Wow, I am on a roll. This is my third short story this week, partially inspired by something I discussed with Mark deGuzman today. The whole thing wasn’t inspired by him, just one element of this story, which lead me to another element and another and another.
I didn’t plan this story out before I wrote it, it just sort of happened. And I’m not even sure what the real meaning of this story is, but I sort of like it.
Also, I am digging my titles lately.
I loved to watch her sweep her hair behind her ears. I loved to watch her type away at the speed of light. I loved to watch her scribble on Post-It notes.
At least I think I’d love watching her. Someday I’ll watch her. Until then, I will imagine watching her through the metal-framed, fabric wall that separated our cubicles.
Whenever people ask, I tell them that my office crush and I share an office, because we do. People just don’t realize that this single office has been separated by a wall, given two separate entrances and hooked up to two separate telephone lines.
Indeed, it seems the universe – and by the universe I mean Specific Concepts Inc., the company we work for – has done everything possible to separate me from her.
I call her Clarabelle. Doesn’t that just ring in your ear? Doesn’t that just roll off your tongue in a nice, sweet, Southern way? It rolls off my tongue too, and it’s really a shame her name isn’t Clarabelle.
It isn’t anything like Clarabelle, really. Her name is Bertha, which is probably one of the least sexually appealing names anyone could have.
Being named Virginia or Chastity isn’t nearly as bad because while you could be constantly shamed by your name into some sort of celibacy, fidelity or at the very least, some vague sense of discomfort as you become a Community Nonprofit, you could also take your name as a challenge, a dare. I have known some crazy Virginias in my time. And everyone else knew them, too, in the Biblical sense.
But naming your kid Bertha, that’s just mean.
Anyway, Bertha was really lovely in person so it would be appropriate if her name was secretly really something like Clarabelle. Since she’s Clarabelle in my mind, I guess she is in fact secretly Clarabelle, so much so that even she doesn’t know she’s Clarabelle. She just doesn’t realize that when she comes into work in the morning, I think, “Hey, here comes Clarabelle!” or that when she leaves to get some coffee I think, “Oh, there goes Clarabelle to get some coffee!” Although it’s hard to imagine that she’d ever think of herself as a Bertha.
Clarabelle/Bertha is a secretary, just like me, although we have very different functions. We work together, sort of, actually. Specific Concepts helps people design things like brochures, posters, books, and the like in ways that will make it easier for them to communicate their message. I speak with clients to get their specifications for the job and then I walk around the cubicle divider and hand my work to Clarabelle. She then contacts relevant people in our company to do the assignment. For instance, if a restaurant calls and asks for help designing a bilingual menu, I’d write down their demands and hand the information to Clarabelle. She’d then call our resident bisexual bilingual and resident food expert. We’re sort of a team.
Walking around the partition has been my only excuse to see Clarabelle and I love every chance I get to see her. Unfortunately, she now wants me to e-mail her all the client specifications and information.
While just seeing her e-mail address on my screen makes me all jittery, I really don’t get the same thrill out of it as I do in actually seeing her, hearing her light voice, perhaps brushing her hand as I give her my paperwork.
When I tried e-mailing her this morning, it just didn’t feel the same. So when I went to use the men’s room, I waited until no one was at the urinals or in the stalls and I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “You. You, you, yes – you! You will find a way to see her and make her fall in love with you!”
In case I didn’t already mention it – and I don’t think I did – Clarabelle is an intern. This means two things. One, she is automatically more appealing than any of the permanent workers because she is a timed challenge. She’ll only be here for three more months. That makes her like a built-in affair, like a bonus round on one of those game shows where you have two minutes to try to get a monkey to sit on you head and stay on your head for 10 seconds.
Two, she is an insecure soul looking for anything to hang on to. I can be that thing.
When I got out of the bathroom, I marched straight into Clarabelle’s cubicle and she asked me what I wanted, right after she pointed out that my fly was open. Having lost my nerve, I said I didn’t want anything and that I simply wandered into her cubicle by mistake.
I went back to my own side of the partition and wondered what braver souls would do in this situation. The girl of my dreams was right behind that wall, technically maybe just a foot away from me, but I felt so far away from her. I had had so many chances in the past to speak to her, ask her to lunch and tell her she was beautiful, but now she didn’t want to have to see my face just to get her work done. What if she hated me? What if she just asked me to e-mail her because she hated me coming around? Could she hear me thinking about her? Was she creeped out? What if I really did think out loud a few times or worse, what if I accidentally referred to her as Clarabelle or called her that to her face? What if someday she wouldn’t even want my e-mails anymore? If she really loathed me, would she ask me to e-mail it to someone else and then ask that person to e-mail her just so she wouldn’t ever have to see my name on her screen? What if she went home every day thinking, “Wow, just so-many weeks and so-many days and so-many hours more until I never have to see, hear or think of that guy again?” I felt like dying, like I was falling into a black hole. I could even hear the loud suction of the universe ripping apart as I vanished into oblivion.
“Yes, I ordered the arroz con pollo and a cheese empanada,. Yes, 533 Angus Road. You can come right up, I told the guard you’d be right in. Thank you, bye-bye.”
