Mohamed woke up extra early on Boxing Day morning. It was not because he was in a rush to get to the mall to purchase the wool jacket for his wife that he could no longer afford. Boxing Day, a Saturday this year, kicked off the five-day rush prior to the New Year. The Firm’s clients from all over the world were in a rush to replace their 2015 marketing strategies and advertising materials to try and be the proverbial ‘early bird that gets the worm’ in 2016.
Mohamed had called his wife the evening of Christmas. As usual, his wife was busy attending mosque with her younger brother. They had recently moved into a small apartment together, and even had a new household helper. Mohamed had not been back to Sierra Leone in over a year and his wife, who didn’t have a visa to travel to Canada, was awaiting processing on their sponsorship application, currently stuck in the African backlog of a three-year delay. Based on processing, they would expect to hear from Immigration any day now.
The city still pitch black when he woke up, Mohamed took the number 15 bus, as he had every morning for the past ten years. Said his good morning and thank you to the bus driver, who didn’t acknowledge him. Mohamed always sat at the back of the bus, where there were usually less people at this time of the day.
When Mohamed arrived at the office, he noticed he was the first one in. They are probably all hungover again, Mohamed thought to himself. Mohamed had spent his Christmas dinner eating leftovers from his lunch with Shafiq and watching television. It was a boring existence, albeit a quiet one, which Mohamed had become comfortably accustomed to.
As Mohamed was about to turn the corner, a light suddenly turned on in the hallway. It was the cleaning lady “Maria”, an affectionate 45-year old lady that Mohamed absolutely adored for her vivacious laugh and honest approach to cleaning. Maria was more serious this morning however.
“Maria, how was your Christmas? You don’t seem your usual self my dear” Mohammed asked gently.
“Mo, things are not good back home. My husband lost his job and is sick with cancer. It was just diagnosed. My eldest son got arrested for dealing drugs and is in prison. They won’t release him. I can’t afford a plane ticket back to the Philippines right now. I missed Christmas again.” Maria responded, trying to hold herself together.
Mohamed patted Maria on the back reassuringly. He opened his wallet and slipped Maria a twenty dollar bill. “Take this Maria. I know, it has been tough for all of us. We’re both trapped in a city way too beautiful for all of us, but so lonely without our loved ones. It will get better I promise. Go home and get some rest”
“Thanks Mo.” Maria replied, pocketing the twenty dollars. “I would like to go home but your stupid boss left a note for me reminding me that the three new interns are starting today and that I need to set up their work station.. volunteer station.. whatever you guys are calling it this year.”
Mohamed chuckled. He had completely forgot that it was time for the Annual Student Internship Program again. Billed as a program that would give work experience to underemployed/underprivileged recent graduates,
Mohamed knew that the real reason for hiring individuals like this were that they would work for essentially no pay. Mo knew from previous years experience that each year the interns would be brought on for the busy period of New Years, Valentine’s Day, and Easter and then sent home in early May with a generic letter of congratulations and a $500 stipend. During these five months, had they been salaried junior level employees they would have each taken home at least $500 a week and had to have their medical insurance and Canadian Pension Plan covered.
Maria bid adieu and continued with her cleaning duties. Man, this is a whole city of immigration problems, Mohamed thought to himself shaking his head. As Mohamed was about to sit down at his desk, Maria came running down the halls.
“Mo, I forgot to tell you something. You forgot to shut down your computer and you left a document open all weekend.” Maria grabbed the mouse and shook the computer awake. It was the first two lines of your resignation letter. I hope nobody saw it. When I came in yesterday it was brightly displayed. I couldn’t help but notice it.”
“Thanks for mentioning it Maria.” Mo said earnestly. “I hope so too.”
I am an idiot, Mohamed thought to himself. The thought of resigning immediately had since Christmas become a more distant one in his mind. I can resign next summer. I need the money and peak season means overtime hours. Next summer, when my wife joins me in Canada, then I can quit and we can find new jobs together. Mohamed closed the document and prayed that nobody has seen it.
Opening his real-estate marketing final report, Mohamed smiled to himself. This is my life calling. The report was intricately prepared. He knew the things that mattered to clients from Arabic-speaking countries: proximity to the mosque, availability of halal food choices, security, and, most-importantly, privacy. His idea was to market the new complex as a “Little Dubai in the Heart of Downtown Vancouver.” He made some last minute edits to the presentation he would have to give on Monday at the real-estate firm’s offices. Mohamed’s line of thinking was interrupted by an email from his manager.
WELCOME TO OUR 2015-2016 STUDENT INTERNS read the email in unnecessary CAPS usually reserved for emergency situations. Mohamed opened the email to see three student profiles.
The first was a girl named Veronica Chiu. She had quite the impressive profile. She had attended the city’s top private school, the Colburn Academy. She had a business degree from out in Eastern Canada. She seemed like the type who would be working at a Bay Street firm rather than in Vancouver. Mohamed peered at the fine print.
