I was eight years old when I saw the movie Gone With the Wind for the first time. I remember the moment vividly: sitting on our threadbare couch (the only furniture in the matchbox-sized living room in our apartment), my little brother sniffling beside me, snot dripping from his nose, and Scarlet O’Hara silhouetted in front of the orange-hued sunset on the tube television as she boldly proclaimed, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”
Something heavy pressed down on my breastbone at that moment—different from the hollowness in my middle that had been my constant companion for as long as I could remember. When Scarlet O’Hara made that vow, I mouthed the words with her…minus the lying, cheating, stealing, and killing addendum she’d tacked on.
That vow had led me to where I was that fateful day in July—sitting in a conference room on the sixth floor of an office building in my role as head of the budget analyst department of a top-tier finance conglomerate, despite the fact I’d never cared for mathematics and had a love/hate relationship with money. I loved the security money brought but hated what people would do to get it. Had I mentioned Scarlett’s willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and kill?
“That about wraps things up.” Jayden, the epitome of a Southern California surfer boy with his sun-soaked blond hair and perpetual tan, spoke from the front of the large oval teak conference table. He’d traded in his Rip Curl board shorts and Oakleys for an Armani suit and shiny Italian loafers, but I wasn’t one to speak.
My closet looked like it belonged to two separate women. On the left hung my tailored business attire, which transformed me into prim and proper Jocelyn Dormus—the woman people could put their trust in to analyze their financial well-being and facilitate a workable budget that would allow them to realize their monetary dreams.
The right side of my walk-in would trigger a blood pressure spike in my clients. Flowy Bohemian dresses with whimsical patterns and carefree material. Though there wasn’t even a hint of correlation, one glance at me in a billowing peasant top, my riotous natural curls confined in an artfully arranged headwrap, and my clients would assume I’d be just as loose with their money.
Tonya, the only other woman sitting around the massive table, poked a perfectly manicured nail in the air. I’d tried to be friendly with her—we women really needed to be allies and stick together in this male-dominated corporate world—but she was cut-throat and had a hard time believing I was for her and not against her. Sad, really.
“The corporate retreat?”
Ten pairs of eyes trained back on Jayden as I slammed my spine straight. I might have let some of the figures that had been droned on about for the last hour float around my head, but I wasn’t about to miss this announcement.
Jayden flushed under our undivided attention and rearranged a stack of papers in front of him. I kind of felt sorry for him, as I wasn’t sure he even wanted to be here. Were the waves of Tourmaline calling to him? Far be it from me to scream nepotism, but he was the CEO’s nephew and had thrown his cap in the air with an undergraduate degree in marketing only last year. The weight shifting didn’t give him a bearing of confidence and authority either.
Not that I had been jockeying for his position. To be honest, I’d pretty much reached the highest rung they’d let me climb to already, and it had cost me plenty of blood, sweat, and tears to get there. I was the minority’s minority. Besides Tonya, the only other female. Besides Sam Yo, the only other non-Caucasian. But I had the privilege to earn 61.6% of my white male counterpart’s wage, so there was that.
I flushed at the sarcastic thought and wiggled my toes in my Jimmy Choos. I’d bought the pumps from a resale app, but never would my younger self have imagined I’d ever get to a point in my life when I’d slip my feet into designer anything. So, yes, there were injustices in the world, unfairnesses that begged to be made right, but there were also miracles. And just being here in this sixth-floor room was one of them.
I willed Jayden—I really should start remembering to call him Mr. Weidel, since he was technically my boss—to speak another miracle. This would be my first corporate retreat with the company, since I’d only been promoted two months ago. I’d heard tales of their legendary getaways. I’d even applied for a passport in the hope this year’s retreat followed along the same lines as last year’s—a week-long cruise on the Riviera.
Jayden—I mean, Mr. Weidel—cleared his throat and mumbled something under his breath without lifting his gaze.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Weidel, but could you repeat that? I missed what you said from down here.” Bill from investments leaned his pinstripe-covered forearms on the opposite end of the conference table. He didn’t have any trouble remembering to address the boss properly, even though, with fifteen years’ experience and a DBA in finance, he was more qualified for the job. And I couldn’t blame his hearing loss for not having picked up Jayden Weidel’s words. I was sitting three seats down and I hadn’t been able to make out a single syllable.
Surfer-boy-boss lifted his fingers into the neckline of his button up and pulled the cotton away from his throat. “This year’s annual retreat will take place on the Double B Dude Ranch.” He glanced up for a split second, then quickly fell into the upscale office chair with a four-digit price tag and occupied himself with his papers.
A finance conglomerate department head meeting wasn’t exactly on the same decibel level as a bar of rowdy bikers, but the room grew so quiet I began to think we’d all forgotten to breathe. I swept my gaze around my coworkers frozen in their seats. Henry McNamiss from the actuary department appeared to be running statistics in his mind.
Pretty sure I could jump in on the probability of a group of business personnel who worked inside a skyrise for sixty hours a week coming out of a seven-day experience around thousand-pound animals unscathed.
