The temp agency was on the sixth floor of a tall glass building that looked glossy, almost glamorous from the outside. But the one-room office itself was dingy, crammed with metal desks and chipped veneer counters, vaguely demarcated with gray partition walls. I was made to wait sitting against one of these for half an hour, until I was called before Lisa, a slender woman with thin, tense lips that clashed with her expressionless forehead, probably botoxed. She looked to be in her early forties, two decades older than me. She wore an expensive gray skirt suit that seemed wasted in the cramped office, which employed just two other women, a receptionist who kept adjusting her wig and a nervous girl who rushed back and forth, making photocopies.
Lisa glanced at my resume then studied me with more care, her eyes pausing over the unironed legs of my pants. She said that her office really handled only administrative, data entry type jobs. I said that was exactly what I was looking for. She pursed her lips. I said $10 an hour was all I expected. She looked unconvinced but assigned me a battery of tests.
I was great at typing and getting around Microsoft Word, but was made to retake the data entry and Excel assessments until my scores were deemed adequate.
When I left, it was mid-afternoon. There was a Whole Foods across the street; I went in and picked out “natural” Oreos. I opened the package while walking to the car and ate as I drove home. Then I got back into bed and unpaused the Dexter episode streaming on Netflix. “But it’s not that simple,” Dexter said. “I have a code. Rules. Responsibilities.”
I’d seen all the episodes before, but rewatching them, I felt a predictable, wallowing comfort.
I hadn’t always been this way. Until a month ago, I’d done just fine at a new tech company that did IT work for all the internet startups popping up. Basically, I was an assistant there, but after learning I was an English major, my bosses, three MBA grads from UCLA, slapped me with the title Corporate Communications Manager and had me write copy for their website, which I cribbed from other web sites. This title was why Lisa thought me overqualified. When the company went belly up in the dot-com crash, I thought I’d try freelance writing. But on my own, I fell into a funk. I woke up at 5 a.m. one morning, 2 p.m. the next. I ate junk food. It was tough to get motivated, and tough to find gigs. I picked up just a trickle of assignments, churning out rewrites of press releases for soft news websites. I started to fantasize about menial jobs. I wanted to file, photocopy, and collate, to stick neatly typed labels on folders before alphabetizing them by last name in long, metal file cabinets, even to spend quiet afternoons segregating paper clips by size. That’s how I’d found myself at the temp agency.
The next day, Lisa called mid-morning with my first job, a one-day gig at a law office in West Los Angeles that needed an assistant to come in immediately. “It’s a traditional firm,” Lisa said, “so what you wore when you interviewed here—something like that would be fine.” I said I could be there in an hour; she said she’d tell them two, then hung up. I mussed around the bed for that interview outfit and found the pants wedged between the sheets.
Lisa was right; I hurried but still got there at the two hour mark. The job was in the billing department. A mousy girl about my age gave me two stacks of papers; I was to match the check stubs with the invoices. I don’t think I really helped much; most of the stubs had little identifying information, so I kept having to ask the girl for help. The actual task too seemed pointless, circular; I asked the girl what happened to the paired papers and she shrugged and pointed to a file cabinet. It stood big and pristine in its corner, like a readymade in a museum. “No one ever looks in there,” she said. She seemed to like me though; perhaps she liked having an underling, or was lonely. At the end of the day she said if it were up to her, I’d be hired full-time. The department really needed to make this a permanent position, she said, then signed and faxed my timesheet for me.
My second job was at the small management office of a high-rise office building in El Segundo. It was a two-day gig, ten to three each day. I validated parking tickets and transferred the occasional phone call to one of the three employees. The manager was a friendly, overweight man. At noon he asked me if I wanted the banana his wife had packed for him; it had freckles, which he found unappetizing. I took it and thanked him. There was little for me to do, the phone calls were so far and few between that I wondered why they didn’t just answer their own calls, but when I packed up for the day the manager said, “We really should have someone here full time. I’ll talk to Maira about it in the morning.”
Maira was the boss. “I’m not sure,” I said the next day, when she asked what my long term plans were.
“I just don’t want someone who’s going to leave in six months,” she said in a haughty tone. When I said I understood, her eyes widened, then turned hard. She gave me a sharp nod and clicked her heels back into her office.