Ah, it all made sense. The profile mentioned that her father, Moses Chiu, was a client of the Firm and that all of them needed to be extra careful in making sure Veronica was happy. Veronica would also be working indirectly through the boss’s guidance.
The second was Dawayne Jamison or “DJ” for short. He went to an inner city high school in California before moving to Vancouver to play college basketball. According to the email, apparently after redshirting he switched colleges three times due to poor grades disqualified him from the basketball team. Eventually, he attended a Christian college, found his calling in God and graduated Valedictorian.
Wow – exactly the kind of guy our firm will use to secure new clients, Mohamed thought to himself.
Mohamed got to the third profile. She is very pretty, very Hollywood gorgeous, Mohamed thought before playing around with his ring finger and realizing he was having thoughts that a married man should not be having. She looked young, maybe half his age. Maria, eh just like our cleaning lady. Mohamed made a mental note she would call Maria Mendes, Ms. Mendes. In Mohamed’s mind there was only one Maria, the nice cleaning lady. Mohamed read Ms. Mendes’ profile. It was very short and stated:
Maria comes to us from Surrey, British Columbia where she recently completed her post-secondary studies. Maria has a particular interest in fashion and international marketing and will be working closely with our International team.
Mohamed had been Deputy Chair of the International team for several years. The current Chair, Elliot Huang, was the Firm’s big rainmaker. In 2015, Elliot had successfully closed 40 new clients for the firm and engaged them in the development of marketing strategies. Many were new immigrants to Vancouver, who established quasi-operational businesses that served as vehicles designed to transfer assets to their young sons and daughters who were studying in the city. However, they made the Firm millions and were given rock star treatment.
Mohamed was secretly quite excited that the team had recruited a new member, and additionally excited that she was quite easy on the eyes.
A follow-up email soon arrived from the boss. STUDENT INTERNSHIP PROGRAM MENTORSHIP PAIRS read the email.
The email read:
• Veronica Chiu has been assigned to the International Marketing Group, she will be mentored by Elliot Huang.
• DJ has been assigned to the Sports and Entertainment Marketing group and will be mentored by Don Michaels.
• Maria Mendes has been assigned to the International Marketing Group and will be mentored by…
Mohamed stopped in his tracks.
…. Mohamed Kamara
Mohamed was shocked. It was the first time he had ever been asked to mentor or let alone participate in the program.
Before Mohamed could ponder any further, a third email came into his inbox. It was from the government’s immigration department in Ghana. Mohamed’s heart sunk has he opened it.
Dear Ms. Kamara:
Your Application for Permanent Residence in Canada has been refused. The primary purpose of your marriage has been adjudged to be for immigration purposes. We are also not satisfied that this is a genuine relationship. Thank you for your interest in Canada.
“Motherfucker!” Mohamed screamed smashing his keyboard on the table. It snapped in half. Mohamed looked around. Thankfully no one was around as an audience to his morning meltdown.
Before Mohamed had a chance to think any further, the recognizable heavy footsteps of his boss and the accompanying rhythm of a set of high heels came towards him. Mo turned around to see his boss’s recognizable bespoke suit and thick-rimmed glasses. Next to him was Maria. She had a serious, “focused” game face on.
“Is this a bad time, Mo?” his boss asked, looking at the shards of keyboard noticeably scattered around Mo’s cramped desk.
“No, sir” Mohamed answered curtly. “Had an accident. Dropped a heavy bag on my keyboard a second ago. I’ll go see IT in a minute.” Mo explained in a hastened fashion, hoping his boss wouldn’t notice the clear fabrication.
“That’ll be okay Mo. I’ll personally put in your service order in on a new keyboard. Mo, please meet your mentee, Maria”
Mohamed took his hand, still sweating from anger, out of his pant pocket. “Pleased to meet you Miss Mendes.”
“You can call me Maria,” Maria answered. Mohamed couldn’t help but notice the layer of cold in her voice.
“Well then,” Mohamed’s boss continued, “I trust you will show her around the offices. I know you are busy with that Real Estate presentation of yours. Maybe you could bring Maria to help close us that deal for us. Good, good. Have fun Maria. See you soon” Mohamed’s boss gave Maria a quick wink, straightened his tie, and strutted off.
Come with me Ms. Mendes,” Mohamed stated trying to sound as polite as possible, hiding his discontent.
“It’s Maria. Please call me Maria,” Maria snapped back.
This one is going to be a challenge, Mohamed thought to himself.
Maria was grateful for the morning coffee break. It had been a hectic morning. Maria chose to sit at a table away from all of the other employees in the room, hoping one of the two other student interns would show up so she would have someone else to converse with.
