Even after three months, the view from the 38th floor is dizzying. The horizon stretching into the next state, the tops of neighboring skyscrapers hovering at eye level, the columns of headlights marching down the expressway like pixels in an arcade game – it all can still leave me wondering how I got up here. Not that long ago, my view was from a garden level office, where I pushed papers for a nine- person insurance outfit while banging out my MBA. One job fair, three grueling interviews and who knows how many lucky breaks later, here I am. Top of the world, ma, like the old movie said.
I've handled the adjustment well so far, though all my duties have been easy, standard rookie stuff. Next week is my first quarterly review, de rigueur for first-year employees at Spotlight Market Research. My new employer boasts one of the youngest aggregate workforces in the field, and was recently named by a local magazine as one of the Top 25 Places to Launch A Career in the metropolitan area.
The training Spotlight offers is extensive, but today's seminar has nothing to do with career advancement. The big brass recently overhauled the Client Relationship Management System, and has been shuffling employees through half-day orientations, in groups of about 30, for the past week. Since I didn't have much chance to get acquainted with the old system, I'm not burdened by unlearning it. So for once, I'm on something close to equal footing. The training room holds a mix of new hires and long-timers. We're broken up into six or seven tables, four to five people apiece. Tony and I share ours with two cloyingly jolly old birds from Human Resources whose best days passed them by sometime after voting for Coolidge.
Shirley is the more loquacious one, a pear-shaped woman whose endless cackling sounds like she's gasping for breath. Everything she says cracks herself up: “I’ve got a question – how come CRMS isn’t more user-friendly! Ha ha ha!” It is decidedly not a joyous species of laughter. It's toxic and defensive, less a vocalization of mirth than a release of pent-up resentment in short bursts. It could just as easily come out as a sob, or a spasm of violence. Thank God for the collective self-flagellation of social custom.
“Trust me,” says Linda, “you do this job long enough and you won’t need a class – you’ll need therapy!” They both chortle with scarcely disguised bitterness. It's the whir of an emotional paper shredder gobbling up their myriad hostilities towards life.
“No kidding!” Shirley agrees, the words coming out more as phlegmy guffaws than speech. I suspect the number of cigarettes she's sucked down in her time far outpaces the number of days I've been alive. “And I have been doing this job long enough!” This statement, too, is the new funniest thing in the world. Whhirrrr goes the emotion shredder.
This leads seamlessly into a rousing diatribe against someone named Joyce, who is apparently not quite as horrendous as Stalin, but at the very least rents a room on his particular plane of human awfulness. Her crimes against H.R. personnel are vague but many. I take a perverse pleasure in listening to them badmouth bosses and colleagues alike. Not because I share their sentiments, necessarily. Hell, I don't even know who any of these people are, present company largely included. It's the liberating force behind the fulminations I'm compelled by. I envy the easy way they vent so effusively, so utterly unencumbered by the opprobrium it might attract. I say nothing, but offer a wan smile every time one of their glances happens to swing my way.
Tony, on the other hand, chats them up amiably, asking them questions and reacting to their jokes. He started the same day I did, and sits at the adjacent desk in our division, and everybody already likes him better than me. He makes friends like it's a survival mechanism, knows people in departments I've never heard of. During the ten-minute breaks in today's seminar, he sidles up to the other tables and shoots the shit. I peruse the blog of a political magazine on my cell phone.
I'm no wallflower, exactly. I've developed a coterie of friends. Spotlight has a networking group for novice employees; a social circle within it has adopted Tony and me, and I'm pretty sure they all like me just fine. I was even asked to join the volleyball team they've set up through the local rec league, and I doubt it's because they desperately needed another five-foot-nine guy on the net. I signed up, since they play their games fifteen minutes away from my apartment. The next one is tonight at 7 p.m., followed by dollar beers at the nearby sponsor bar. I haven't decided yet whether I'll go to the bar.
Tony asks me about this in the hall after orientation lets out. Four games into our season, I've skipped the after-party twice. I'll bet they think I'm some kind of recluse. Really, I'm just less than comfortable in large group settings. It's taxing enough to monitor the impression I'm making on one person, let alone eight simultaneously. I hedge.
"Probably," I say. "But it depends on when I get out of here tonight. Gotta get some errands done at some point."
