For the past week or so, I’ve been working on my short story, “Good Understanding,” because I thought it has some good plot potential and some interesting characters. I’d like to flesh them out more and try to figure out the speaker’s voice a little more. I am far from finished, but I might have to suspend work on this while I work on a couple Christian-oriented pieces I was asked to do. And of course, God comes first, haha!
I want to really meditate on what I want this piece to say and what its themes and motifs are. I think it has potential but it has a long way to go before it really hits home.
I realized my imagination just isn’t what it used to be so I’m trying to have a little bit more fun with my writing now. I have a lot of projects I want to work on, so I’m going to have to step up my game.
Here’s my latest revision. And, if you’re interested, the original.
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 struggle with her stapler for three minutes before giving up and using a paper clip.
It’s kind of hard to watch her through the metal-framed, fabric wall that separates our cubicles, though. And so I just imagine watching her in my head.
Whenever people ask, I tell them that my work crush and I share an office, because we do. People just don’t realize that this office is separated by a wall, accessible through two separate entrances and hooked up to two separate telephone lines.
Indeed, it seems the universe – and by “the universe” I mean our employer, “Specific Concepts Inc.” – has done everything possible to keep me away 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. That’s not really her name, though.
Her name is Bertha – one of the least sexually appealing names anyone could have.
Being named Virginia or Chastity is pretty unsexy too. It’s not but isn’t nearly as bad, though, because while you could be constantly shamed by your name into some sort of celibacy or fidelity or (at the very least) some vague sense of discomfort as certain parts of your body become – er, community property – you could also take your name as a challenge. As a dare! I have known some pretty crazy Virginias in my time. And everyone else knew them, too – if you know what I mean.
But naming your kid Bertha, that’s just mean.
I can’t bring myself to associate that gruesome moniker with such a lovely face. So when I narrate her day in my head, I make sure to refer to her using the loveliest name I could think of. 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!”
My name’s not much better. It’s George Michael. As far as monikers go, it’s pretty good – masculine, simple, classic. But I share my name with both the recording artist responsible for musical abominations like “Faith” and a paternal cousin who was the leader of a cult responsible for seven slayings and the attempted assassination of our then-mayor, Tim Lollyton-Foxgrabe. Fortunately, the mayor’s ridiculous name gives me something to laugh about and brightens my day whenever I get pulled over or detained or harassed by authorities who mistake me for cult-George. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help my “I’m the sane one. Really!” argument when I start laughing for no apparent reason.
Specific Concepts Inc. was one of the few companies that believed I wasn’t cult-George and hired me without any hassle. I am a secretary, which I thought would be awesome because I’ve always liked the idea of using fancy stationery and answering phones. Unfortunately, we prefer email over any sort of paper correspondence and as it turns out, answering the phone no longer requires the mastery of some super intimidating switchboard with dozens of flickering lights, switches and buttons.
Clarabelle is a secretary, just like me, but we have very different functions. See, we’re a graphic design company that helps people make brochures, posters and stuff. We’re not just about pretty designs or color printing, though – we’re all about clear communication. Our slogan? “We have a good understanding of what you need.” Ironically, I almost never understand what my customers need.
“I want a blue font,” one said. “Blue-green? Navy blue? Aquamarine? Cerulean?” I asked. “I don’t know, I just want blue,” they replied. I emailed them samples and of course, the first thing they said was, “No, not that kind of blue. Something darker.”
“We can make you a poster,” I told a client. “Is that all you guys do?” a man asked. “Well, we also have books, magnets, placemats, ads, stickers….” After listening to me read off our list of products for about a half-hour, he said, “OK, but I just want a poster.”
One woman asked if she could pay us using a Barnes and Noble card. When I said no, she asked why.
When I finally figure out what our clients need, I write down specifications for the job, walk around the cubicle divider and hand my work to Clarabelle so she can get the right team together. The three people she calls on most often are Professor Liam “Lippy” Leighton-Libatique, who has doctorates in five languages and is fluent in fourteen others, Doctor-slash-Chef Robb Rabe, a world-renowned food expert whose genetic engineering knowledge allowed him to create twelve new kinds of fruit, and David Copperfield – not the magician, the graphic artist.
