Friday, November 6, 2015

Human Resources

Tulip 1

Even their small talk felt large in her mind, every word of conversation assuming a weight and import that might be measured later, when she was back home, weeding the garden or walking the dog, or performing any one of those small, mechanical tasks that allowed her to be half present and half very far away.

He was guarded with her. But then, so was she. There was a lot at risk.

"I guess we're in for a long week with the quarterly reports coming up."

"Coffee, don't fail me now."

"You're not kidding."

And that might be it.

But each small engagement arrived with its own weather system. She felt it like a swarm of bees inside a thunderstorm. At first, they'd betrayed themselves too easily. Her, by smiling too much and tucking her hair behind her ears. Him, by swallowing nervously and excessive face touching. But over the weeks, they had learned to minimize these physical slips so that any colleague watching them talk, from a distance, might infer from their body language that they didn't like one another at all. He might be standing across from her, with his arms over his chest, in a posture of male protection. Whereas she would routinely keep her hands in her pockets, tilting her head at a stiff, discrete angle that indicated nothing so much as forbearance.

But their eyes were what gave them away. They had that bright, startled look of repressed absorption. As if they were drinking not only the words that came from the other's lips, but also the glass that held them.

"When is that conference you're headed to?"

"November 13th."


"What are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

"Oh, my mom has this thing every year."

She wanted to talk forever with him. She couldn't get away fast enough. It was perfectly excruciating, if perfectly ridiculous.

And one Friday, she reached her limit. It was already late, and everyone else had escaped into the weekend. He was just finishing up the budget numbers he'd been sitting on all week. She brought him a piece of leftover birthday cake from the week's office party and sat on the edge of his desk, pushing aside a potted plant and a picture frame.

"Why are we like children here?" she blurted out, as he took the first bite.

She watched him chew the cake, a smear of white frosting sticking to the corner of his mouth. Impatient, she pressed harder. 

"I mean, why do we have to play these games? Why can't I just say what I feel when I'm feeling it? Why all the pretense, as if we were still in high school and too—too—scared of rejection to seize happiness where we can find it?"

With some difficulty, he swallowed his cake. 

"I guess I don't see it that way," he said, setting down the plate to look at her.

"You don't?"

"No." He wiped his mouth and stood up. "I think this is adulthood. "

He reached out for her, briefly taking hold of her hand. She felt the flesh of his palm biting into her engagement ring. Then the sensation was gone, and he was grabbing his coat.

"Have a good weekend, Leah."

And then he was gone, too.

"You too, Jim."