The Break-Up Clause by Niamh Hargan
On the rooftop of Zelnick, O’Leary and Abbott – ‘Manhattan’s largest mid-size law firm’ – a speech has been going on for at least fifteen minutes. And Fia Callaghan has barely heard a word of it.
She caught the first bit.
‘I’m thrilled to welcome this year’s cohort of summer associates,’ one of the partners said. To his left, twenty or so handpicked law students – all now blending into one large mass – nodded along eagerly.
‘We’re so pleased to have you with us, to learn from us and to teach us. You are the future of our profession. Over the next ten weeks, I can promise that you’ll have the chance to get real, hands-on legal experience. Each of you will share an office with a dedicated “attorney mentor” from our firm. And, as ever, we’ll also be inviting you to take part in our dynamic programme of networking and social events. I make no apologies for the fact that, here at Zelnick, O’Leary and Abbott – or “ZOLA”, as we affectionately call it – we’re especially known for our corporate and commercial expertise. But it’s not just about the deal. We place an absolute premium on the mental wellbeing of our staff …’
It was probably somewhere around this point that Fia zoned out. By now, she’s attended so many seminars on the firm’s theoretical position on mental wellbeing that she could practically deliver one herself. In essence, there is a sunrise yoga class right here on this roof terrace on Tuesdays – which lawyers are welcome to attend if they book sufficiently far in advance to secure a spot – but those whose burnout necessitates more than two weeks off work should still fully expect to be fired.
Fia can’t imagine that this reality is likely to feature in the partner’s inspirational speech. But no matter. Even for her, it’s hard to remain too much of a cynic on a morning like this one. Over in the far corner of the terrace, an impressive array of fruit and pastries has been laid out, with a waiter serving breakfast cocktails and coffees. And, against the clear blue sky, New York’s familiar landmarks look practically computer-generated.
Fia lets herself gaze out at the Chrysler Building just ahead, as the partner chats away about sharing expertise and strengthening bonds. There are very few moments like this, whereupon Fia stops to think that she has made it here, in this city so far from home. Or, at the very least, she’s making it. Starting today – starting with this year’s summer associates’ programme – she feels more firmly on course than ever before to meet her goals. Professionally speaking, that is.
Personally speaking, Fia doesn’t honestly have any particular goals – although she has, in the very recent past and following a certain milestone birthday, begun to consider drumming up a few. It has occurred to her that, perhaps, at a minimum, she should set about developing some grown-up skills – maybe unearth some sort of a latent passion, even. This seemed to be the thing about ageing, in the year 2023: you couldn’t just let it happen, the way your mother and grandmother did before you. No. You had to be getting better and better. You had to be grasping at opportunities to really get to know yourself,etc.
What could Fia say for herself so far, aged 30 years and six weeks old?
I like to run the length and breadth of Manhattan with my headphones in.I like to drink overpriced cocktails with my friends. I am extremely good at getting red wine out of things, even very pale carpets – by the time I’m finished, you’d never know there’d been a spill at all.I can always keep my balance on a moving subway without needing to touch anything gross.
These are all true things, and they don’t feel insubstantial when Fia is doing them – not one bit, actually. But she suspects the day might arrive when they’ll feel extremely insubstantial in the retelling. She’s not sure that they quite constitute the sort of fulfilment and well-roundedness she should probably be aiming for within this new decade.
In any event, of course, none of that matters here, in this skyscraper on Madison and 49th Street. Here, she wears a suit and bills for her time in six-minute increments, and people increasingly seem to think she knows what she is doing.
By the time the partner’s speech ends and everyone has begun milling about (and/or wondering when they might politely sneak back to their desks), Fia can’t help it: she’s feeling veritably peppy. She’s chatting idly with some of her co-workers when Celia – equity partner Celia – approaches.
‘Hey, Fia, let’s go find your new roomie, huh?’ she suggests, and, right away, Fia looks suitably alert.
‘Of course!’ She finds a surface on which to deposit her empty mimosa glass. What a disappointment that had been, many years ago now, to learn that the American mimosa was no more than an Irish Buck’s Fizz. ‘Can’t wait to meet her!’
‘Meet him, you mean,’ Celia returns. She leads them both through a few clusters of people, until she’s reaching up to tap someone on the shoulder.
Very much a ‘him’ then, Fia thinks. This guy – apparently her mentee – must be nearing six feet tall. She pictures the desk that, just last week, had been wedged into the corner of her little office, practically forming a right angle with her own desk. That she might be sharing such close quarters with a boy had, for some reason, not even occurred to her before now. The small space is shrinking by the minute in her mind. She only hopes she’s managed to conceal her dismay by the time this stranger in his navy-blue suit turns around to look at Celia.