Lisa called me on my way home. “They’d like you back next week, but I’ve got a full-time thing for $12 an hour too,” she said. “It’s an ad agency. Temp to hire.”
I took it. When I hung up I felt an anxious sort of happiness. Two companies had wanted me. As I drove my mood swung erratically, giddy one moment, then self-satisfied to the point of being sardonic, then flaily and frantic with apprehension.
On Monday I got to the agency a little before nine. The office had a sleek, modern look, like it had recently gone through an expensive remodel. At the reception desk sat an Armenian girl who held her face tilted down under the weight of her heavy high ponytail. She looked sixteen. When I introduced myself she buzzed someone, then kept smiling at me until I turned away to study a well-trimmed fern.
A middle-aged woman called Maureen came out and shook my hand. She asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting a bit. “A few fires to put out this morning,” she said, wagging her hands around her face, eyebrows raised. I figured I would still get paid. I took a seat on a white leather divan and picked up a copy of Ad Age. Less than five minutes later Maureen was hovering over me. “Ready?” she said, grinning.
The job consisted primarily of emailing project drafts to the creative team, then circulating hard copies of the same, though no one looked at the printouts except the copyeditor. I walked through the quiet office dropping papers into plastic inboxes. The soft, middle-aged geniality of the employees clashed with the sharp image I’d had of creative ad agency types. The women wore busy polyester blouses and skirt suits made with dense, no-iron fabric. Their kids’ crayon drawings fidgeted on the cubicle walls. The head writer was a stringy man in his sixties who ran during his lunch break in purple shorts, dodging pedestrians. He tipped an imaginary hat to me whenever I passed his cubicle. Next to him sat the production manager, a heavy woman who drank constantly from a Starbucks cup but still always looked bleary-eyed.
I decided I liked them all, the whole team, in a passive, untaxing way, though I wondered how they’d been hired, if they’d all come in to their initial interviews with the same fusty clothing and droopy attitudes they displayed now. The only artsy-looking person was the copyeditor, a guy in his mid-thirties called Roy, who had a toned-down Mohawk. He always had his earbuds in; he smiled hazily when he saw me. Maureen said he was newly married. “He got the haircut right after the honeymoon,” she confided in a low voice, then asked me to email him to check if black and white proofs would do.
To me the office seemed a peaceful place, where I could wallow in its drab, noncompetitive spirit.
When I got home that night I felt calmer than I had in a long time, then the next morning, oddly energized, purposeful. I drank extra coffee and drove to work with an eager, curious attitude. The traffic was unusually light so I arrived a half hour early with a sense that the world had cleared a new path for me. I felt willing, confident. I would beat this junk food habit once and for all. I went into a juice bar on the first floor and ordered a fruit-and-greens smoothie to go. Afterwards, a woman holding a yogurt parfait cup the same way I was holding my smoothie got on the elevator with me. We smiled at each other. I thought positive, encouraging thoughts about the cumulative rewards of diligent work. I felt like I was coming out of a long sleep to join the good people in the world, all with their crucial small roles to play. When the parfait woman got off before me, I said “have a good day,” and she said “you too.”
“Well, hello!” Maureen said when she got in, her head bobbing over our shared cubicle wall. “Usually I’m the first one here!”
She gave me more drafts to circulate.
By noon that day, I realized there wasn’t much for me to do. Now that I was set up, the job really came down to a couple hours a day. I scuttled about the office trying to look occupied. I stretched things out, drinking glasses of water between tasks, sorting the recycling in the copy room. I spent inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom, sometimes sitting on the toilet, but mostly standing in front of the mirror, picking at my reflection without purpose. Whenever another woman walked in, I gave her a wide grin through the mirror, like I’d been hoping she’d drop by. Usually, the women flashed back equally big, friendly smiles, even the ones that had never met me. Some introduced themselves and we made pleasant, meaningless conversation and inexplicit plans for lunch sometime in the far future. In this way I started some small friendships based on idle gossip. The boss Brian had just bought a Tesla, I learned, though no one had gotten a summer bonus that year. Roy the copyeditor had called in sick. At first people speculated that he’d gone to Burning Man, but then the news came that he’d gotten his appendix removed.
The day dragged by this way until I finally ended up asking Maureen if there was anything else she needed help with.
Maureen looked up, surprised. “You’re so much faster than the last girl!” she said. “We’re going to run out of things for you to do!”
