rehearsed the number or had performed it many times in some secret night club.
Finally, after gentlemen had shed their jackets and ties, women had discarded their shoes, and a cliched conga line had circulated around the conference table a few times, staffers began to make their exits. I was searching for a place where I could dump my plastic champaign glass when I noticed Cleo’s shoes- the $1,200 designer shoes- tucked in a corner, tumbled over as if they too had consumed too much bubbly. “Hey, Cleo, aren’t these your ridiculously expensive shoes?” I called out. But Cleo had already left, apparently slipping away quietly in a quite uncharacteristic fashioned.
“She’ll be sick with worry when she realizes they’re missing,” Amanda from legal reasoned. “She loves those shoes. We have to get them to her right away.”
“Damn, size 12!” Theo from the art department exclaimed. “Those are some seriously big shoes to fill.” He took one and examined it in amazement, the pyramid-shaped glass studs sparkling in his eyes. He ran his finger down the silver ski slope of the arch and measured the heel with his finger and thumb.
A circle of us brainstormed Cleo’s address, but she was so enigmatic no one knew where she lived. “I know her apartment’s on Sycamore Hill,” someone shared.
“She’s mentioned the Merchant Street subway stop,” someone else recalled. “I think she lives near there.”
We pressed Charmain from HR for specifics. She hustled to her office across from the foyer and returned moments later a bit winded. “I can’t tell you her exact address because of privacy laws,” she said, “and if I gave you 3,649 tries you could never guess it,” she winked. I dropped the shoes into a shopping bag from a nearby closet and made my way down the elevator to the subway.
Luckily, I didn’t have to change lines because Cleo’s apartment was a straight shot at 36th Street. I braced myself for the carnival I would find on the subway at such an hour, the drunks and druggies, spurned and amorous lovers, nut jobs looking for handouts, derelicts looking for pockets to pick, innocent souls trekking home from a late shift. Bag in hand, I followed the leads to a brick walk-up labeled 3649. I searched the mailboxes, found a C. Fermi, and trooped up three flights of stairs. I knocked lightly at apartment 4B for fear I would disturb the neighbors. When Cleo didn’t answer, I knocked a little louder and whispered her name, “Cleo, it’s me, from work. I have your shoes.”
Finally, the door creaked open a sliver and I leaned into it, the weak hallway lights casting shadows all about me. I was taken aback. Before me stood a ghost, a shadow of a person who might have been Cleo, but alas, was somehow smaller, frail, nearly bald, and clasping a pale pink bathrobe tightly to her throat as if concealing a secret. “Cleo, are you alright?” I inquired. “You left the party without saying goodbye.”
“I’m fine,” she cleared her throat.
“You don’t look fine. Did you drink too much champaign?”
“I can hold my liquor just fine, thanks.” We endured what felt like a standoff until she reluctantly asked if I wanted to come inside. She opened the door and revealed to me a stark, nearly empty space. A dilapidated sofa, a rocking chair, and a scratched-up coffee table all sat amidst almost nothing else save a collection of orange plastic bottles on the kitchen counter. “Excuse the mess,” she feebly waved her blood red fingernails as I absorbed the structure of her face, which was chiseled, more pronounced than I had ever realized. “I hate housework,” she apologized. I had never seen Cleo without her make-up, without her fabulous wardrobe, without her trademark catch phrases, her schizophrenic hairstyles, her oversized jewelry. Her features looked more defined yet somehow deflated. I felt as if I didn’t know this person despite having worked alongside her for three years, tossing out bad ideas for campaigns, creating vision boards, rearranging “sticky” notes, enjoying private smirks during boring meetings, picking at each other’s salads. Where was the robust extrovert I knew, the Type A personality who bulldozed her way to success, who was unafraid to challenge Mr. Fitzhugh? Before me stood the shell of a person, a chalk outline at a crime scene. Suddenly I grew quite worried.
“Cleo, I’m here if you need help,” I offered.
“Thank you, but I’ll be okay.”
“I don’t want to be mean, but you don’t look okay. Do you need medical attention?”
“No, I have an appointment with my therapist on Wednesday. I can hang on until then.” We stood in tense silence. “I think my medication needs to be adjusted, that’s all.”
“I didn’t mean to pry,” I apologized.
“Are those my shoes?” she reached out her broad hand and I relinquished the bag. She clutched it to her bosom like an amulet.
“Do you ever lose track of who you are?” she asked.
“Do you?” I deflected.
“Sometimes. When I figure it out, I soar,” she said. “You know that. But other times…” she trailed off as if out of breath.
The level of my discomfort could not have been greater. I had no sense of what to do or say. I realized I didn’t really know Cleo as I had believed. I knew “work” Cleo, but not this person. I had no idea if she was alone in the world or had family nearby, a spouse or partner, a trusted friend who could sit with her. If she had broken her arm maybe I could have reacted appropriately. I knew the protocol for dealing with physical issues. If she had been the victim of domestic violence or drug abuse or been suicidal, I think I knew enough about available resources to at least triage the situation. But this left me flummoxed, reeling.
“I guess I’d better go,” I tried to sound lighthearted. See ya later, have fun, write when you get work, hope it all works out. I felt like a moron and a very bad friend. I searched myself for an inkling of insight, a modicum of appreciation for Cleo’s crisis. But my mind seized, locked up like faulty car brakes. I could sense my brain working like a computer search engine, ideas zooming by too quickly to calculate, rendering me paralyzed. Finally, after what must have been nearly a minute but felt like an hour, my mouth opened and I blurted, “See you at work.” Then I turned away like the coward I am.
“Thank you for my shoes,” she grabbed her bathrobe again.
As I moved into the darkened hallway, I left Cleo, alone and broken, shrinking before my eyes, like a child lost in the woods, the dim lights casting shadows like accusations on her. I heard her close the door and lock herself in. I packed up my self-loathing and headed home.