Mohamed is going to be the WORST mentor, she thought to herself. She thought about the half-eaten tuna fish sandwich on his desk and the smell of his stench. She felt repulsed and had a huge headache to boot.
Maria reflected on her hectic morning. It began at 6:30am. It was dark inside the house, even dark outside in her white picket-fence neighbourhood. She had forgotten to pack a lunch before, hastily making a peanut butter and banana sandwich for herself. She made an extra slice of buttered toast as her breakfast.
Maria initially had considered driving to work from Surrey. However, the parking downtown was much too expensive and would have essentially negated any financial benefit from the internship. Maria was unclear on how she was getting paid. Apparently it was some sort of honorarium with the potential of bonus if she helped recommend new leads or close new clients.
It was a lonely bus ride. She was the only one on the bus for nearly the whole trip before arriving at the SkyTrain station. Sitting in the back of the SkyTrain, she couldn’t help but notice the number of men looking at her. Even men who appeared to be on an early morning trip with their wives (and even young babies) would ogle at her apparently unaware of their sins. Most times she wouldn’t pay attention. However, there would be the occasional “looker” that she would return the gaze of. Bearded, short hair, buzz cut – the “Vancouver Special” that she also considered her model man.
At a stop around Burnaby, an elderly lady got on the SkyTrain and grabbed a seat next to Maria. She tapped Maria’s shoulder.
The lady looked at her, her bony pale face scrunched into a look of serious concern. “Honey, you look stressed out.”
“I’m just a little tired” Maria shrugged.
“Honey, I know stressed when I see stressed. I’m fifty and look sixty. My ex-husband left me when I had breast cancer ten years ago. I now work two jobs just to pay 75% of my salary in rent. My two cats and I barely have enough money for food every month.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Maria responded, with far too little emotion in her voice. She secretly wondered why someone who couldn’t sustain herself would want to have two cats.
“Girl, you look like you have had a tough go of it as of late. Just let grandma tell you this. It’s not about finding the right guy or pleasing your boss. It’s about doing what makes you happy. Are you happy right now?”
No, Maria thought to herself before instinctively answering “I’m okay.” Maria excused herself and pretended to get off the SkyTrain. A whole city of crazies, Maria shook her head. Closing her eyes Maria suddenly was transported to a night several months ago.
“Maria, Maria.. are you okay? Wake up” a glass of cold water was suddenly thrown over her face.”
The whole room was hazy, a blur. Her head felt as though her head had been beat in with a baseball bat. She thought a second ago that she had been on a beach in Hawaii swimming with dolphins.
“What happened to me?” Maria murmured. The familiar downbeat of EDM confirmed she was not in Waikiki but rather in a night club”
“It’s okay girl” it was the familiar voice of her best friend Sasha. “We thought we were taking just e but it turns out someone laced something in there. Don’t worry baby we’ll get you home.”
“Next stop: Vancouver Centre Station” Maria snapped out of her daymare just in time to step off the SkyTrain. Maria checked her watched. She had ten minutes to find the office.
Maria was completely unfamiliar with this part of downtown. Her knowledge of downtown was pretty much limited to the bars and clubs of the Granville Strip. She tugged on her skirt, making a mental note to herself to go with the suit pants next time.
After mistakenly entering two office buildings, she finally found the right one. She took the elevator to the 21st floor. Apparently the Firm had space on both 20th and 21st floor. Just like me, 20 going on 21, Maria thought to herself.
She exited the elevator. The Firm was definitely the nicest office she’d ever seen. It was even nicer than her brother’s firm and much better than her father’s cramped law offices.
“Hi Sweetie, you must be Maria Mendes” the receptionist motioned her through the doors. “Stuart will be with you shortly. Hold tight”
Maria didn’t know too much about Stuart. Their interview conducted over Skype seemed relatively quick. Stuart had asked Maria to be honest in her answers and Maria had been. She didn’t mention her father’s infidelity, but mentioned her brother’s experience in the PR business. She also admitted she had previous substance abuse issues.
Maria was at first hesitant to bring it up, but thought about the fact that the student internships were advertised for recent graduates who had overcome challenges in their personal and professional lives. No doubt her challenges with drugs and alcohol following break up and unemployment were part of that narrative. Stuart seemed okay with it and even said that she respected her for delving into her own personal issues.
“Maria, welcome” Stuart warmly shook her hand. Stuart was an imposing figure. He looked every square inch of his managerial role – thick black glasses, thick tie, and sharp bespoke suit. Maria’s eyes wandered to Stuart’s ring finger. It was bare. No ring. He’s not bad looking, Maria thought to herself before snapping back into remembering he was her boss not her blind date.