And then, as he does, dismay suddenly becomes the least of it. All at once, Fia feels the breath sucked from her body, every last bit of her sunny disposition stolen within seconds.
Dark hair, dark eyes, the beginnings of a summer tan. It looks like him.
And yet … no, she thinks. It can’t be.
Her mind races, tries to find the glitch in the system here, the flaw in her own faculties. Is this an error of perception or of memory? It has to be one or the other – and, suddenly, she finds herself paralysingly unsure of which. It’s been such a long time, after all – years, by now, since the two of them last laid eyes on one another.
‘Benjamin, let me introduce you to Fia Callaghan,’ Celia says then, her voice as brisk and bright as ever. ‘She’ll be your mentor for the summer. Fia, meet Benjamin Lowry.’
This serves not so much as an introduction but as an utterly dismal, dreaded confirmation. It is him. Really and truly.
‘Oh my God!’ Fia exclaims. The words fly out of her mouth before she can stop them, in direct contravention of her long-held and unfailingly successful policy: no displays of emotion in the office. She feels like her accent gets about 30 per cent more Irish than usual, to boot.
Celia looks very surprised – because overall it probably is a very surprising outburst – and Fia chokes out a little half-cough.
‘Sorry. I, uh … hi,’ she manages then, her voice sounding slightly more normal. Still, though, could she be having a stroke right now? Does someone in the vicinity need to act F.A.S.T.? In what could well be the last few seconds of full mobility she has left, she watches her own hand reaching out in greeting, as though it belongs to someone else entirely.
‘I’m Fia,’ she hears herself say.
And then, for what feels like a very long time (though in reality may be very little), he just looks at her. Benjamin does. Benjamin Lowry. Here, at her place of work. Benjamin Lowry.
Fia finds her breath hitching in her chest as she waits for whatever is to come next. An exclamation, a revelation … an apology, maybe? Needless to say, she wouldn’t mind one of those, though given the choice, she’d very much prefer to receive it without an audience.
‘… Hi,’ he replies eventually.
That, apparently, is the height of it. That’s all he has to say. He reaches out to meet her handshake, his fingers closing around hers, and what he looks, more than anything, is confused. Confounded, even. He looks pretty close to how she feels. Immediately, it is obvious to Fia that this is not some sort of plan on his part. It’s not a trap, not a trick. He was no more expecting to see her today than she was expecting to see him.
Meanwhile, Celia appears happy as a clam. ‘Fia’s part of our private client team,’ she swoops in easily. ‘Which – I may be biased, but I have to say – I think is secretly the best one in the whole place. And Fia’s one of our brightest associates – soon to be senior associates.’
Is there a little bit of a wink in her tone as she says that last bit, Fia wonders? A promise hidden underneath the quick smile tossed in her direction? It’s extremely fortunate that Celia Hannity, of all the partners at ZOLA, happens to be Fia’s direct boss – the head of the private client department. Right from the beginning, she has always seemed to be on Fia’s side. Fia can’t claim to be entirely sure why. That Celia was born, apparently, into a family of proudly blue-collar Irish Americans maybe hadn’t hurt. ‘We Irish girls have to stick together,’ she has been known to proclaim, on more than one occasion.
Right now, though, she’s turned her attention back to Benjamin. ‘So, like we said in your final interview, you’ll be assigned work from all our departments,’ she’s telling him, ‘and from time to time you might relocate to be closer to different teams as the work demands. Fia’s office is going to be your home base, though. She’s here to point you in the right direction with assignments, answer any questions you might have … just think of her as your big sister for the summer.’
At this suggestion, an expression settles on Benjamin’s face that, in other circumstances, Fia might actually somewhat enjoy. Bug-eyed and horrified, he looks like a guy in a hostage video. It could pass for nerves, though – probably.
‘Got it,’ he says, and Celia smiles warmly.
‘All right, well, great! I’ll be rounding everyone up soon, but there’s a little bit of time before we have to head downstairs, so I’ll leave you guys to get acquainted,’ she replies.
With that, she disappears – off, no doubt, to make another introduction – and Fia and Benjamin just stare at one another.
In the silence that follows, it feels as though children could be born and raised. They could graduate and get married, take a cruise and die of old age. And yet, somehow, Fia Callaghan and Benjamin Lowry are still standing here, on a rooftop in Midtown Manhattan, astonishment pulsing silently between them.