With their forces combined, they create multilingual signage, hyper-descriptive food menus and well, magical print ads.
Clarabelle and I, we’re sort of a team, too.
But the universe – by “universe” I mean the literal universe – is finding a way to tear us further apart. For nearly half a year, I have lived only for the few moments I get to walk around that partition and see her. Now, she wants everything emailed.
While just seeing her address on my screen makes me all jittery, I just don’t get the same thrill I do when I actually see her, hear her angelic voice say, “Oh, great. More crap,” and maybe even brush my hand against hers as I give her my paperwork.
When I emailed her this morning, it just didn’t feel the same. She emailed me back – “Thank you! : )” she said. Clarabelle was practically sitting next to me and she didn’t even bother saying the words aloud, “Thank” and “you.”
Any chance I had with her was slipping away, fast.
I got up and went to 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 anyone else here because she is a timed challenge. I only have three more months to win her. She’s like a built-in affair or like a bonus round on one of those game shows where you have two minutes to try to get a monkey to sit 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, more determined than ever to make her my woman. I stood right in front of her and said, “You have something I want,” because I thought that was a real sexy, urgent way of expressing my desire.
“Your fly is open,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said. I turned around and zipped my fly like guys do in the movies when they realize their fly is open, which is kinda absurd because everyone’s already seen it open – why would you want to hide what it looks like closed? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to always be anyway?
I turned back around and there she was, looking right at me with her big, beautiful eyes. “What do I have that you want?” In real life, she said it real plain. In my mind, raw sex dripped from every word as she purred it like a film noir vixen.
“I want – I need….“ I searched for the words. “Your stapler.”
“Mine doesn’t work, sorry.” She shrugged, turned around and began typing away. Having lost my nerve, I put my hands in my pockets like guys do in the movies when they’ve lost their nerve and left her cubicle.
I went back to my 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! 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 had caught on to me. She had wised up and decided to keep me away. That’s why she wanted me to email her! Maybe she dreaded every time I came around. Could she hear me thinking about her? What if I really did think out loud a few times or worse, what if I accidentally referred to her as Clarabelle?
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 forward her my email 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!” because she hated me so much? I felt like I was being yanked into a black hole. The universe made a loud sucking noise as it ripped apart and I vanished into oblivion.
The sound was just Clarabelle opening a plastic container of food. I could smell the familiar aroma of Hola You Can Eat’s specialty – arroz con pollo guisado. Rice with stewed chicken. Clarabelle’s favorite.
I closed my eyes and imagined her cutting into her chicken. She had a small mouth, so I imagine she’d have to cut it into small pieces. I thought about her sweet, full lips, the way they always looked so soft. I thought about how soft her hair looked and imagined how it might feel if I ran my fingers through it or if we were married and she were sitting at the dinner table and I reached across and stroked her hair 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?” I asked.
“Because today is the beginning of your new life.” She dragged her chair around the partition and sat down beside me. I knew it. She wanted me.
“Really?” I had to check.
“Well, it all depends on what you decide to do and what you make of this…opportunity.” She chose her words carefully. Obviously, she had put a lot of thought into this.
Had she long longed for me the way I did for her?
“I…I have the highest hopes possible,” I said.
The corners of her mouth turned up and I knew I had given her the right answer. “So what are you going to do?” she asked.
What kind of question was that? The top three things I wanted to say in response were “Let’s have hot, passionate, intellectual conversations,” “Take you on my desk – now,” and “Vegas. Chapel. Now!” Clearly, none of those was appropriate.
Maybe I just had trouble thinking of anything to say since I was still recovering from the mind-blowing realization that the object of my desire was finally within reach. Here. In front of me.
I threw the question right back at her. “Well, what were you hoping to do?”