"And you're gonna do 'em at nine o'clock?" Fair point. "C'mon, your first beer's on me."
"Gosh, my company's worth a whole dollar to you?"
"Hey, it's worth at least two!"
I chuckle. I'm jealous of Tony, of course, but it's impossible not to like him.
"Kim's gonna be there," he adds with an exaggerated raise of his eyebrows. The bastard knows this strikes a nerve. He just doesn't know I register it as both pro and con.
"No shit, you don't say." As if I'm unaware that Kim is on the team. She's fit right in with the group after only six weeks at Spotlight. She's nearly as outgoing as Tony, which is the prime reason she and I have the sort of rapport it normally takes me months to build. I'm reasonably sure Kim sees me as a friend – or an acquaintance, anyway. Careful analysis reveals she speaks to me as much as she does to anyone else in the group. She must have picked up on the fact that the inverse of that ratio is much more skewed.
"You should just go for it, man," Tony tells me, not for the first time or the fiftieth. I roll my eyes, my default response.
Back at our desks, I have a stack of files waiting for me. It's taller than Tony's. Mine's brand new as well; his is the remainder of last week's workload. Tony's a bright guy, but he comes by his brightness through hard work. I've tried to work hard, but my work's been too easy to require it.
A couple of weeks into the job it began to seem I was completing my assignments too quickly. I would turn them into Darlene, my immediate supervisor, and be greeted with mild disbelief. Apparently what I'd been given should've taken twice as long. Naturally I figured I'd messed something up pretty royally, but if I did no one ever told me.
I slowed down, double and triple checked every detail, stumped at what should take so long. Even with this, they still call me "speed demon." "Hotshot." They still haven't told me what I'm doing wrong. This leaves me with a good amount of downtime during the work day, which makes it hard not to feel like a slacker.
I plug in my iPod dock and dig into my stack. Tony furrows his brow as he sinks into his chair, and a weary sigh floats over the twelve-inch divider between our desks.
I envy his focus. Even as I begin poring over the survey results for a major snack food manufacturer's newest local ad campaign, my mind wanders.
This part of my life was supposed to be completely career-oriented. No distractions. But this girl has crawled inside my head, try as I might to deny or ignore it. She has set up shop and refuses to be dislodged.
I glance at my Blackberry (company-issued), and mull over texting her. It's Wednesday; we haven't yet spoken this week. I'm just being friendly. Never mind that I seldom strike up random chats with anyone else in the office. Friendliness. No cause for stress.
I'm punching numbers into an Excel spreadsheet; I could use the distraction. I highlight her name in my contact list, my thumb hovering over the track ball.
Tony pops his head over the divider, his face as contorted in consternation as mine must be. He asks me for help in phrasing something in the report he's been struggling with since Friday. For an instant Kim is gone as my mind snaps back into college-newspaper-editor mode: zeroing in on stray commas, surgically repairing tangled syntax, rifling through my mental thesaurus for flashes of color. Sometimes I don't feel so far removed from the days when I knew what I was doing with myself.
His report is saying the right things (mostly) – I just hone the way he says it. It takes me about ten minutes, and out of the corner of my eye I glimpse the impressed look on his face. He gives me a "Thanks, man" that's both appreciative and exhausted. I return to my work, regretting the way I relish these few moments where I feel like I have something over him.
As ever, it doesn't last. As I dive into my work, Wendy pays us a visit. This is pretty common, since her desk is down the hall. I say she visits us, and this is technically true as she addresses us both. But it is always Tony's workspace she drifts into, always Tony's desk she half-sits on with a sprightly flip of her bright red hair.
"Hello gentlemen," she says in a sing-songy voice. Tony, previously hunched over his keyboard with his elbows almost pinching its sides, now unfolds his lean frame as he swivels his chair in her direction. It's his turn to be in his element once again. He's every bit of six-foot-one, fit but not muscular, with naturally spiky hair and a trim of well-manicured stubble lining his square jaw. In a former life he was a varsity athlete, a letterman in basketball and track. No doubt he's quite used to this sort of attention.
"Hello my love," he returns, drawing the attention of Susan across the aisle.
"Wendy, are you horning in on my man again?" she calls. The faux courtships and mock relationships fly fast and furious in our stretch of the office, populated as it is by a good half-dozen twenty-somethings.