I smiled uneasily.
“Let’s see here.” Maureen turned, eyes scanning about her desk. “Well, everything else is really—I mean, this is really unexpected.” She opened her email and started clicking around frantically. “Let’s see, let’s see.” Then she stopped, and looked up at me. “Do you like driving?”
“Driving?” I said blankly, then nodded slowly. “Sure.”
“Well it’s just that we’ve got this for Roy,” Maureen put her palm on a stack of proofs on her desk, “and this late in the day it’ll be hard to get a messenger to go all the way to West Hills. Where do you live?”
“It’s okay, I’ll go,” I said.
“Are you sure? I know it might seem a little—beneath you—but sometimes I deliver proofs too, in a pinch.”
“I don’t mind, really. I like driving.”
“Keep track of the mileage. And just call it a day afterwards. We’ll say you were here until six.” She winked.
When Roy opened the door his Mohawk was matted and skewed left, giving him the attitude of a truant child woken up from a nap. He was holding an empty CD jewel case. As soon as he saw me he reached to take over the heavy stack of proofs, and in doing so, dropped the case. It bounced on his front step, cracked loudly into two flaps, then bounced again, less tendentiously, to land on the lawn.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I don’t need it.”
“Really?” I said. “Okay.”
I picked up the pieces and followed him in. The house was airy and furnished with pale natural wood, spare and blocky, vaguely Japanese. Tinny music played, barely audible. At first I thought it was coming from another room, then realized it was the earbuds, plugged into the laptop on the coffee table. “What are you listening to?” I asked, then wished I hadn’t. I probably wouldn’t know the band.
Roy set the stack down next to the laptop, then sat down on the couch, carefully, which reminded me about the appendix. He pulled the earbuds out of the laptop and soft, synthesized music came out the speakers. A whispery female voice breathed out a spare, three-note melody that hovered over haunting open chords. The effect was probing and plaintive, like a reminder of an intense, past longing I’d almost forgotten about. Roy looked at me with his usual subdued smile. I smiled back. At this he ejected his CD drive and handed me the CD. The music played on. “You can have it,” he said. “I just ripped it.”
“Are you sure?” I said, taking it. Inwardly, I was elated. Though he’d offered the CD to me off-hand, I felt his gesture showed he thought me one of his kind, the kind that knew about new music genres and underground indie bands. Roy nodded. He clicked on his laptop like he was going to change songs, but then he didn’t, just scrolled. His expression was that of loose concentration, like he was really thinking about the music. He was wearing well-worn jeans and a dark brown T-shirt that said “Life is Golden.” Both looked thrown on. I wondered if he’d been out late the night before. I pictured him at some intimate music venue I’d heard of but never been to, wearing this same expression as he listened to an up and coming singer-songwriter. I imagined him sticking around after the show, having a serious conversation about the state of the recording industry with the performer, drinking obscure craft beers and getting home around three. Or maybe he got in at dawn, and had just woken up. At this point I realized I hadn’t figured Roy’s wife into my scenario. I started to picture what she might look like when Roy reached for the stack of proofs and began to leaf through the papers abstractedly.
“I don’t know why they send me this stuff,” he said. “I can just look at it online.”
He said this in an inward, wondering tone, but I instantly felt chastened, like I should have known not to bring them, not to take part in this meaningless bureaucratic task. I looked down at my lap and saw the awkward way I was holding the CD and the broken case, one in each hand. I put the CD between the pieces, then held the case closed with two fingers. I was about to get up when Roy spoke again.
“They really shouldn’t be making you do this,” he said, this time sounding collusive and empathetic. “Maureen always puts off calling the messenger, then it inconveniences other people.”
This mollified me. “It’s okay,” I said. “I like driving.”
“I just don’t want you to think you have to like, do everything everyone on the team wants you to do. You can push back, if you want. We’ve had a lot of turnover, in your position. For a while we just had to make do with temps and then things really fell through the cracks.”
“Oh,” I said, mortified. “I’m actually a temp. I mean, temp to hire.”
“Oh really?” he said. “Sorry, I didn’t know that.” He paused to think for a minute, then smiled. “I hope you’ll decide to stay.”