“The others have already arrived and have been introduced to their mentors. I need you first to sign this internship contract. Remember you must keep confidential everything that you hear, see, or do within these four walls. Understood? Good. Please follow me, I will bring your mentor, Mo”
Mo, eh. Maria signed her name without reading the contract and passed it to the secretary who was waiting patiently by the door. Maria was secretly hoping for a really good-looking mentor, someone who she could spend all day at work with and not want to go home. Perhaps Mo was short for Morrison or something, she thought.
“Maria, now I am sure Mo will give you the office tour later. It is really busy around here and it will be until mid-February.” Stuart began, although his voice trailed off as Maria noticed he had walked far ahead of her. Maria ran to catch up, trying to reduce the sound of her heels on the marble floors. “We are a small firm, but we do big clients. We are a social bunch. We generally all get along very well in and out of the office. Unfortunately, there are no parties or get-togethers until after Valentine’s Day when we will have our office spring party, the Spring Fling” Stuart continued.“You will meet all of the team members during our staff meeting after work today. You may likely run into your fellow interns during the day. The coffee room is on your right, the washrooms are on your left” Stuart pointed, much in the manner a flight attendant would point out emergency exits.
Two rights and a left turn later Maria apparently reached her final destination, an open office space with several cubicles. She heard a smash emanating from the cubicles in the larger office area. Maria winced at the sound.
“Just a little hiccup, I’m sure,” Stuart continued on confidently.
Maria noticed that Stuart was directing her towards the desk of the individual who had just smashed his keyboard, which was lying in pieces on his desk and on the floor. He was skinny. He had glasses that appeared crooked on his face. He was black.
As Stuart talked to Mo about the mentorship set up, Maria scanned the desk looking for evidence of her mentor. She spotted a photo frame with a gorgeous looking black woman dressed in what looked to be traditional African garb. Mo, who looked many years younger at the time of the photo, looked much more relaxed and confident than her mentor-to-be. Maria continued scanning. She saw a half-finished setting on Mo’s shelf – unmistakably tuna fish, the frequent tormentor of her childhood lunches.
As Mo extended his hand out for a shake, Maria could smell the sweat that was emanating his forehead. Maria didn’t mind the occasional Indian food, and often frequented Surrey’s Scott Road for late night paneer, but the smell was something else. She wiped her chin against her sleeve hoping to pick up the scent of some of the orange blossom perfume that she had worn that day.
Maria was frustrated by the way Mo called her ‘Ms. Mendes.’ She tried to correct him several times. She hated the Mendes in her name, a reminder of her father’s infidelity.
The rest of the early morning was a blur. She met the office staff, the main marketing team, and the support workers. Mo told her about the upcoming projects and the presentation that they were to do together. Maria would be given the task of moving the PowerPoint slides forward, passing out the brochures, and taking notes from the Q&A that followed. The presentation itself would serve the basis for the actual final plan that would be implemented just prior to New Years.
Maria put her hands on the table and rested her head against them. She dozed off for about half a minute before a tap on her shoulder woke her up.
“Hey are you the new intern, Maria?” It was another black guy, this one dressed very impeccably. Next to him was an asian girl with frameless glasses, a neatly tied up bun, and designer shoes.
“Yes, yes I am, did we meet earlier?” Maria asked, still in a state of utter exhaustion.
“No, I don’t think so. We are the two other interns,” the Asian girl answered in a voice far too sweet for the context of a coffee room conversation. “My name is Veronica” the Asian girl held out her hand. Maria shook it and couldn’t help but notice her hands were incredibly cold.
“My name is Dawayne. You can call me DJ” the black guy held his hand out. His handshake in contrast was firm. His hands were huge, and rough – clearly someone who hand used them for craft.
“My name is Maria. Maria Mendes” Maria stood up, apologizing for her state of tiredness. “It has been a long morning. I’m still adjusting to the early morning schedule.”
“My morning has been fantastic,” Veronica replied. I look my mentor. We’re going to be doing some awesome work with this Hong Kong-based diamond company. I may possibly even be able to go on a business trip to Beijing if we can secure the client’s show there. I love Elliot, he’s a great mentor.”
DJ carried on excitedly. “My morning has been great too. Apparently the firm does a lot of work with actors. We’re repping this local guy who we think is the next Denziel for his auditions next week. We’re also doing the marketing for a charity tennis tournament ‘Fourty – Love.’ How sick is the name?”
“How was your morning Maria?” Veronica asked.
Maria noticed that Veronica went very heavy on the eye shadow and possibly the extensions.
“It’s been okay. I’m still new to this, lot’s to learn for sure.”
“Whose your mentor?” DJ asked.
“Mo…” before Maria could finish he could hear the recognizable voice of Mo yelling on the phone.
Mo wasn’t speaking English but it was a language that contained heavy English elements. It was clear Mo was upset and pleading at the same time. “Baby gurl, ya don’t leave me now. Been through too much.”
Maria brought her voice down to a whisper. “That’s my mentor, Mo.”