"You know Tony can't be tied down to one woman," Wendy scoffs.
"To one, no," Tony agrees. "By one, on the other hand....." Suffice it to say, the company sexual harassment codes have been repealed by mutual consent in our little nook. Both girls laugh. Wendy's eyes widen in fake shock. She raps him on the arm with the back of her hand.
"Are you coming to the game tonight?" she asks us both. I give her a thumbs up, which she mirrors.
Tony says, "Tell him he has to come out with us after."
She gives me a tsk-tsk look. "You're not coming out with us again?"
"Probably," I reiterate.
"Probably? You'd better. You owe me a beer."
"For being me," she smiles.
"Duh, Nick," Tony adds. I am outnumbered.
"Hell," I say, "If that's the standard, you owe me like four."
She laughs. "Does that mean you're coming?"
I consider joining the sex joke game here, but decide against it. Lately I've caught myself trying too hard to mimic Tony's style, and I doubt it goes over as well. I can't sell it like he can. I'm at my best when I come across as pleasant, unassuming, unobjectionable. As long as they believe I'm a nice guy, they'll have no cause to cease liking me. No need to jeopardize that with ham-fisted jokes and tongue-in-cheek come-ons. Instead, I just give in to their exhortations, which prompts Tony to high five both of us coolly.
"Well, I shall see you tonight boys. Right now I've got a meeting with John Grazer."
Tony clutches his chest. "And just who is this other man?"
Wendy titters over her shoulder as she sashays away. She's attractive enough, which is not to say I'm attracted to her. So why should I care about the favor she shows him?
Tony heads to lunch with a couple of guys from Sales; I hear he's recently started a basketball team with them through the rec league. He invites me along but I decline. I don't think I have as much room for friends in my database as he does. Besides, I'm still adapting to my new working hours, and finding that lunch is the perfect time to keep up on my reading.
By 3 p.m. I've finished every task Darlene can scrounge up that I'm remotely capable of tackling. Nobody much minds if I surf the net in my downtime, but Darlene advises me to scatter some papers across my desk and "look busy."
Having the time is nice enough, but I look forward to something more challenging. Well… partially. In the back of my mind I dread one assignment in particular: The one I fuck up. I know it's out there, looming larger with every minor success. I'll trip up eventually, and when I do, they'll understand that I've been lucky all along. Darlene, and Tony, and Terrence the team lead, and Brenda the division head – all of them – will realize that I'm not really such a hotshot after all.
* * *
The after-party at Jasper's is as tense as I expected, yet I'm having fun in spite of myself. It's an unremarkable sports bar, just the kind of place you'd expect to slap its name across the chests of people who join softball teams in order to drink beer. The tables are cheap wood of uneven grain, more like picnic tables, each lit by a dingy light bulb nesting in a miniature lamp. Even dingier are the French fries, slathered with cheese the color of traffic cones and the consistency of an oil slick. The nine of us scarf them down with reckless abandon. The joint's one concession to ambiance is the array of modest flat-screen TVs mounted in three corners, plus two behind the bar. Four of them are tuned to a New York Rangers-Edmonton Oilers game – the fifth, inexplicably, to Gossip Girl.
Tony finagled it so that I wind up sitting next to Kim, with him across the table. I'd love to talk to her one-on-one, but the mores of the big group hangout don't leave much room for that. Instead I try to meticulously allocate my attention among the four or five people within comfortable earshot, occasionally extending to those on the farther side of the table. At the moment several side conversations have broken out, and I am not party to any of them. I am in social limbo, trying to listen in on one or the other side of me without looking intrusive, alertly seeking some opportunity to insert myself into the discussion. It is a balancing act: if I'm too quiet, I'm asocial, and people only wonder why I'm here, to the extent they notice me at all; too talkative and jokey, and I'm obnoxiously trying too hard. When I feel I've erred too much to one side, I swing too hard to the other. I am the charter case of Conversational Bipolar Disorder.
Kim's body language isn't encouraging. She keeps spinning back and forth on her stool but comes to a stop angled away from me more often than towards me. I try to catch her gaze now and then, but it's elusive. Purposefully so? She's trying to avoid giving me any accidental encouragement. Meanwhile, Tony cracks a joke that delights her, and she rewards it with a light touch on his wrist. My cheeks and temples get warm.
