From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 27 July 2014

If you had stayed in grad school way back when, you could have gone far. Everyone said so, even the Professors you refused to sleep with

Thanks, thanks for coming. Looking forward to doing business with you, have another cookie for the road.

Carmen shook hands, thinking about her schedule and the next stop, trying to find the only face and name in this drub crowd she’d need to remember – usually it was the last one.

-Hey Carmen. Long time. Nice suit.

-Debbie? Oh my God! Debbie?

Oh lord, Carmen thought, was this the all-important last face? She kept smiling reflexively, not knowing what else to do.

-Carmen. How long has it been?

-A while, Debs. Have some more coffee.

Carmen was doing backflips through her memory banks. On the net she remembered emailing Debbie a few years back. In person the last time they’d been together was the first year of graduate school, just before Carmen dropped out, as both of them knew only too well.

-Thanks, don’t mind if I do.

-Were you sitting in the back, Debs? Boy, I really need to remember my glasses. Contacts are killing me. You look...OK.

As soon as she paused, Carmen knew she had paused for too long.

-OK? What is that supposed to mean, Carm?

-You look happy. Work must be going well. You look OK.

Carmen clenched her jaw, hoping she was getting away with it.

-Well, I guess you could say that...The group moved to the Hospital a couple of years ago; we had a great offer from the Chair in OB/GYN. Publishing well, just got a good grant. I made Associate Editor at one of the reproductive endocrinology journals with the mutant estrogen receptor work and transgenic mouse, did you know that? Became chief embryologist at the clinic. It gives me a different sense of purpose. How many mouse gene variants can you characterize and still feel useful? So, yeah, Carm, I guess you could say I’m OK.

-You know, Debs, I always thought you’d be the Chair at some Molecular Biology Department by now.

-I have the professorship. It’s a joint appointment. And who would want to be Chair these days? Best way of getting sued.

-It’s just that Obstetrics and Gynecology is not exactly the paradigm-shattering field I’d have expected. Assisted Reproduction? In vitro fertilization? Bringing even more kids into this screwed up world...

-...Can be very rewarding Carm... people who probably had no business having them...

-Whoa there, cowgirl. Slow down there. You plan to work in this field? You really want this crap as a part of your sales pitch? Especially since a lot of people would think you and Jo had no business...

-That’s different! Different league different, Deborah. There was nothing wrong with...

-Two words, Carmen: “Sperm”. “Bank”.


How had she talked herself into this corner, Carmen thought? She and her god-dammed big mouth.

-I’m not judging, Carm, you know that. I googled you when I figured you would be coming by. Saw the pictures on Facebook. They look great, you all do. Big kids. You needed help, you got help. Same difference. I actually thought that was why you took on this account.

-I’m a sales rep, it's what I do. Just another job, Debs. But you? Clinical research? Routine embryology? That’s not really you, is it? Taking orders from the medical doctors...

-...Is a career choice, Carmen. They’re not that bad....

-...Oh, come on! They like it when you help them publish papers, but it won’t take long before you’re being treated like the high-end cleaning lady and nanny they really see you as.


-Deep down, Deborah. They are the important Grey's-Anatomy-God's-Gift to mankind, you, their trusted assistants. Come on, I swim in this shark tank every day. Gotta play hardball. All day, every day. Or it chews you out. Takes a toll. Look at you already...

-Look at me, what?

Carmen tried to stop herself. But it was too late. She and her goddam big...

-Face it, Debs. You’re not the Clinical Researcher type. Have you been to one of their Meetings? Seen how they couture the shit out of you? Talk down. And if you can’t manage that, you’re the lab technician, the cleaning lady. The meek that won’t inherit diddly squat. Sooner rather than later. You get old fast, you fade...

-I see. I look like an old, raggedy failure with no fashion sense waiting to happen. Is that what you’re saying? Or did I happen already?

-That’s not ...

-That’s exactly what you meant, Carm. Funny...

-Funny, what?

-Sometimes I do feel a little...


-Stupid, Carmen. Not valued enough. I cleaned up their act, increased the success rate of the in vitro fertilization to above average, introduced ovarian tissue cryopreservation and it’s like it was all their doing, I’m almost invisible, a Professor in something they’re not interested in. Yeah, underappreciated. But what’s even funnier is that it took someone like you...

-What, “like me”?

-Well, taking about expectations, I never figured you for a sales rep.

-What’s that supposed to mean, Debbie?

-Suits, free handouts, mirrors and smoke. Hawking your sample case and brochures from lab to lab. Groveling for bored clinicians and lab managers to get orders in, make the quota. Backstabbing and getting backstabbed by the competition. If you had stayed in grad school way back when, you could have gone far. Everyone said so, even the Professors you refused to sleep with. Further than being a high level snake-oil salesperson, Carm. Well, at least you have the nice executive look, not the failed Barbie with fake boobs variety.

-Life choices, hard ones, Debs. In the end there are bills to pay, a life to get on with.

-You don’t need to tell me, Carm, remember? I feel bad I wasn’t there for you more.

-How could you have been? I was the one who moved away.

-Any regrets?

-At the time? Well, duh. Afterwards what you left behind starts feeling like a dream, until you stop caring, move on.

-Truly, Carmen?