I was flattered that he thought it was my choice. “I want to,” I said. “Everyone seemed so nice.” Then I cringed. I hadn’t meant to sound so kiss ass. To mask the cringe I put on a grin. I tried to make it look enthusiastic but could tell from the pull of the skin that it probably looked jumpy and uncomfortable.
He didn’t seemed to mind though. In fact he seemed a bit self-conscious himself. “Thanks,” he said, his voice sincere and small.
On the way home I started wondering if maybe I did actually want this job for real. Obviously, it was a step down, but maybe it would pay okay once I was brought on full time, and this team assistant thing seemed to be what I was capable of right now. I liked that no one expected too much of me. I imagined Roy coming back to the office and how we might become friends, the young, cool duo at the agency with apathetic expressions and exploratory haircuts. I considered asymmetrical bangs.
The next afternoon, I actually asked Maureen for Roy’s proofs. I left even earlier, around half-past three, and when Roy opened the door, went in boldly. He got me water, and when he did he poured a glass for himself too. We sipped quietly, indie rock on low on his laptop, the shared gesture of drinking somehow intimate and liquescent. We sat close together, almost touching, chatting about the proofs as he paged through them indifferently, methodically.
Then he said, “This is boring.”
I shut up.
“No, I mean,” he hesitated. “We don’t have to talk about work.”
“Okay,” I said uncertainly. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me to leave. I looked up at him and realized he wasn’t. His face was suddenly quite close to mine, though his eyes still had that indolent expression, like he wasn’t going to make anything happen but was fine with whatever might.
“Did you like The Supplies?” he said.
It was the CD he’d given me. “I did,” I said in as neutral a tone as I could muster up, acting as if I didn’t notice he’d closed up the space between us. Of course I was panicked and surprised. I’d badly wanted his approval, maybe even had a bit of a crush on him, but I really hadn’t considered that he might really want to start something up with me. I’d actually spent the entire evening before listening to the album, trying to come up with intelligent things to say about it. I’d dug around online to read about the band on Pitchfork, but that had confused me further. The album reviewer seemed more interested in showing off how urbane he was than giving readers a clear sense of the music. He started with a quote from an alt lit writer I hadn’t even heard of, then compared The Supplies to a whole bunch of bands I didn’t know. After a while I gave up and went on MySpace to listen to the band’s older songs, but I couldn’t tell these tracks apart from the new ones. I’d gone to sleep with the CD on, hoping to internalize it through osmosis.
“I liked the looping minimalist patterns,” I said, rehashing what I’d read in the review. “Sorry, I forgot to bring it.”
“No, you can keep it.” He pointed at his laptop. “I’m trying to digitize.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I felt uncomfortable. My long-ingrained, self-conscious self was wrestling with the newer, more nonchalant self I wanted to become. I leaned back against the couch to seem more relaxed. When I did our shoulders touched inquiringly. I twisted slightly towards him. He was looking at me, the edges of his soft breaths reaching out to skim my face. He smiled and I smiled back. Then he leaned in and kissed me.
We kissed for close to half an hour. He moved his face in a calm, practiced way that almost felt like he was teaching me how to kiss. There was a patience to it that I was unaccustomed to, none of the sloppy, drunken overeagerness of the guys I’d hooked up with in college. In moments Roy’s hold on me felt deep and involved, but overall it was more sensitive than sensual, somewhat tentative, with an underlayer of friendly apathy. There was no pressure or context. We were like moles, nuzzling against each other in a soft, burrowing way, blind but willing to communicate. Sure, I tried to tell him with my lips. No big deal.
When I left I felt a quiet, focused sort of exhilaration. We’d made out high school-style but I felt I’d accomplished something, that I’d grown up, his marriedness somehow adding to my subdued elation, as if I’d gone through some long-awaited rite of passage. It was the beginning of something bigger and longer, I could tell, by the fact that we’d only kissed, like we were capping the end of a good first date. It’s a little pathetic to think about now, but at the time my experience with Roy was the most real relationship I’d had in a long time, the kind where you actually met up during the day and talked about work and shared music you liked.
The next morning at the agency I was kindlier towards everyone. Maureen gave me proofs and I went about the aisles floatily. Afterwards Maureen invited me into her cubicle and taught me how to create PDFs from Word documents. I knew how to do this, but I let her show me because she seemed happy to do so. When her phone rang she motioned for me to stay in her cubicle. It was her husband. “He wants to try to leave early today,” she said when she hung up, “so it looks like I need to work through lunch.”