Hanging out with Tony is fun. Hanging out with Kim is fun. Hanging out with both of them at the same time, on the other hand....
I suppose I feel a bond with Tony because we were each the first person the other met at Spotlight. So he knows about my little crush. (Probably everybody does; it must be painfully obvious.) He insists he's not interested in her, and I believe him. But he's charming without even trying – how could I not be less impressive alongside him? He may not be competition per se, but he sure wrecks the curve.
Kim yawns, leaning back and stretching her arms behind her head. Her smallish breasts protrude and her T-shirt shimmies up to expose a sliver of midriff. My neck locks firmly in place as a I refuse to look directly. Tony has no such qualms; he nods at me subtly, darts his eyes in her direction with a wolfish grin.
To my left, Patrick and Bill are talking shop. Patrick rants about a client who recently held half his division hostage in a four-hour meeting to take umbrage with a particular metric that didn't generate the results they'd hoped for. He's on his fourth beer and really letting them have it. I haven't had any such nightmarish experiences yet, and I barely comprehend the names and the jargon being sprayed around, so I have nothing to contribute. Still, I feign attention, mostly so as to counteract any impression that I've spent the whole night facing my immediate right.
Kim clinks her bottle against mine. They're both mostly empty, hers slightly more so. She gestures towards them, side by side on the table, and says, "Can't keep up?"
I look her stone in the eyes and chug my beer, setting the empty down triumphantly. "I don't know what you're talking about, Gladstone," I say with a smirk.
"Gonna be like that, huh?" She flashes a smile – that smile – and polishes hers off as well. She looks up to flag down the passing waitress with two outstretched fingers, then returns to our impromptu showdown.
"Geez, Kim, if you're trying to get me drunk there must be a less blatant way."
"Maybe. But what fun would that be?"
"Touche." The waitress sets down our refills and I take a swig right away, the chill of the glass on my lips heightened by my nervous energy. "If you really wanna do this, I've got no problem schooling you."
She leans in. "I just hope you're ready to embarrass yourself."
I lean in myself, match her determined glare. "That's what I do best," I aver with as much phony bravado as I can muster, and then, "realizing," add quickly, "No – wait a second – "
She throws her head back in laughter. Blending arrogance and self-deprecation is a tough trick, but when it lands it lands hard. My heart races. We clink bottlenecks. The group fades into the background. We still hold eye contact as we drink, she managing to hold a smile as her lips purse on the mouth of the bottle.
Until it's shattered by Wendy's shriek from the other end of the table. "OHMIGOD, Kim! Remember that guy at the Sbarro's who, like, knocked us on our asses?"
She swings the other way to indulge their inside joke, leaving me walloped by the sudden plunging sensation of missed opportunity.
I turn back to Patrick and Bill, both of whom are trying to get Tony's attention. I drink my beer faster. I wonder, if I simply slipped out – how long would it take anyone to ask where I'd gone?
Tony has launched into a story about some escapades at a nightclub, and the girls are especially rapt: Kim, Wendy, Susan, and Natalie from Finance. He tells the story with enough rakishness – and assurances that those younger, boorish days are behind him, kid stuff, didn't know any better don'tcha know – that nobody really notices that he comes across as kind of an asshole. Before anyone can sift through the smokescreen to separate fact from bullshit, he segues effortlessly into an earnest tale of "the one that got away,” a high school sweetheart who moved to some distant land after graduation only to return, years later, betrothed to a London investment banker.
Whether it's true or not, it's masterful. I can hear ovaries throbbing all around me. I should be learning something, watching him in action, but he's operating on a whole different plane. It's like watching LeBron James work off the dribble, or Peyton Manning dissect a secondary. I could break down the game film as minutely as possible to diagram what he's doing, but that doesn't mean I could replicate it.
I watch his eyes as he regales us. Although they scan the whole audience, they linger on Kim. And when they do, his gaze sharpens, a corner of his smile turns up slightly – noticeable only if you're looking for it. I try to catch sight of her reaction, but a curtain of shiny hair obscures all but the edge of her profile.
I feel my grip on my beer tighten. The scales are tipping, tension outweighing enjoyment.
