The sphere of a man leaned over the divide between his cubicle and Scott’s. He sipped his coffee while I turned on my desktop. Every now and then I had to blink hard to get the sleep out of my eyes. A mug of coffee sounded like a good idea.
“Good weekend?” He punctuated the question with a burp.
“Ha. Uh. It was an interesting one, at least. You?”
He shrugged. “Just having a case of The Mondays.”
Last week his catch-phrase was, “Life sucks, then you die.” The week before that it was, “Another day in paradise.” Connor was a very kind and round man, but I don’t think he’d ever had an original thought in his life. Although, I guess being an accountant wasn’t the most creative of pursuits.
He sipped his coffee and smacked his lips. “Hey, by the way. Have you tried the new ‘Dark and Brooding’ coffee packets in the break room? It’s a real kick in the rear.”
“No, I don’t usually drink coffee. Is it good?”
Connor sighed as if lost in nostalgia. “Guess you can get going without coffee or tea because you’re young. But, eh, it’s alright. This one’s better than a lot of the other packets, but it still tastes like hot, dirty water.”
“Right?” He took another sip, swallowed, and shivered before going back to his business.
It baffled me why he continued to drink it when there was a Starbucks just down the street. Then again, a cup of the stuff from the break room didn’t cost thirteen dollars.
Before I could sit down and check my email, the clicks of high heels echoed from one of the nearby halls. That meant Sylvia was done with her morning meeting with the other departments. It also meant I should’ve gotten to work about ten minutes ago. Any second I expected her to call out, “Mr. Cash~!” in a steady timbre over the cubicle walls.
As I scrambled to get all my programs open to start editing documents and look over our current projects, the heel clicks stopped. It took me a second to realize that Sylvia halted at her own desk instead of moving on to mine. If not to take me off to the side for mentoring, she usually came by to say good morning to me and the rest of the team.
I rolled my chair to the entrance of my cubicle and peered outside. She stood at her desk, facing away from me toward her monitor. Her shoulders rose and fell with a sigh, which I could hear over the groan of my computer, before she sat down.
Scott arrived and asked me to help him with something before I could check what was up with Sylvia.
The rest of the day, I barely caught a glimpse of Sylvia. She didn’t mentor me about anything, didn’t come to lunch with the team, and avoided me every chance she got. If I approached her first, she promptly stood from her desk with a folder under her arm and booked it for Tia’s office. There were still a lot of questions I wanted to ask her about the documents I worked on and the pitches I wrote up, but she remained elusive. I settled for the answers my coworkers gave me, but my shift felt almost lonely without her constant guidance. I figured I should learn to work without her if I planned to stay at the company for any length of time, and toughed it out.
A good 75% of the time, I forgot her real named was Jun.
At least I learned never to ask Angela about sentence structure.
Although I renewed my attempts to ask her questions that really needed answering, the next morning was very much the same. At one point I rushed past Accounting with a folder of documents in hand to talk to her about them, only for her to duck into the CEO’s office as if she meant to go there in the first place. I dared not enter there, and she knew it, the sneaky raccoon girl. Raccoon woman, maybe? Doesn’t matter.
As I trudged back, Connor spoke up from the depths of his own cubicle. “Having trouble?”
I got a look at his desk for the first time. The interior was the filthiest I’d ever seen, with used coffee cups stacked up next to his company phone, paper plates with crumbs still on them scattered across his desk, dozens of sticky notes plastered on the edges of his monitors, and several binders stood tall against the outer wall. I was actually pretty disgusted.
But he did ask me a question. “Yeah. I just cannot get a bead on Sylvia today.” I had to leave the pitch on her desk before lunch, too.
He thought for a minute, balancing a pen on the tip of a finger. “Now that I think about it, she goes to the break room for a bit around eleven. Might be able to catch her then.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like a weird thing to know, Connor.”
The man shrugged. “When you see her walk by at the exact same time every morning for a few years without fail, it sticks with you.”