“Anything I can do to help,” I said, and she waved her hand like she wouldn’t think of burdening me, but was still grateful that I’d offered. I noticed that she was wearing two different earrings, seemingly on purpose, a star stud in one ear, then a bigger, dangly star in the other. I complimented her.
“Oh, these,” she said tugging at her earlobes, embarrassed but pleased.
This seemed to open a small door in her. Until then Maureen’s attitude towards me had been that of a kindly governess, treating me like a delicate fawn to be gently guided through a scraggly maze of corporate traps. Now, she seemed to see my potential as a colleague-confidant. She started popping her head over the cubicle wall throughout the day. “One more thing,” she’d say, and mention some random office protocol I might find useful later, then share tidbits of her life.
I learned Maureen had joined the firm as a receptionist when her kids were still young, and for eight years, took evening classes at Cal State Northridge until she earned her bachelors, which got her promoted to her current position. Now, her three sons were all in community college, all still living at home in Oxnard. They were prone to quitting things: Baseball teams, geode collecting, conversations with army recruiters. The animated, worried tone she took talking about her boys made them sound troubled and dangerous, but in reality they seemed simply undermotivated, destined for blue collar work. I could imagine them spending long afternoons stretched out over their unmade twin beds with Playstation controllers, playing Final Fantasy X.
In the past I might have been contemptuous, but listening to Maureen I felt an indulgent, benevolent warmth. Perhaps her kids would go on to fill small, necessary roles in society, laying bricks and fixing sewage systems, helping people hook up their cable internet.
Driving to Roy’s that afternoon I felt a connection to everyone I saw, a deeper sort of understanding about our relatedness that didn’t need to be defined in concrete, hierarchical terms. I took time to notice the people inside the cars, their little fidgety preoccupations. Here we all were on our various paths, which weren’t so much paths but rather oneiric somnambulations, bumping gently along in the manner of benign bacteria. This is the attitude I should have had all along, I thought, just saying yes to whatever wanted to happen, not in an overt or grabby way, but in a more acquiescent, shrugging manner.
Once I got to Roy’s, I tried to adopt that attitude for our makeout session. I felt our need to be close to each other had its own quiet sense of urgency, but when we actually started touching, there was an affectedness to the encounter. He didn’t push me, and I wasn’t going to push him, so after making out for a while the kissing didn’t stop so much as just fade out, until we were just sitting, breathing, and we started to talk in calm, muted tones. In a way this seemed more adult to me, like we were in control of ourselves. It also felt like a passive dare, a weird game of chicken to see who could hold out longer. We talked about music, or rather, he talked, in an offhanded way that made it seem like he assumed I knew what he knew. He used phrases like “fluid atonality”; he compared one singer’s voice to Argentinian Malbec. Radiohead was mentioned at times, but only as a basis for comparison for other bands, not as a topic in itself. I nodded along. Roy liked repetitive, cerebral stuff, and for long minutes we just listened to songs, our bodies in slack contact. When the clock said six, he sat up slightly, and I left. I figured his wife came home soon after that, though neither of us ever mentioned her.
At night, in bed in my apartment, I replayed the afternoon in my mind and masturbated. For some reason it took me a long time to come, as if the dawdling way we made out transferred itself to my masturbating. I ran out of memory tape and was forced to start fantasizing. My fantasy had us go to a concert at The Echo. The Echo was all the way in Los Feliz but in my imagined world we took a short walk there holding hands, then stood in line in limpid postures of indifference. Once we got inside we made out in the corner, in much the same manner as we made out at Roy’s place, except it was sweatier, from the heat of the crowd. The Supplies played, and live, the band had a more thrumming, insistent beat that urged us on, so that even just kissing, eventually we came, or at least I did, standing pressed against Roy, quietly and secretively and in rhythm.
In the office on Friday though, my imagination was more sedate, realistic. I tried to puzzle out how we would make it work, this affair, once Roy got back into the office. It would probably be easier for him to come to my place after work, I thought, so long as his wife wasn’t nosy about how he spent his time. I sketched out a little diagram of my apartment and imagined how I might redecorate to make the place appropriate for the assignations. Right now my place had a dorm room look. I had to get rid of the plasticky furniture.