I rise and don my jacket, instantly eliciting a chorus of good-natured derision. It's early, don't be lame, what the hell better do you have to do? Patrick chucks a wadded up napkin in my general direction; it falls well short. "That was just sad," I note, and he makes like he's going to hurl an empty bottle instead.
"Go on, loser!" Kim says, just a tinge of tipsiness in her tone. "Who wants you hanging around anyway?" But she can't fully sell even playful scorn when she's grinning that grand, glowing grin, and for a second I'm reconsidering.
"The lady doth protest too much," I reply, and immediately find myself somewhere between stupid and pretentious.
"The lady's gonna kick your ass too much!" She balls up a tiny fist.
"You don't scare me, Gladstone." My smile is so wide it stings my cheeks.
"Suuuuure – that's why you're running away!" Then she opens her arms, and I gladly comply with a brief, friendly embrace.
On my way out the door I get a text from Tony: "SHE WNTS U DUDE!1"
* * *
My performance review is in two hours, at 10 a.m., which I regard as an ideal time for minimizing distractions. Everyone's had their coffee; no one's yet hungry for lunch. I am to present a brief report on what I've done and what I've learned in my first three months as a junior analyst. Then I'll field a series of questions from the assembled big-wigs: Darlene, Terence, Brenda, and a rep from the New Hires division of H.R. I am thoroughly unworried. Public speaking has always come quite naturally to me. The only-child in me enjoys being the center of attention, and the distance between presenter and audience blunts my normal diffidence. Plus, my track record is solid and my report polished. This isn't the day my veneer of competence crumbles. Which is why, rather than practicing or preparing, I'm hanging out with Patrick and Susan in the break room, enjoying a late breakfast of toasted bagel and grape jam.
"Nervous?" Patrick asks me, blowing on his coffee.
"Not really," I shrug. "Unless I crap myself or start swearing uncontrollably I should be fine."
"And what makes you so certain you can discount either of those things?" says Susan.
"Who says it’s a dealbreaker? I heard you projectile vomited at yours."
"Only a little." She says this just as dainty as can be. "It's not like it got on anyone."
Patrick says, "I would definitely put 'ability to aim my puke' on your resume."
I am, perhaps, too much at ease, but I cannot seem to muster a sense of urgency. There is a chance, it's true, that I could stride confidently into that conference room only to be blindsided by the revelation that my superiors are, in fact, on to me – that they are no longer buying the facade of a bright and talented young employee, that the reason it has all felt so easy is because I have been doing it all so spectacularly wrong. There is a chance of this. It is always somewhere in my mind, but as I review note cards that I most likely will not need, that notion is distant.
A few minutes before ten, I'm in the conference room alone, rehearsing my opening lines in my head – “Thank you all for being here this morning. I've definitely learned a tremendous amount already in three months at Spotlight, and I'm grateful to have been brought on board at such an exciting and propitious time" – I'm still debating the merits of the word "propitious." I pace a small circle in the corner behind the long oak conference table, its lacquered sheen catching and throwing off glints of sunlight. A rain storm is passing, and the floor-to-ceiling windows let in every lonely strain of light that pokes through the dissipating cloud cover. I'm only one floor higher than usual, but the view facing downtown is undoubtedly more impressive. The river carves its way through a hundred-plus years of world-famous architecture just as naturally and as forcefully as if it were cleaving a rock formation that long predated it.
The click of the doorknob being turned snaps my moment of distraction. Brenda is the first to arrive; the staccato of her thick high heels, barley muffled by the carpet, announce her presence. She greets me with a warm look as she claims the center high-backed leather chair behind the conference table. I discreetly shuffle my way back towards the front of the room. Should I look more nervous? Deferential? Focused? I'm not sure which is the proper attitude, but I've got a hunch my current nonchalance is not it. I manufacture an expression that uneasily crosses modesty with concentration.
I rock back and forth on my heels with my arms crossed behind my back, note cards in one hand, as the other managers file in over the next few minutes. When they've all taken their seats, I stabilize and launch into my schpiel. I talk about getting familiar with various metrics; I talk about writing surveys and cataloging their results; I talk about sitting in on focus groups. I extol the rewards of the company's rigorous continuous learning program. I describe how much I've enjoyed working on customer segmentation, and this is even mostly sincere.
