The first time Hal read Oliver’s apology was when it came down through the company server to the in-boxes of every employee at the public-radio station where they both worked—she for a decade and Ollie for three.
His words were the usual ones, conveying sorrow at the thought of treading on anyone’s sense of dignity or self-assurance. The remorse toward his staff and others he may have injured through “an excess of blindness.”
It torments me to know I’ve caused pain to people who held me in esteem. In recent days I’ve come to recognize that my position in itself created a power dynamic that led many around me to feel silenced, invalidated, or reduced in spirit.
The apology struck Hal as both defensive and pandering, suffering, as all acts of public contrition do, from a confusion over the intended audience. Also, it sounded nothing like the Oliver Riff she’d known (the Oliver who’d never use an idiotic word like “invalidated”)—first as a slightly too resonant voice she had tracked and mixed in the studio, then as a colleague and a confidant, and finally, for a period of eight months, as a lover. The second time she read the apology was the next day, when it was printed in the morning paper.
Miraculously, Oliver’s accuser remained unnamed in the press, though practically everyone at the station knew her to be a twenty-six-year-old podcast producer named Molly St. Clair. Hal had met Molly when she was an intern, two years earlier, assigned to “The Riff” as part of her rotation through each of the station’s sixteen regular shows. At that time, Hal had not expected to see much of Molly except through the soundproof plastic that divided the Tech Center from the rest of the studio. Rarely did reporters or producers enter this grotto of oversized consoles and module racks without first catching the eye of a sound engineer and then being made to stand at the ragged strip of electrical tape marking the threshold, before, at last, getting waved inside. Occasionally, Hal wondered if such night-club-like patrolling by the engineers of their turf was a petulant reaction to their profession’s declining relevance in a world where it was now possible to record, mix, edit, and even master broadcast-quality audio on a laptop. Still, the union had fought hard to preserve Hal’s job category, and she was used to working her shift alone, undisturbed. So it was discomfiting to discover Molly standing beside her one day, holding two paper cups. “This one’s black and that one’s soy. They ran out of milk. Sorry.” Molly scrunched up her face in cute regret.
“I don’t bring beverages in here,” Hal said. “Could you take those outside?”
“Right. The equipment. Sorry.” When she returned, Molly pulled up a chair near Hal’s. “So this is where the magic happens?”
Hal scanned Molly’s expression for sarcasm but couldn’t detect any in her green-flecked eyes and unplucked brows. Her face was round, pretty in the Midwestern way of the girls at the local college, though she was from California. She wore a short-sleeved floral-print shirt that looked as though she’d outgrown it.
Molly seemed both determined to listen to “The Riff” from Hal’s console and remarkably interested in Hal’s job duties, apparently fascinated by her subtlest gestures: her fingers sliding down the pot on a guest who had become animated and loud; patching in an ISDN line for a studio hookup. There were long stretches of time when Hal didn’t do anything but monitor the board. “So how are you liking your time here so far?” she asked Molly, to ease up on the intensity.
“It’s been really fun.”
“What have you enjoyed the most?”
“Oh, all of it—following the reporters, listening to the two-ways. Honestly, it’s all been super fun.”
It would not have occurred to Hal to use the word “fun” to describe her job, or any job, however rewarding. A word meant for things without consequence or the possibility of failure. When Hal got her start, some twenty-five years earlier, there had been no internship programs and even a staff job in radio was a low-rent setup. She’d got her foothold doing night work for a call-in show hosted by a Jesuit priest who, with surprising regularity, wound up talking his callers out of suicide. In those days, local radio was still a refuge for people who violated the rules of polite conversation as a matter of principle. But over the past decade and a half Hal had noted a change, a transformation whereby radio, and public radio particularly, had become an attractive career path drawing ambitious people with family safety nets and almost psychopathically charming personalities.
“I like your summer do,” Molly told her a few weeks later, on a hot day when Hal had arrived at work with a buzz cut. By now Hal was well aware of Molly’s admiration, both for her status as the network’s only female sound engineer and for her anti-beauty uniform of boots and vintage aviator suits, which probably signalled to Molly that, like her, Hal identified in some non-heteronormative way. At forty-seven, Hal was still as lean-muscled and narrow-hipped as she’d been as an art-school dropout trying to be taken seriously inside the grimy audio chambers of the radio world. Her coverall attire had the double virtue of making her comfortable (the extra crotch room was essential) and flattering her elongated limbs. Shortening her name from Haley-Ann (which she’d always hated anyway) had a similar advantage. And if her denim cyborg suits and gelled hair, which she dyed often, led some people to assume she was a lesbian, it was an impression she neither encouraged nor dispelled. Only Oliver, who, at sixty-five, was the oldest person at the station, assumed nothing of the sort about her, having lived long enough not to confuse style with identity.