I started planning an overhaul, but then got distracted wondering why Roy hadn’t tried to sleep with me. When we made out he would run his hands over my body, but only tentatively, without getting probing or forceful. Was he waiting for some sign from me? Or was it because we were technically coworkers? Maybe our well-mannered make-out sessions were his way of drawing boundaries, albeit soft and mushy ones, a way for us to enjoy each other but also avoid repercussions.
Yet I couldn’t imagine Roy being this calculating or clinical. His attitude lacked that kind of shrewdness. I imagined him in a courtroom, giving the jury a shrug. Call her my lover if you want, it would say. Plus, the lack of sex was titillating in its own right. I struggled with it but didn’t necessarily want to change it. In this way I kept sending myself in thought spirals, and then got annoyed myself for stressing at all. There was something old-fashioned and juvenile about my wanting to figure this out, to define and understand what was happening in fixed terms, I thought. Let it be, I told myself.
That afternoon Maureen gave me the proofs at noon. “We have another blueline,” she said. “A one-pager. This one, we have to get to the printer tonight. If you leave now,” she looked at her watch, “you should be back in plenty of time.”
I felt my face fall. This completely ruined how I thought the evening was going to go with Roy, but of course I couldn’t say anything. I took the stack from Maureen without comment. She must have sensed my unhappiness though, because she added, “It’s a quickie, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long. You’re keeping track of the mileage, right?”
“Yeah,” I said in a mumble. I shuffled back into my cubicle and morosely picked my car keys out of my purse.
Maureen looked over our shared wall. “Sorry about this,” she said. “Really, you’ve been such a good sport about all the driving. This’ll absolutely be the last time. Roy’ll be back in on Monday.” She paused. “I mean, who takes a whole week off for a simple appendectomy?” She laughed apologetically.
I got to my car in a huff, both angry and anxious. What if this was our last time together? I’d spent a lot of time picturing us tangled loosely on his couch, making quiet but precise plans for future rendezvous, and now there’d be no time for that. Would we find a way to talk about this stuff at work, after he returned? Or would this rushed last meeting end up making things awkward between us, putting a weird end to all of it?
Once I started driving though, I started to calm down. It dawned on me that I could just make up an excuse to not go back to work. I could call Maureen at five and blame the traffic, or say I got in an accident. Or I could bring Roy into it. He could tell Maureen the proof just took a lot longer than expected, and give her his edits over the phone. I’d heard Maureen do this before, though only with Brian the boss. Debating these options, my mind worked furiously the whole way there, and by the time I got to Roy’s place I was filled with a woozy uneasiness. I felt bolder, but scared about it.
Roy too seemed bolder, with a more solid set to his face. His attitude greeting me was different, slightly assertive. This made me nervous enough that going in the door, I tripped and dropped the proofs. They scattered into a loose semicircle around his feet.
He gestured for me to leave them. “Come here,” he said. His voice had its usual blasé tone, but when we started kissing I knew it was going to happen this time. We went into his bedroom and sat on his futon-like bed. As we took our shoes off I thought, I’m about to have a real affair, with a married guy. The thought was oddly more tantalizing than the actual feeling of the moment, which Roy still imbued with indolence. I tried to hide my enthusiasm. To appear too willing would be uncool, I thought, taking on Roy’s M.O.
We lay down. As we started kissing again I grew self-conscious about my body and its newish junk food weight. I tried to wiggle out of my shirt, but it was tight and this didn’t work well, so I had to sit up again. When I did I took off my bra too; it had ridden up uncomfortably in the struggle. Inelegantly, I lay back down.
He sent a cautious hand over my breasts, like he was gauging their size, though without judgment. He let his hand trail down under my skirt and slipped it under my underwear. I was surprised at how wet I was. It embarrassed me, because it revealed how badly I wanted this. To counter that I closed my eyes and tried to make as little noise or movement as possible. Still, after just a few minutes I came, the orgasm sharp but also strange because I tried to mask its intensity, the sensation swelling to fill me, but released only in a fearful, hesitant manner, which came out in quick bursts I couldn’t control. Afterwards I was left feeling an exhausted sort of tension, both closeted and exposed.