A fair point.
After thanking him and returning to my desk, I patiently waited until eleven for the telltale sound of clicking heels. Time flies when playing browser games. Following her with my ears, she rounded the corner and headed for the break room. Connor sure knew his coworkers’ habits. Creepy, but useful in his own way.
I closed my browser window and grabbed the documents before making my way over.
The break room was more like a kitchen than anything. Besides a large black refrigerator, it had two microwaves, an electric stove, and a three coffee makers, to say nothing of the plethora of cupboards everyone used to keep their snacks. In addition, five round metal tables were set up across the rest of the room. The door from the office was usually propped open, but people sometimes closed it when they had conversations inside. Jun elected to keep it closed.
Luckily for me, I was paranoid enough to have practiced opening the door silently. Interrupting people was always awkward, so getting in and out of the break room was ideal. Casually checking to see if anyone else was coming, I turned the handle with a gentle grasp and slipped inside.
It was empty except for one Sylvia, who stood at the counter with the coffee makers. Clutching a cup of piping-hot joe in her hands, she stared at the wall repeating something to herself under her breath. Each repetition sounded different in tone; one was stern, another softer, and yet another with laugh at the end.
Did she really not notice me come in?
Approaching her from behind, I let out a firm “Ahem” when I was about halfway to her.
Immediately she turned around, coffee still grasped in both hands and eyes wide as saucers. “Oh! Ah— ahem. M-Mr. Cash! What can I do for you?”
I stared at her for a moment before scratching my head. “You know, you don’t really have to keep up this act when we’re alone.”
“Ah, um. You sure? I’m fine with—”
Shaking my head, I interrupted her. “You look stressed as hell. What’s up?”
Her lower lip pulled between her teeth and her cheeks went red. I never thought I’d see such an expression on Sylvia’s face.
She twirled a loose strand of hair in a finger and said, “W-well, uh, first of all, that whole thing that happened on Friday— and Saturday, I guess— is really, really, grating on my nerves right now because, well, how do you come back from that kind of thing? And right now, Tia wants me to do all this stuff this week that I just can’t get a handle by myself. And coming back from the weekend, I don’t know if staying away from you’s the right thing to do right now or if acting normal would be the right thing to do. Today’s just so… agh!” She took a hand off her coffee cup and gripped her normally perfect straight hair.
As she looked down at the floor with a handful of hair and trembling coffee cup, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for her.
With a sigh, I put a hand on her shoulder, making her jolt a bit at the contact. Which was funny. Even hunched over, Sylvia was taller than me.
“Come on, get your shit together. You really don’t have to worry about me while we’re at work.”
“Really?” She looked up from her slouch and I could see hints of moisture dampening her makeup. “You’re not mad?”
“No, I’m— well, yeah, maybe a bit.” She looked down at the floor again and mumbled something to herself. But I wasn’t gonna lie to her about that; I was still a little miffed about her jumping all over me like she did. Being drunk is no excuse. “But seriously, that’s kid stuff. We’re at work right now. If I can act normal, then so can you. Besides, it’s ‘Jun’ who asked me out, not ‘Sylvia.’”
Her back straightened, and she wiped the tears away with dainty flicks of her fingers. “Ahem. Yes, you are quite right, Mr. Cash.” She would have looked perfectly in-character again if not for the big un-Sylvia-like grin on her face. There was an unmistakable hint of Jun in the way she smiled.
I caught my cheeks tensing up. “So anyway, I have this pitch you wanted, but I have some questions about it.”
“Oh! Of course. We can talk about it at my desk.”
Before I suggested we go back, I saw that one side of her hair was flipped upwards as if she were touching a static ball. “You might want to, uh, fix that.” I waved a couple fingers in the general direction of her hair.
Feeling at it, she promptly poked the top of her head with a thumb. Wisps of smoke briefly covered her head before clearing out. As they cleared, her hair looked like it was never touched by the hands of men. I think she even sparkled a bit.