I speak crisply and succinctly, without a trace of waver in my voice or my posture, and my judges are palpably impressed, and not a little caught off guard. I draw enough confidence from this that I fire off a joke – comparing an unusually difficult project to taking batting practice with one of those weighted batting donuts which make swinging normally that much easier by comparison. I speak for twelve minutes, and when I'm finished the panel can scarcely muster a question I haven't already touched upon. Each takes a turn praising my work, my presentation, or my attitude. I respond to each with an appreciative nod.
I exit the conference room flush with pride of my own. It must be visible in my demeanor, because when I run into Wendy on the elevator she says, "I take it it went well?"
"About as well as I expected," I deflect. "By the way, do you have a box I can borrow to clean out my desk?"
But it's only a blip, a streak of light through the fog, and no sooner has it flashed by than the murkiness rushes back in to fill its path. How can they praise my work ethic when I spend so many hours with no work to do? Why do they rate so highly my performance on such menial tasks? No mention of the day I mixed up my files and entered a completely incorrect spreadsheet that set back a project a full day? No mention of the surveys I've had to redraft three or four or five times because I kept overlooking some detail or another?
Can they really not see through me yet?
I have constructed a house of cards. What I have achieved at Spotlight – in grad school, in college, in life – is real and fragile. Every success creates a more imposing and more tenuous edifice. When it topples, it will be all the more spectacular. They will all wonder how they could've been fooled for so long. And I, perversely, will finally, finally be relieved.
I have managed to add another card to the top floor, through seemingly no real effort. The structure wobbles, barely perceptible.
Meanwhile, where I agonize to make headway, I meet nothing but dead ends. I hope (pathetically, I recognize) that I will hear from Kim: A "good luck," a "how'd it go?" It doesn't come. This lingers in my gut longer than the most assiduous approval from a review panel possibly could.
Tony extends his arm for a fist bump before I sit back down at my desk. "I don't even need to ask," he announces.
He's stressing over his own review, scheduled for tomorrow. He's been poring over his old assignments, worried that he's going to freeze up when the questions start flying. But our supervisors have taken as strong a shine to him as our peers, and I've no doubt they'll treat him generously if he stumbles.
* * *
I hear the hum of his BlackBerry vibrating on his desk every other minute. Sometimes I check to see if it's mine, just in case. Not so far. When mine does go off it's strictly work-related.
He has fifty or eighty friends in this building alone. Nevertheless I'm certain he's talking to her.
I'll grant that she likes me. I'll even grant that she sees me as a friend. But she's charmed by him. She'll respond to me, but she'll initiate with him.
He flirts with every girl he sees, and it's often harmless. It's his nature. Except with her. With her, it has meaning. Intent. Consummation? Possibly. Does that innocuous banter mask what's already transpired, or what will soon enough? Since I have no way to prove one way or the other, I assume the most painful possibility is the truth.
My envy has both object and subject. I want her; I want to be able to do what he can do, and what he's almost certainly done to get her. I am nowhere free of reminders. One or the other of them is always present.
His BlackBerry hums. Hums. And hums.
I sink into my chair and try to read the Times online. The top story is about the Congo, a characteristically horrifying piece about people with genuine problems, to put it mildly. I berate myself for elevating my grade-school griping to a five-alarm fire while somewhere in the world women are being raped and mutilated by teenage paramilitaries. I dig down deep for the strength to be grateful that my problems are such meaningless drivel.
But his BlackBerry hums again, and he chuckles, and I know that it must be her, and I wonder if anyone has ever gouged out their own eyes with a staple remover before.
* * *
The final game of our ten-week volleyball season begins auspiciously. Tony and I stand on the sidelines of the gymnasium, waiting to rotate in. Kim looks incredible, hair back in a ponytail, form-fitting athletic shorts showing off her terrifically smooth thighs – which I am doing my damndest not to look at. My attention is so carefully focused elsewhere, in fact, that I don't notice her flying in our direction, chasing after a stray ball soaring overhead. Her eyes skyward, her momentum carrying her, she tumbles towards the sideline a few steps to my right. I look up too late to get between her and the wall – but Tony's reflexes don't fail him. I catch the ball; he catches Kim.
I spend the next forty-five minutes silently berating the universe in terms that would make David Mamet blush.
The next day I am resolved. About ten a.m., I brace myself, suck in a huge breath, and send her a text asking her to lunch next week.