Zero. The probability was zero.
One of us would end up dead. And since I was the only Black person in sight, I’d go first. Hollywood always killed us off before anyone else, didn’t they?
I took in Donald Hartwell’s pale complexion. Sam Yo’s tan skin had turned the yellowish color of paper from an antique book.
I winced. Maybe I shouldn’t have made that comparison. My own skin had been compared to coffee and chocolate, among other food items, and while I enjoyed eating those things, I wasn’t sure how I felt about being compared to products of consumption. Especially ones my ancestors had been forced to cultivate through slavery. But people didn’t really take those things into account and, usually, didn’t mean to be offensive (I know I didn’t with my antique paper comparison), so I ordinarily let it go.
Tonya folded her hands on the table. Jeff covered a cough behind a fist.
Had anyone here ever had any outdoor experience?
I most certainly hadn’t! Camping had been a joke in my neighborhood growing up. Why would anyone want to pay hard-earned money to go and live like a homeless person for a weekend? It had been a struggle to keep a roof over our heads. Spending a night in a tent was something I’d feared, not dreamed of.
“This is where you give us a disarming grin and tell us you were just kidding.” My fake smile was likely as wide as my eyes, but I couldn’t seem to get either one to go back to their regular proportions.
In a swift move, Jayden yanked down his Windsor knot and stripped himself of his tie. His hand knocked his hair, disheveling it like a coastal breeze. This was why I had such a hard time remembering to call him Mr. Weidel. All-American boy-next-door who appeared to be playing dress up in Daddy’s—or in this case, Uncle’s—work clothes didn’t elicit immediate office-space respect.
My smile softened with sincerity. I did like him better this way.
“Look, guys. I tried to talk him out of it. I really did.” His hands splayed in a please believe me sort of way.
Bill started chuckling at the foot of the table. A little one at first that grew into a full-fledged belly laugh. Henry’s fingers inched toward the conference telephone in front of him as he regarded Bill with all the caution a citizen of Gotham would give Jack Napier after he escaped Arkham.
“Joe has been threatening to go Texas on us for years.” He shook his head as his laughter fizzled.
Joe? He didn’t mean…
Of course he did. Bill wasn’t chairman or a relative, but he still played a round of golf at the boys’ club with big boss Joseph Whalen at least once a week. And Mr. Whalen hailed from Texas. Cattle money, if I remembered correctly.
Good-bye, cruise. Good-bye, glorious Riviera. Hello, dude ranch. My lips curled. What did one even do on a dude ranch?
As if reading my thoughts, Sam gave my question a voice.
Jayden picked up his stack of papers and passed them around the oval. “It’s a working ranch. My uncle believes that collaborating together in this type of environment will bring cohesion and synergy to the team in the office.”
The closest I’d ever been to a cow was when I ordered a medium-rare steak from a restaurant. I enjoyed the movie Secretariat, but I’d never ridden a horse in my life. Henry passed me a print-off, and I scanned the paper, my throat tightening at a four-letter word plus -ing.
Money and Scarlett O’Hara had failed me.
“Anyone know of a cowboy-outfitters store nearby?” Donald laughed at his attempt at a joke, but his voice held a nervous pitch.
I snorted. Might as well make it a corporate field trip. Neither the left nor the right side of my closet held items appropriate for a week as Annie Oakley. Pumps and sandals but no boots. Business suits and boho dresses but no jeans. That’s right, I didn’t even own a pair of jeans.
Tonya slid her cell off the table. Though she held her posture perfect, her gaze darting to her lap every once in a while gave her away. No doubt the woman was researching the ranch and making a list to prepare for the trip. A list she wouldn’t share with the rest of the group.
“There’s a Tractor Supply out in El Cajon.” Jayden spoke from the head of the table.
Donald’s face reflected my thoughts. Jayden not only knew there was a store called Tractor Supply, he knew its location.
Boss-boy flipped the handout over. “If you haven’t noticed, I took the liberty of adding a list of suggested items to pack, based off the ranch’s recommendation, along with a number of stores in the area where you can purchase said items if you don’t already have them at home.”
I turned my paper to the other side, scanning the list. The only recommended item I already owned was sunglasses. A line from Maria’s song from The Sound of Music floated through my mind--Totally unprepared am I.Except I wasn’t about to face a world of men but a world of… I didn’t even know. Cattle and horses seemed a given. Dust. Insects. And yeah, probably men. Cowmen. Er, cowboys.
Oh well. Nothing to it. If I could conquer fiscal statements and wrangle expenditures, then I could surely figure out how to survive a week on a working ranch. I’d use the time before the retreat to study up on everything I’d need to know about horseback riding and—I glanced back at the hand-out—whatever team penning was, so that by the time I walked onto that ranch, I’d appear the confident cowgirl instead of the girl who’d grown up in the inner city and never come face-to-face with an animal larger than a pit bull.