I couldn’t help myself upon witnessing the display. “Pfff, the fuck was that?”
Sylvia’s eyes widened a little and darted around the room for something to look at besides me. “What, Mr. Cash?”
Not wanting to be too loud, I suppressed my laughter to breathless exhalations. “Is that normal, or are you just, like, really good at this disguise thing?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about, Mr. Cash.”
Ah, so that’s how she planned to do it. “Fine. Is Jun just really, really good at disguise magic or whatever?”
“Well, I don’t have many to compare her to. After all, few of her kind publicly use their skills.” She looked me dead in the eye. “But yes. She is very good at it.”
It was so blunt that I had to cover my mouth to keep my voice from echoing through the break room. “F-fucking hell, Jun. That was great.”
While I gathered myself, she stared off to the side and shuffled her feet a little. “A-are you quite finished chatting, Mr. Cash?”
“Haaa. Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”
As I turned to leave she said, “Just one more thing.”
“Did you, ahem, get the note Jun left?” She neglected to look me in the eye.
“Yeah, I got it.”
“And, is she wasting her time asking for your company?”
Ah, that might’ve been the biggest weight on her mind. “Tell her I’ll think about it.”
A perky smile spread across her lips. “Well then, with that out of the way, we mustn’t leave your work undone. Let’s go, Mr. Cash!” She marched past me and through the door in long fluid strides. There was a bounce in her step that changed the usually perfect rhythm of her clicking heels.
* * *
When Friday rolled around, I discovered Sylvia took the day off. It helped me remember the note Jun left for me the previous weekend. If she really planned to wait at The Pub in case I dropped by, did she have to mentally prepare or something?
Without her presence I worked through the day in a daze. No supervisor meant the team could goof off as long as our work was done. After sending the last of my documents to Tia, the majority of my time was spend doodling in my notebook. Chelsea and Angela chatted like a pair of hens in the cubicle behind me while Scott sifted through a half dozen browser tabs of celebrity gossip.
Overall it was a nice, lazy day to end the week. The best kind of day.
As the clock wound down to five o’clock my thoughts turned to the little letter the tanuki left me last weekend. It was still hard for me to believe that my statuesque supervisor was really so short. Gave me reason to chuckle as I stared at the clock on my computer.
She wanted me to meet her at 7 PM, right?
The seconds winded down as I thought about it. My recent paycheck got me the cash to pay for dinner and booze for a date, sure. Then again, my arms and legs felt like end-of-the-week lead. The laziness of the day affected my mind and spilled over into my weekend plans. All I wanted was to walk home and crash on the couch with some TV.
I would’ve texted her or something to say I wasn’t going to show up, but I didn’t have her (or Sylvia’s) personal phone number. If she had any amount of forethought she would’ve written her number down in her letter. Maybe she thought that would’ve been too presumptuous.
Raps on the wall of my cubicle broke me out of my thoughts in time to see Scott tell me to have a good weekend. I told him the same. Checking the time again, it was a few minutes after 5. Chelsea and Angela were still chatting, but both had their bags ready to go. I shut down my desktop and said my goodbyes before heading home. Straight home.
My evening plans weren’t set in stone, but I wasn’t about to let someone I barely knew set them for me.
I actually had to walk past The Pub on my way home. For a moment I thought I could maybe leave a note or message with the bartender what’s-her-name. But nah, too much work. Not only that, the tanuki might’ve gotten the wrong idea. Or something. I was thinking too much about it already, so I just walked on past it. Just six more blocks before home.
But that was just it; I was thinking about it. Sure, I sort of took Manni’s advice to give her a chance, but I told Jun to her face that I would not think about dating her. Then I said I would. Did that make me a liar? No, no, she was the one who gave me the option to come to the bar. I’d have to think about it to make a decision, right? Just the nature of the process of rejecting someone. You think about it, you reject them, and if they keep pushing you about it you have think about it again to reject them again. Simple as that.