Five minutes go by. Six. Seven. I watch the little "R" appear next to the text on my BlackBerry screen: Message received. Four more minutes pass. My thumb fondles the track ball anxiously. I have abandoned the pretense of productivity. I can't imagine what I look like to anyone passing by my desk: Huddled over my phone, frozen in place save for my right leg twitching off an early morning caffeine buzz.
"SURE. BUT UM IM PROB ONLY FREE FRI"
I exhale for the first time in roughly the last hour.
"WORKS FOR ME," I write back. "HOW'S 11:30-12?"
"I USUALLY GO AT 1130."
"SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN."
My pulse quickens, I can practically feel the hair on my arms vibrating. My breath catches in my throat, possibly because it is now obstructed by my stomach. I gather my things. It is close enough to lunch time, and a walk around the block is just the ticket right now.
Susan and I arrive at the elevator bank at the same time. Far from her usual chipper self, she barely acknowledges me. I ask about the project that's been consuming most of her attention lately, and get a perfunctory, almost agitated response. My shoulders tense. What did I do to piss her off? My memory races backward, scanning recent encounters – the other night at the bar, maybe, that joke I made about.....no, that wouldn't make sense. She'd laughed at that, right? Anyway, it was hardly the most offensive – Tony's said worse things than – but then, that's Tony. He can get away with it. At any rate, I ought to clear things up, apologize. For what? Does it matter? Can't allow any cracks in the facade. What if she shares her disgust with someone else, prompting them to recall some other off-putting act of mine? A general reappraisal of my entire character spreads through the group. Disapproving glances, abrupt silences when I approach. From one vaguely curt moment, I extrapolate a social apocalypse.
There is a chance I'm reading too much into this.
My mind returns almost involuntarily to Kim. Could she have provided the sounding board for Susan's newly-discovered disdain? I consider wandering downstairs to her cubicle to gauge her mood, but quickly decide against it. Don't want to seem obsessive after wringing that lunch concession out of her. Can't press my luck. After all, it was hardly an enthusiastic acquiescence. Yes, that's the word. She had acquiesced. She'd merely agreed to have lunch with me, which is far cry from wanting to. Any number of setbacks – perfectly legitimate, utterly unavoidable – could intervene by Friday. In my expert opinion, the chances of this pseudo-date happening are around 30%.
* * *
My fears prove unfounded. No cancellation comes via a text or a call on Friday at eight a.m., nor at nine, nor ten, nor eleven. It is 11:30, and we are crossing the street to the Corner Bakery.
Why am I not more nervous? This is the first time, really, that we have shared more than a ten or fifteen minutes of one-on-one time, uninterrupted. But as we playfully jostle to get ahead of one another in line at the counter; as she twirls in a disoriented circle in search of a napkin dispenser before I point out the one she's standing next to; as I tease her for this and she gives me a shove that's weakened by her laughter; as we nibble on our sandwiches and she shares stories of her family with boundless passion, and we never break eye contact for more than forty-five seconds; as all this transpires I don't detect a moment of doubt, a moment of fear, a moment of longing.
The thought flashes through my pre-frontal cortex so quickly and quietly, with such an aura of obvious yet unacknowledged truth, that it barely registers as a revelation: It's not Kim that's been making me sweat and churn – only Tony.
But I'm here now, not him. It's my jokes cracking her up, my stories she's absorbing. I'm so emboldened that as we step outside into a bracing fall chill and pause to cinch up our coats, I stiffen my spine and ask what she's doing tomorrow night.
* * *
It's easy to sense a rejection coming before it happens. A woman's countenance betrays her decision in a split second, even as her brain searches for the most artful, or emphatic, or incredulous way to communicate her response. Her eyes drop away, often followed by a downward tilt of her head. She may physically distance herself from the advance – shuffle backwards a step, or fold her arms demurely in front of her, one hand clutching the opposite wrist roughly at waist level. Previously smiling, her mouth instantly warps into a narrow slit, downcast, breathless, maybe biting her lip, intent on keeping her discomfiture from finding its voice. If her smile returns, it is strained, bittersweet, two invisible strings tugging persistently on her cheek muscles and eyebrows. And this admixture of flattery and pity inevitably provokes an equally instantaneous physiological response in its inspirer.