The suction was just Clarabelle opening a plastic container of food. I couldn’t see what she was having, but apparently she didn’t think it was going to be enough if she was ordering more food from Hola You Can Eat.
I closed my eyes and imagined her eating yellow rice and cutting her chicken into small pieces. She had a small mouth, so I imagine she’d have to cut the chicken into small pieces. I thought about how soft her hair looked and how it might feel if we were married and she were sitting at the dinner table and I reached across and stroked her head and said, “Honey, I hope you like the food. I ordered it from Hola You Can Eat myself.” Would we find that awkward? I might, since calling anyone “Honey” is sort of unnatural these days. It’s not the 1950s anymore.
“Hey, I ordered food for us.” She poked her head out from behind the partition. She was talking to me. To me. And she just said she ordered food for us. For us.
“Why did you order food for us?” I asked.
“Well, today is special. Today is the beginning of your new life.” She dragged her chair out from behind her desk, around the partition and sat down beside me. She wanted me. I knew it.
“So what are you going to do?” she asked.
I had no idea what I was going to do. I had no idea that she would ask something like that because I never thought anyone would say that if they wanted to start any kind of relationship with me. Also, I was still recovering from the mind-blowing realization that although I had spent the past few weeks sitting just a foot away from her and had always felt that she was a million miles away, she was now here. Here, in front of me.
The delivery boy came up and gave us the food. Clarabelle was going to pay, but I insisted that I do so.
“I don’t think that’s so wise,” she said.
“Because you’re going to need all the money you can get, won’t you?”
I almost laughed at this. She already felt comfortable enough with me to joke about financial matters. It was almost kind of sweet, actually. She just barely announced that she wanted to us to be Us and she was already imagining all the wonderful things I could buy her.
“You’re right, I will. I have to buy you the world,” I said. I tried saying it without sounding too much like a man who had desperately longed for her every hour of every day of every week of the past few months. I either succeeded in not giving myself away or didn’t come off as absolutely pathetic because she just smiled patiently, politely.
I paid the delivery boy and we sat down to eat.
“You didn’t answer me,” said Clarabelle. “What are you going to do now? I mean, I think this really could work out great for both you and me.”
I was charmed by the way she spoke about relationships as if they were business deals. “I think so too,” I said.
“Really? So you have a plan?” She went back over to her side for a second and came back with her plastic container, which turned out to be empty. She filled it with a share of the arroz con pollo.
“Yes,” I said smoothly. “Yes I do…Bertha.” I made sure to call her by her real name.
“You can call me Berry. There’s what my friends call me.”
I smiled. “Because you’re sweet?”
“No, because Bertha’s an ugly name.”
“Right,” I said softly. “So, uh, Berry – I do have plans. And in my plan, you and I are both going to be very happy.”
“You bet I’m going to be happy. I was hoping they’d hire me full time. I really need the money!”
“Wait, they’re hiring you?” I didn’t appreciate her suddenly changing the topic but was glad to know she’d be sticking around.
“Well, yes didn’t you know? What else did you think would happen?”
“I don’t know.” I really didn’t. “But I was hoping you’d get hired. You have a good understanding of what Specific Concepts needs.”
We both chuckled a bit since “We have a good understanding of what you need” was our company slogan.
“Thanks. Sorry for talking about it like I am, though, I feel sort of rude,” said Clarabelle.
“It’s okay. We’re talking about our future. So what made you want to, uh, start this with me?”
“Start what with you?”
“Oh, you mean eating together and being pals?” she said. “Well, I usually don’t fraternize with coworkers but now I can make an exception for you, although it’s not really an exception and don’t get me wrong, I’m not really going to be your best pal and go to the movies with you and call you up before I go to sleep to see how your day was or anything like that. But I just thought: you know, I should get to know you.”
“Yes, I think you should.” I was a bit hurt although I knew it was foolish to think she meant that she wanted to date me right away. I should’ve remembered that relationships take time to develop. But hey, lots of couples start out as friends.
“So where are you planning to go?” She spoke with her mouth half-full. I would’ve been offended if she were anyone else, but she wasn’t anyone else, so I found it endearing.
“Yeah. By the way, you’re taking this really well. If I were fired, I would be so angry—“
“Wait, what? I’m fired?”
“Wait…you didn’t know?” Her eyes bugged out and she blushed. I had always wanted to make her blush, see her blush, but not like this.
“They fired me!” I couldn’t believe it.
“I’m so, so sorry. When they said I would be taking your place, I thought they told you too. I’m sorry! I’m so, so, sorry.” She looked just about ready to throw herself at my feet and sacrifice her first-born child to me to make up for her mistake.
She was ashamed, actually ashamed for what she had done. Ashamed for trying to buy me lunch and see me off before I was gone forever, ashamed of never talking to me until now, ashamed of being so happy about her new job and making me redundant. Ashamed that no one loved her except someone who didn’t even know the real her, someone who was fired because his superiors were worried about his mental and emotional health, someone who loved her through a wall.
And for a second, I thought she was going to cry.
I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close to me and whispered, “It’s okay, Clarabelle, I have a good understanding of what you need.”