“Uhm, I don’t know. Make the most of it. It hasn’t been very long and I have a lot to learn about all this, but I think I can see myself…in it for the long run,” she said.
“Forever? Like, forever ever?”
I didn’t want to scare her. “I just want to know what you mean by the ‘long run.’”
“As long as I can go,” she said. I just nodded. “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.
“I mean, obviously it’s going to work out really well for me. But I’m sure there’s a lot in store for you too!”
I laughed. She thought what she had to gain was more apparent than my possible benefits – how precious! The last time someone was so ecstatic to be with me was when Agnes the Psycho – who was, if you couldn’t guess, a psycho – stalked me in college. I finally put my foot down after three months and told her no, she could not watch me get dressed through my dorm room window, make me cucumber sandwiches every day or steal my roommate’s clothes to try impersonating him. She then tattooed “George Michael broke my heart” on her back and revealed her new ink during a (gruesome) strip tease at our school talent show.
“Do you have a plan?” Clarabelle asked.
“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.”
That’s the exact word I’d use to describe it! She and I thought along the same wavelengths! We were soulmates!
“Right,” I said softly. “So, uh, Berry – I do have plans. Well, in life – I’d like to star in a Broadway musical one day.”
“Oh, that’s lovely!” She grinned wide. “Can you sing?”
“But I can dance! I can dance really well.” I saw an opportunity. “Would you like to dance with me some time?”
“Oh, no, no. I can’t dance at all. I sing, but I can’t dance,” she said shyly.
“Then we’ll make a perfect duo!”
“We’d be a perfect uno if we combined our talents,” she said. “We’d be one complete Broadway performer – we’d also be a hermaphrodite! Have you ever met one? They must have the most interesting lives. They have the best of both worlds, but they don’t. You know? They’re confused, they’re ostracized,- their world must be so difficult.” She was lost in thought for a moment, then she came back to me. “Would you ever date one?”
The possibility that she was gauging my receptiveness for her personal benefit flashed before my eyes. “Uhm, maybe. It depends. Are they hot?”
“I’m sorry. That was an inappropriate question for the workplace,” she said, chuckling awkwardly. “So after Broadway, what will you do?”
“Broadway is kind of one of my loftier goals. I don’t really think too far past Broadway.”
“After here, where are you going to work?” she asked.
“I don’t know, really. It’s hard getting work, actually –“
“Because of your – “
“Yes, because of my name.”
“Your name? What’s wrong with George Michael?” She eyed me and I knew she was waiting for me to criticize the recording artist, whom she probably loved, so she could argue with me about how great he was. I didn’t know much about how women worked, but once in a while I got wise to their ways. Then again, Clarabelle was a special case. We were in tune. In sync. I read her like a book. We were meant to be.
“It’s not about that George Michael, it’s about my cousin George Michael. See, I was named after my dad but my dopey uncle decided to name his son after my dad too –“
“So there are three George Michaels in your family?”
“Yes, but not the ones you think – my dad died, but my cousin had a son three years ago who’s his junior.”
“Can’t they think of another name besides George?”
“Couldn’t your parents think of another name besides Bertha?” I teased. She admitted that I was right, she had no right to judge. “But anyway, George Michael is a cult leader.”
“Your three-year-old nephew?” she gasped.
“No, my cousin! My nephew is their messiah.”
“Oh.” Suddenly, she didn’t want to know anything else about my family. We sat awkwardly for exactly two minutes. Really, I was looking at my watch the whole time and we said nothing for two whole minutes.
“You know I’m not like, part of the cult, right?”
“It just comes up at reunions. It’s kind of hard not to notice when hordes of people follow your nephew everywhere. He actually has these six people that carry him around on those chairs with the sticks you can use to carry people on your shoulders –“
“Right, right.” She tucked her hair behind her ear and tried not to look at me. “So, uh, what other things do you see in the future?”
“Honestly?” I looked her in the eye. “I see you and me, completely happy.”
“I really appreciate that,” she said. I didn’t expect such a formal answer. “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 at my pun on our 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.
“Where are you gonna 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.”