You managed to stifle a staccato 'no' when Cathy announced Greg was joining your team. You knew of Greg; you had observed his power ties and framed Ivy League bona fides. You had been subject to his good-natured monologuing that just skirted the deep well (actually) of mansplaining. You retreated to your second sanctuary; you daintily laid Gwen’s pashmina aside and sat down at her cubicle’s one extra chair.
Gwen confirmed what you had intuited: your rival company’s new district office had offered her a life preserver plus fifteen days of PTO, and she was bailing on this failing enterprise. You faced the prospect of Tuesday lunches alone and Greg’s unbridled extraversion at staff meetings. So, you clutched your too-hot novelty solar system mug. Every fraudulent social lubricant in the language of Shakespeare tripped off your tongue: Congratulations, I’m so happy for you, we should go to lunch. To celebrate.
Of course, we’ll stay in touch.
So, you ordered a cake from Publix, because Jennifer in Quality Control swore that they were the greatest of all confections. Later that afternoon, green-and-blue-and-brown glass bottles tiptoed forth like shy ballerinas – from the pantry, desk drawers, the back of the burnt-orange fridge. Cathy offered a toast to Gwen; you drank half of a too-ambitious craft IPA and set it down. Gwen thanked you for the cake but confessed over her shoulder that this was the week she had finally decided to go vegan.
Greg prattled amidst an eager crowd like a teenage magician at a child’s birthday party. Jennifer, Lyle, Sylvia, Keith, and a few others stood slack-jawed as he described playing the piano for a Halloween showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Ithaca. Your eyes met Gwen’s over the half-demolished cake, and she mouthed, Sorry.
You slunk off.
The library emailed and said your book-on-hold was ready. You told Gwen that you hoped she enjoyed the party, but you needed to leave; Good luck in the new job! A perfunctory hug and a quick bike ride later, you picked up a Curtis Sittenfeld title, went to the ladies’ room, locked the stall door, and pressed the heels of your hands into your eyes.
You stayed up too late reading and woke with a headache like solar flares. If Gwen had been there, you would have murmured, “Novel hangover,” but she isn’t, and you don’t.
Greg came to your cube and you pulled down the blinds of your face. He asked if you could update him on the project, adding, “Everyone says you’re the go-to lady.” You were uncharmed. You mapped out the project chronologically, roping off his responsibilities, creating a VIP work-retreat for one. Not without six or seven interruptions. Then you returned to fifteen new e-mails.
He asked, “But why did you start with the price point, rather than the end user?”
It’s a perfectly logical question. In pre-cynical days you might have relished the implicit slur on Cathy’s management. There’s a legitimate answer – for a medium-sized company with cash-flow paralysis, the first – if not only – question was whether the job was worth taking…and, in fairness, Cathy later charged you with retrofitting a customer-focused program plan. None of this emerges. You say, aghast at yourself, “In the best of all possible worlds…”
Greg reinstalled himself at his desk but returned – rather like Macarthur, or certain cancers. He fixated on the why, an indulgence when the project was creaking like a condemned roller coaster. With a self-deprecating eye-roll, he added, “My mother always says my worst enemy is my mouth.”
The corners of your mouth tripped upward.
Cathy called a team meeting. Lyle hadn’t finished “the nexus;” without it, other contributions were teeth unattached to a gear. Lyle whined that he needed input from Sylvia, baking in Bermuda. “How long have you known that?” Cathy demanded. Lyle mumbled something meant to be exculpatory. It wasn’t. Greg caught your eye and drew his index finger across his throat.
You knew he could see your dimple.
Greg told Jennifer about his scuba trip to the Bahamas; you absorbed it, behind the wall of your cubicle. Greg held doors for you – you motioned for him to go, but he insisted. You identified a long-missed mistake of Gwen’s and told Greg – it was your responsibility, of course. “Thank you,” Greg said, with eye-crinkling gratitude.
For a moment you had a sense of flying, soaring into the unbounded blue.
Your voice caught halfway. “You’re welcome.”
Weeks passed on two distinct time-scales: progress on the project in geologic time; moments with Greg at the vending machine hearing about his emo nephew’s garage band or his impromptu double-or-nothing poker game with his plumber, in milliseconds. Greg invited you to Panera for lunch. He treated you – “I wanted to say thanks. For getting me up to speed”.
You heard about his piquant riposte to a cringeworthy former boss over coffee, and his fruitless yearning for maternal approval during a happy hour. Sylvia sat in the break room one afternoon for a recollection of Greg’s dying grandfather, but the story was meant for you, so you acquiesced. You simply nodded when Sylvia gave you a Mona Lisa smile.
At 11 p.m. one night, Cathy cleared the final package – “putting the star on the tree,” observed Greg – and it was complete. This time bottles sprang forward, NFL cheerleaders at the Superbowl. Jennifer handed you a glass of prosecco. You found yourself next to Greg: “Cheers.” He just touched his glass to yours. “Congratulations,” he said. “They’ll definitely make you a team lead now.”
“No, you,” you insisted.
“Well…they are,” he said. “I’m transferring to Chicago at the end of next week. I told Cathy this morning. Dale – my future boss – I told him about this project –”
He did not see the corners of your mouth turn into hard little divots when he gave you a stiff one-armed hug. You remembered why you had always mistrusted anyone so verbally promiscuous, who sowed their stories like seed.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, US Diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chaleur, Burningword, Panoply, Allegory, The Write Launch, Palaver, Curating Alexandria, SunLit, Every Day Fiction, Five:2:One, Coffin Bell Journal, and Dragon Poet Review. All statements of fact, analysis, or opinions are the author's own, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.