-Truly. My first sale was at our old institute. Ironic, huh? I walked in, recognized everything, made the sale, left. Felt like a tourist. The “nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here” kind of tourist. Its funny, once you step outside one world, it fades, it stops being the most important world of all. You are always free to make new choices, as long as you remember and respect the ones you made before. Because you can’t afford not to remember. So, in the end there was really no other choice.

-Glad to hear it.

As she blabbered away Carmen kept wondering how on earth she was talking about things she had never discussed, with anyone. Not even Jo. Enough of this, she thought, time to finally go to work.

-Say, Debs?

-Yeah, Carm?

-You think I have a sale here?

-Carmen, Carmen, Carmen...Your prices are the most competitive, you know that. You have a sale. Just don’t know how big yet. But, Carm?


-Useless advice, I know. But try reading a bit more about your own products, OK? Did you even preview that DVD you showed in there? You competitor Khandi from Serook may look like a Barbie Doll, but she knows what she's talking about, and doesn’t answer questions with smart-assed jokes and by repeating what is on the presentation, just slower, as if whoever asked is a moron.

-You got that impression? Not my intention at all. I thought the questions were actually pretty lame, it was as if those kids weren’t paying attention.

-They were paying attention, trust me. They just knew your company had no business saying what was on the presentations. Your new drugs only had a noticeable boosting effect in one out of ten trials. You were citing that one trial as if it were some sort of textbook certainty, disregarding the other nine. You didn’t know about the studies, did you?

-Studies...You have to take them with a grain of salt. My job is not to do Science, but to sell products. That much is understood, no?

-Products vouched for by Science, Carmen. At least by a little Science. Products that go into real people, not PowerPoint diagrams. You have to...

-Fine, point taken. What about that other question, the one from the back?

-There was a mistake on the slide. The new rinsing solution doesn’t have “more pH”, there is no such thing. Chemistry 101, Carm. It just has more “pH buffering ability”, the previous one sucked because it oscillated too much.

-Oh dear. Even I should have figured that one out. Damned Germans makin ze presentazions at ze headquarterz. Well two blunders seem survivable.

-Don’t be upset. Its not as if you’re new to this. To this field perhaps, not to sales. It’s always the same, people come down for free samples, coffee, doughnuts, a break. Presentations are the price one pays.

-But, as for Khandi...Does Serook-Life do well here?

-I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but what the heck. Competition between reps never hurt our business. If Khandi ever gets an edge in price, she’ll blow you away. And all she really needs to figure out is to cut down on what Serook charges for everyday consumables, and compensate with a slight increase in hormonal supplements.

-You think so, Debbie? I heard her presentation the other day, she seems to have a lot to learn...

-Oh, I don’t think so Carmen, I know. Her hormones are more effective than yours, you’d realize as much if you read the latest independent reports. Four doses of hers makes seven of yours, you’ll notice a shift next year. Provided she also learns to use wisely disguised trips and speaking arrangements as perks for her best clients. It’s harder these days, but you do it very well, I hear.


Carmen wasn’t sure she should be flattered or insulted.

-You know what I mean. But Carm, don’t rely too much on trump cards, fast talk and backroom tricks. No one much likes buying from you, not because you have that self-made no-prisoners attitude, but because you can’t even pretend to back up your company’s own bullshit.

-So why is this news to me, Debs ?

-Because no one will bother confronting a sales rep, let alone one with obvious issues Carm. Just not worth it. They’ll just buy less, and only if they have to. Make excuses, mention budget cuts, be in meetings when you call. So keep up the cardiac catheter accounts, those are so good they sell themselves.

So far Carmen had realized that she was taking some sort of beating she didn’t quite understand. But this time she was genuinely surprised.

- Are you into cardiology as well, Debbie?

-No Carm, just well informed. You may know my boyfriend. Jim Helms?

Helms, cost-effective Helms, M.D., her unseen nemesis, Carmen thought. Helms the purchasing consultant for all things cardiology. Small fucking world.

-I know Jim, Debs. Quite a reputation, congrats.

-Just don’t get greedy, Carm. You can push the catheters, but the rest of your cardiology catalog is just generic, same as everyone else’s. Don’t try to say your stuff has led to higher success and recovery rates at Mercy Hospital when you are selling at St. Vincent’s, and swear that the results in St V’s are outstanding when you are peddling to Mercy. Hospitals aren’t closed ecosystems, people talk. Besides University Center, Jim consults at both, and he’s not the only one. Everyone knows the success rates haven’t changed, at either Mercy or St V's. Don’t try too hard to bullshit bullshitters. Trust me, they have degrees in this sort of stuff; I should know, I live with one and work with the rest. Plus, it’s a small fucking world, and even a smaller town.

Carmen made a mental note to find out which rival companies Jim Helms was consulting for, and either trump their offers or carefully and anonymously expose his sanctimonious ass.

-Thanks for the advice ,Debs. Maybe we could get together one of these days? Meet the kids?

-Sure, Carm. I’d like that.

-After the sale.

-After the sale. I’ll guess we’ll be seeing more of each other, at least more than in the last fourteen years.

-Looks that way, Debbie. Hey, it could be worse!

-It could! Our lab manager will get back to you on that order, Carmen, don’t worry. I’ll take care of it myself.

-Thanks Debs, I really appreciate it. Looking forward to doing business with you.

Oh Dear God Almighty, Carmen thought. How long before the kids leave for college and I can retire from this sales shit?

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