This didn’t seem to bother him. He took my underwear off and got on top of me. He entered me first, then we wriggled each other’s clothes off, like it was an obligatory step to completing the affair properly. Once we were naked there was a rhythmic, careful quality to the way he moved above me, the same quality he’d had when touching me, and I think it was that detached concentration that turned me on, though I couldn’t articulate why, and though through it all I felt powerfully anxious, afraid and excited that I might come again.
It ended just before I did. Afterwards we lay beside each other for a few minutes. He petted my hair distractedly, the intimate way one might a child’s while remaining focused on some other task. Then he got up, pulled on his boxers, and brought me a glass of water.
“Thanks,” I said.
He smiled, and went back out, maybe for a glass for himself.
I lay back, sipping. I surveyed the room for clues. It was a semi-dark space, the blinds drawn, sparsely furnished like the living room. On the side table there was a small watch, a woman’s, face down. Beside it was a digital clock; it read 14:42. There were no pictures around, which I thought was odd. Clearly he liked his life neat and organized. Laying there, I felt good, like a carefully sharpened pencil perfectly fitted into its pencil case. Maybe we’d end up spending more time here. He didn’t seem to have any qualms about having sex with me in the bed he shared with his wife. Or maybe this meant he didn’t care if she found out, and this whole thing would move faster than I thought. Maybe I’d end up moving in. I tried to picture myself living here, and decided I’d like it, the austere walls, the cool floors. I could get rid of my furniture altogether.
I let my mind wander this way until I realized Roy had been gone for a while. I slid my legs over the side of the bed. I thought about calling him, but it seemed too obtrusive in the zen space. Instead I pulled off the top sheet and wrapped it around me like they do in the movies, then sashayed out, the sheet fanning out behind me like a wedding dress train.
He was sitting on the couch, bent over the blueline.
After a minute, he looked up and saw me. His expression tensed for a second, then returned to its neutral position. “I’m almost done,” he said.
I stood quiet for a bit, coming up with a response. “I didn’t know you were working out here,” I said finally.
“It’s due today,” he said, turning his eyes to the proof.
Something about the way Roy looked away from me brought up an intense sense of déjà vu. Suddenly I was back in college again, walking into economics class. In the middle of the back row sat a guy I’d hooked up with once, a cute guy I’d been stunned had picked me, he’d had his options at the frat party. Of course we never talked again after that incident, though we saw each other every morning in class. When I entered he’d already be sitting there, blandly watching the door. The first few days our eyes met, and he turned his face away like he was bored, his expression impassive save a hint of a derisive smirk. Each time this happened I felt I’d somehow pestered him and gotten rejected anew. I started bracing myself on my way to class, preparing, deliberately fixing my gaze at a different direction as I walked in. But once in a while I forgot, and I had to see that dismissive, insolent look on his face again.
That was Roy’s attitude now, working. Watching him I started getting that Groundhog Day feel, like I was watching my life was on a loop. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of tired resignation.
Then it occurred to me: There were no classmates watching, no one else for me to be self-conscious about.
I didn’t realize this consciously so much as sense it, but sense it I did, because instead of retreating back into the bedroom and leaving demurely, I kept standing there. I started really watching him, hard. And as I bore my eyes into him, I could sense a shift in him too. He was still pretending to mark things, but I could tell by his cultivated concentration that I was frightening him.
“That’s right,” I said. “Maureen said five at the latest.”
I stared at him until finally, he looked up. When he did, he gave me a shaky smile.
“Look, this—We’re cool, right?” he said. The voice he used was a firm, I know we can be adults about this tone. But I saw the alarm in his eyes.
I smirked. “Just try to make it quick,” I said. I went into the bedroom to get dressed.
When I got back to the office Maureen grinned at me and held out both her hands for the proof like a greedy kid. “Ah, finally,” she said. “After this, we’re done for the week.”
I tried to smile back at her but I knew it didn’t looked right. I’d decided I wasn’t coming back, but didn’t have the heart to tell Maureen face to face. She’d been so sweet to me. I had the sense she’d take it personally, especially since I couldn’t come up with a good reason to give her for quitting. I turned away and started collecting my things, dropping them into my purse. My hand was on auto-pilot. I threw in a notepad, a post-it stack with some scribbles on it, a staple remover. The last of these I fished back out quickly and replaced on the cubicle desk.
“What’s wrong?” Maureen asked.
“Nothing,” I said, in that offhand tone I’d been refining. “What do you mean?”
“Did everything go okay at Roy’s?”