Jayden called the meeting adjourned, and I filed out of the conference room with the rest of my peers. Bill didn’t seem too worried about the unexpected locale of the retreat and even offered a few encouraging words to the rest of us.
“This is an insurance nightmare,” Henry muttered as he pushed the elevator button. I didn’t disagree with him, but there was no point in wasting any more time complaining. What was done was done, and none of us had enough influence to change anything, so we might as well get on board and make the most of it.
I collected my black, second-hand Kate Spade satchel from my desk and locked my office door behind me. A quick twenty-minute drive and I pulled into the driveway of the Spanish-style house I shared with my roommate Molly.
“Mol, you home?”
“Back here!” she called, surprising me. Lately she’d been spending more time at her boyfriend Ben’s house than she did here. Not that I blamed her. Ben was as great as they came, and his four-year-old daughter was cuter than a kitten in a handbasket.
I let my bag fall to the floor, my heels clicking against the terra-cotta-colored tiles as I made my way down the hall toward Molly’s bedroom.
She stood with her back to the closet, holding a sequined evening gown out in front of her. “Will this work?”
Betsy sat cross-legged on Molly’s bed, her lips puckered to the side. “Do I have to go?”
Molly’s brows folded over her eyes as she marched the dress to Betsy. “Yes.”
Betsy rolled her eyes but unfolded her legs. “Fine. Give it to me.” She stood and took the hanger. “At least it’s black.”
Molly closed the bedroom door behind her so Betsy could try on the dress. She grinned and leaned her shoulder against the hall wall.
Molly and I had been friends since college, when she’d marched right up to me and declared, in no uncertain terms, that we were going to be BFFs. Since then Molly had collected a few more friends that she’d turned into a family, Betsy being the most cynical and acerbic among us. Which was one of the reasons we loved her.
I waggled my brows toward the direction of the closed door, a genuine smile unclenching my jaw. “What’s that all about?”
“Oh, nothing much. She’s only been invited to attend a big music award, and I’m making her go.”
“You’re not my mother, and it’s not like it’s the Grammys.” The door muffled Betsy’s words a bit, but the sarcasm managed to leak through the wood grains.
“You’re going and that’s final.” Molly locked eyes with me, hers shining with delight.
I laughed at her unadulterated joy. “You’re getting the hang of that mom tone mighty quickly.”
Her cheeks pinked, and I knew her thoughts had flown to Ben and Chloe. Who knew? Maybe one day soon she would be a mommy. Just not to Betsy.
The door flew open, Betsy standing in the doorway, a frown pulling at the corners of her lips. “Happy?”
Molly covered her mouth as she nodded. “You look so pretty.”
Betsy nailed her with a glare. “If you cry, I’m not going.”
Molly blinked then lowered her hands. “Who’s crying? I’m not crying.”
Betsy rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She reached for her holey jeans, her back toward us.
She’d let the attention stay on her longer than normal. I was proud of her and willing to help her out. “Speaking of people being forced to go someplace they don’t want to, I found out where the corporate retreat is taking place this year.”
Molly sat on the edge of the bed. “Where?”
“The Double B Dude Ranch.”
She let out a little squeal. “That sounds like so much fun!” She paused as she studied my face. “Wait. You don’t look excited.”
“She did say she was being forced somewhere she didn’t want to go.” Betsy pulled a T-shirt on over her head and turned around. “Not sure I see the problem though.”
“Oh, where should I start? Maybe the fact I’ve never ridden a horse before in my life.”
Betsy shrugged like putting one’s life in the hands—er, hooves—of a four-legged creature with a mind and will of its own and enough weight to crush your bones was no big deal. “I took lessons when I was a kid.”
I blinked that information in, along with her People like you are the reason people like me hate people T-shirt. Maybe playing a team sport as a kid would have served her social skills better.
“What? My parents wanted me to experience some of our Argentinian culture. My grandfather was a gaucho, kind of like a cowboy here, so they made me take riding lessons for a year. All you need to remember is to keep your heels down and your chest out.”
My brain sputtered. “Excuse me?”
“It’s more like shoulders back, but my teacher kept telling me to stick my chest out and imagine I was Dolly Parton.”
I looked down at my chest, heat rising up my neck. No way would I draw attention to any, uh, attributes that made me different from the majority of my coworkers. There had to be a way to ride a horse that didn’t involve shoving one’s bosom into the air.
“Thanks for the advice.” Unhelpful though it was.
Fake it till you make it had been my motto since the first day I’d stepped foot onto UCLA’s campus, the only person in my family to ever attend college. I’d slipped a mask on over my insecurity and smiled like I belonged among those who’d grown up in Bel-Air instead of Hyde Park. I faked it all the way to graduation, through my interviews at Whalen Financial, and pretty much every day since.
How hard could pretending I knew what I was doing on a ranch be?
Carol award finalist and Selah award winner, Sarah Monzon is a stay-at-home mom who makes up imaginary friends to have adult conversations with (otherwise known as writing novels). As a navy chaplain's wife, she resides wherever the military happens to station her family and enjoys exploring the beauty of the world around her.