My stomach plummets, threatening to reverse my nascent digestive process. Blood rushes to my head, scalding my cheeks and neck, heightening the frigid bite of the heavy gusts encircling us. Just a second has passed, the die is cast, we are both tangled up in this awful moment now, and the contortions of polite convention are underway.
"Nick, that's really sweet," she begins, and means it, for whatever that's worth. "But, um...I guess I thought you knew."
My state of mind detours momentarily to confusion, which actually offers something of a respite from the awkwardness.
"Me and Tony. We've kinda been seeing each other for a couple of weeks. Not seriously – I mean – you know how he is – but still."
Numbness sets in.
The wind whips her locks across her face, wrings water from the corners of her eyes. It nearly drowns out her voice, which she's anyway keeping low. She goes on:
"We haven't really mentioned it to anyone, obviously – since we work together, and all. You guys are so close though, I just assumed he'd told you."
Close. Absolutely. Bosom buddies. Thick as thieves.
"I know I can trust you, though." She puts her hand on my forearm. "Please don't let it get around?"
She is plaintive, vulnerable. A spiteful man could seize on his retaliation right here.
I think about Tony. The encouragement, the exhortations to do the very thing I just did, to make the exact effort he has rendered irrelevant. The easy fraternity that coaxed the confession of my crush out of me in the first place. The casual sincerity with which he insisted he was not interested. The principled invocation of the precedents set in the landmark case of Bros v. Hos. The predatory stare he cast upon every tight skirt and loosely buttoned blouse, that snared more of them than I'll ever know – that he couldn't help aiming at....that expression, all desire and boldness – the precise opposite of it, in content and spirit, is at this moment settling upon my own features. My jaw hangs just slightly open, the cold air pinching my chapped lips. Some part of me knows I should not advertise my shock and distress so nakedly. Another doubts I could control it if I wanted to.
In some small grace, Kim fails to notice. She is too wrapped up in her own worry.
I snap myself out of it.
"Of course," I assure her. "I just, I really had no idea. I guess he's been playing it pretty close to the chest."
Kim smiles, relieved. As we turn to cross the street, she says to me rather sheepishly, "Seriously, thanks again." I can't tell if she means for my discretion or my compliment. I also can't tell which would make me less of a fool.
* * *
We part in the lobby. She's bound for a meeting in twenty minutes. I loiter. Make my way to the customer atrium, where I dump myself onto the sofa. My head throbs as I sink into the crimson microfiber cushion. I'm vaguely aware of the faint piano tinkling of the classical music playing overhead, the sugary hazelnut aroma of the complimentary coffee. I shut my eyes and try to pry my mind loose from the toxic bog of betrayal.
There is nothing I can do with this new information, no appropriate action to be taken. What would it accomplish to get mad at Tony? Sure, he may profess his guilt, apologize, explain how "it just sort of happened," and it was nothing personal, and anyway, to say that they're "going out" is a bit of a stretch. He will be careful and contrite and hope there's no hard feelings. And I will go along, because what choice do I have? Suppose I do confront him. Suppose I unload on him, really give him a piece of my mind. He could easily turn it back on me. After all, how long did I wait to make a move? How many chances did I have? How much encouragement did he give me – and all of it rebuffed? Did I expect him to sit back and watch me pine, hoping in vain that someday I might grow a pair? Where exactly did I get the nerve to stake a claim I would never cash in? Honestly: who's the asshole here?
Anyway, it's all academic. He is the linchpin of my social circle. To raise a grudge with him would be tantamount to ostracizing myself. Forced to choose sides, they will all stick with him. Under Kim's confidence, I could never even explain the nature of my grievance. That would at least earn me a little credibility, a little sympathy. Until he won them back over, at least. And he would. Sooner or later, they'd all come around to his point of view. Not necessarily because he's right and I'm wrong, though they'd probably see it that way. They'd come around because he's their friend, and I'm just someone they hang out with. Just someone they like because they haven't yet had any reason not to. I refuse to give them that reason. I'll do anything in my power to avoid it. Which means it's business as usual with Tony. I won't even let on that I'm in on his secret. I will swallow my pride and my hurt. I will postpone the day that the truth dawns on them all, that the guy they think they know, the guy worthy of their comity and acceptance, is eventually revealed as an impostor.