“Sure.” I shrugged unconvincingly.
She paused. “Sorry to make you make that trip, in Friday traffic.”
“It’s no trouble,” I said. But I could hear the tension in my voice, strangled and passive-aggressive. So I kept talking. “It was actually a nice break from the office,” I added.
“Well, he’ll be back in the office Monday,” she said. After that she disappeared behind her cubicle wall and stayed quiet there for the last hour of the work day. Still, when six o-clock rolled around she came around again and said, “So, have a good weekend.” At that I got up and gave her a big goodbye hug, which she returned warmly. Afterwards she raised her brows comically and said, “Monday will be here before we know it,” as if to break the tension from our moment of connection. We walked to the parking lot together making small talk, then waved to each other driving away.
On my way home I thought about stopping at a 7-Eleven for ice cream, but resisted. I was better than that. Instead, I called Linda. I’d planned to leave a message but she surprised me by picking up. I told her I wasn’t going back Monday.
“Why?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I’d just like something different.”
There was a short silence, then she started in. “You know, it may seem like you have your pick of jobs out there, but it’s really not like that. You’re putting me in a—It’ll be hard to feel comfortable, sending you out on new jobs, if you’re just going to suddenly quit like this whenever some little thing isn’t to your liking.”
I took this in. “Look,” I said. “There was this creepy guy, alright? I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Her tone changed. “Oh, I didn’t realize,” she said. “That’s terrible, terrible. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
“Sorry about what I said earlier. We take this kind of thing really seriously. You’ve read our materials . . . ” her voice trailed off. “If you want to really address this, we can do that. You’re not powerless here. We take the welfare of our employees really seriously.”
“No, no,” I said. “No, nothing like that.” I paused. “I just want to leave before anything like that happens.”
“Okay,” she said. She sounded puzzled, but mostly relieved. I think she was curious to know more, but not if it was going to create paperwork. When she spoke again, her tone was almost maternal. “We’ll find you something else,” she said. “I’ll call you Monday.”
“Something with writing,” I said, then added, “if you can.”
Once I hung up I wondered if Lisa would say anything to Maureen about this whole alleged sexual harassment thing. I decided nothing would come of it, and that even if it did, no one would suspect Roy. How could they? Looking at him objectively now, I could see him as he was—somewhat effete and asexual-looking, too passive and lackadaisical to force anything on anyone. It was almost strange, what you could see so clearly once you detached from a situation. I was tempted to obsess about why I’d gotten so into him, but I didn’t. I had my own life to worry about.
I realized the traffic on Pico was a lot worse than usual. I wondered if there was an accident or construction. Right then, a cyclist went by my window. Then another, and another. I looked up ahead and saw that a couple cyclists were blocking the intersection so the others could get through safely. I looked behind me; there were close to fifty cyclists, weaving jauntily through the lanes.
All the cars were now at a complete standstill. Most of the cyclists moved fairly slowly, careful not to scrape the cars with their handlebars, though a few raced through on their fixies, gleeful and foolhardy. Watching them, the drivers went from angry about the delay to resigned, then curious and friendly. They started lowering their windows; mine was already open because my AC had gone out a few months before.
“Hey, let’s trade,” said a guy in a convertible to a trio of girls scooting through on beach cruisers. They giggled by. “What are you protesting?” the woman in the Corolla next to me asked animatedly, like she might get out to join. “Nothing,” a tattooed guy in spandex told her. “It’s Critical Mass.”
The woman looked around with alert, manic eyes, like she was anxious for something to happen. Then she pointed. “Hey, I’ve seen you already,” she yelled at a cyclist a lane away. “You just went by.”
“It’s a Dada-themed ride,” he said. “We’re going in circles.”
“On purpose?” she said, but he was already gone.
It was dusk. We all sat and watched the cyclists like the audience at a drive-in theater. The experience had the stretched-out, dreamy quality of a Godard film, but the whole thing really only lasted only a few minutes; the Dadaists must have decided to move the circle. Traffic started inching forward again. A few straggling cyclists still struggled in the lanes and the cars were genial towards them, slowing to let them wheedle through. Pedaling on, they yelled thank yous and waved, grinning widely like they were the stars of the show.
When the riders turned the corner, the whole block of drivers swiveled their heads to watch them go, though we knew they were headed nowhere, happy and free.
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