‘So, how’ve you been?’ Benjamin asks eventually, ever the wisecracker.
Fia scowls, feeling in absolutely no mood for comedy. Instinctively, her eyes dart around, looking for somewhere they might escape listening ears. Save for off the side of the building (which seems extreme), the only option is inside, to the little vestibule that houses the lifts. Of course, it’s glass fronted – at ZOLA, all the doors and walls are made of glass to the maximum extent permitted by modern engineering. There is really no such thing as privacy in this place. But it’s as good as they’re going to get right now.
She yanks her head in that direction and, wordlessly, Benjamin follows her as she marches over to the vestibule.
‘How’ve I been?’ she hisses in return, once they’re inside it. ‘Ben! What the fuck?! What are you doing here?’
‘What are you doing here?’ he counters, and he sounds every single bit as agitated as her now. He still, she notes, has that very slight hint of a North Carolina drawl.
‘I work here, obviously.’
He shakes his head, as though in nothing less than disgust. ‘I can see that,’ he says icily.
Fia offers no reply. Her blood is pumping urgently through her veins, making her feel panicked, out of control. In such a context, words seem to fail her. What she wants, ideally, is to be able to let out an almighty screech, even if just for her own sense of release. Of course, she can’t do that. The walls are only so soundproof. And, in fact, there has perhaps been a little too much gesticulating – on both their parts – already. Even the way they are standing probably seems more like two people about to begin a fencing match than two new co-workers getting to know one another, buoyed by a mutual love for American jurisprudence.
She forces herself to take a few deep breaths. She paces the perimeter of the small space, consciously willing her body to relax.
‘Look, you can’t be here,’ she says, as soon as she feels able to speak once more. ‘That’s just the bottom line. I’m sorry. You’re going to have to quit.’
What is blatantly obvious to her seems not remotely so to Benjamin – though that, she supposes, is nothing new.
‘Are you kidding me?’ he replies, quick as a flash. ‘Do you know what I had to go through to get this gig? I would’ve had an easier time getting into fucking NASA for the summer.’
As it happens, Fia actually knows this to be true. In the US legal market, the summer associateship – coming as it does between the penultimate and final years of law school – is viewed as a vital step towards securing one’s job prospects as a fully fledged attorney. Landing a position isn’t easy, especially not at the larger commercial law firms. Now that she thinks about it, she’s more than a little surprised that Benjamin Lowry, of all people, has evidently made it to the other side of that particular obstacle course.
Probably, she realizes, his parents know a guy. Plenty of that goes on, too.
‘Well, we’re going to have to get you reassigned, at least,’ she says, thinking on her feet. ‘Having you at the firm for the summer might be one thing, but having you in my office is … another.’
He shrugs. ‘Cool with me.’
And isn’t that so like him? No initiative, no follow-through. Just that same laissez-faire attitude she suddenly remembers perfectly. It restokes in Fia a very particular kind of exasperation. Nothing irritates her more than people who describe themselves as chill – as though that makes any kind of grammatical sense, as though it is a good thing. Don’t they realize the inherent selfishness of that? Don’t they realize the burden it puts on others?
Her eyes drift back outside to the terrace, and she can see that the summer associates are being corralled now in preparation for their tour of the building. They’ll be heading this way, Celia Hannity at the helm, any minute.
Benjamin lets his gaze follow hers deliberately. ‘So. I guess you can’t exactly kick me out for no reason, right? Do you wanna tell the partners about our … situation?’ he asks. ‘Or shall I?’
That’s when Fia realizes. He has her over a barrel here. What’s more, he fucking knows it.
She very, very much does not want anyone to be telling the partners about their situation. That is true even setting aside her promotion prospects and thinking only of her professional standing and general personal dignity.
She inhales deeply through her nose and exhales just as deeply, the way Adriene does in yoga. It’s nowhere near as cleansing as she might have hoped. But perhaps it does bring a certain clarity, an acceptance of the inescapable.
‘All right, Benjamin. You know what? Fine. Fine!’ She is unable to prevent her voice rising slightly, in a fashion she’s sure he would term hysterical. ‘It’s ten weeks. If you have to be here, then you have to be here. I suppose we’re just going to have to get through it.’
She glances outside once again, clocks the herd in motion. Within ten seconds, she knows, they will come through the vestibule doors, and Benjamin will be swept up into their midst. Nonetheless, she’s not done here. And the thing – the one key thing – she has to say to him, she knows she can say fast.
She turns back towards him, her eyes narrowing to a squint. ‘But I really think we should go ahead and get divorced, don’t you?’