That line of thought circled back on itself a few times and before I knew it I was home.
My heart dropped as I opened the door to my apartment. The stale smell and evening sunlight filled my senses. Familiar, but with a bit of melancholy. Friends hung out with me there, and a few select family members visited once, but the majority of my time there was spent alone. I wondered if it was right to so directly push away someone who wanted my company.
Taking a deep breath, I sighed the bad feelings away. “Hoo man.”
They were feelings about which I knew much. From experience I learned that a nice dinner, some TV, and a drink or two helped a lot. To facilitate that plan, I walked to the store to grab a cheap bottle of rum.
I fell asleep on the couch around 9 PM.
* * *
Saturday morning, a nice cool breeze blew through town. For once I left a window open for a bit while I got ready to run errands. With that paycheck burning a hole in my pocket I wanted to pick up and some of my stack of reserved records and maybe some groceries, too. I already ate the stuff Jun left for me.
I walked in a bit of a daze on my way to and from Starshine Vinyl and 7-11. Didn’t really talk with Manni or stop to look at anything else in his shop, either. At least the breeze meant I didn’t have to walk home with my shirt sticking to my back. On the other hand, I don’t think I would’ve noticed it with my thoughts wandering so much.
Never did I expect to feel so bad about standing someone up.
At home I opened my closet door. A shelf of nine cubby holes stood against the back, two of them filled with records propped up on their sides. Most were leftover from a relative’s collection of classical and 50s or 60s Pop. Which ones belonged to whom escaped me, but I’d listened to all of them. Between the shelf and the left closet wall was a flat record player leaning on its side; a shining modern one made of plastic and metal from Starshine Vinyl. Thirty dollars and just a little dusty.
After setting my new purchases in their own cubby I set the record player on the floor under the window and plugged it in. It occurred to me that I should get a table, be it for eating on or just a place to put the player. The record, which I picked at random, was something by Vivaldi.
As the first movement started playing, and almost instantly my phone bleeped at me. It was my text message tone. Checking it, happy violins sounding through my room, the sender was a number I didn’t recognize. I had an inkling who sent it.
Sure enough, the text read, ‘Good morning, Lennard. This is Jun. If there is anything I can do to speak with you in-person again, please let me know.’
A ball of excitement knotted in my gut. Never in my life was a girl so insistent on trying to date me. Then again, given her situation, I doubted she had many options. Reflecting on those thoughts, I was being far too understanding, and enjoying the attention far too much. If she wasn’t my supervisor I would’ve wondered how she got my number.
Persistence aside, her overly formal texting style rubbed me the wrong way. My 21st-century instincts kicking in, I started texting back as soon as I finished reading.
‘Stop being so damn businessy first.’
With the record good and going, I flopped down on my couch to enjoy the music. According to the record sleeve, it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Even before I started collecting I knew what The Four Seasons was. Made me wonder why I didn’t have it already in my inherited collection.
The next text came before the second movement started. ‘Fuck you. This is really hard already.’
I covered my mouth to keep laughter from spitting out. But what to say next? Should I joke about her difficulties with talking to me? Or maybe I should poke fun at her for taking so long to send the text?
Before I could start typing, my phone vibrated in my hand again.
‘Sorry! That wasn’t meant as an insult. I’m just frustrated.’
Understandable. I wasn’t the easiest to get along with outside of work.
I responded, ‘Did you drink your sorrows away?’ It was probably a bit mean to tease her.
Wait, why was I teasing her?
After sending it, I wondered to myself why I continued the conversation at all. I could’ve let her apology be the last one and leave her to stew in frustration and doubt. I guess I didn’t want that.
Looking around the bare room, record player on the floor and the only furniture being the couchbed and the stand for the TV, it felt emptier than usual. Thick strands of violin music filled the air, but the floor and walls were missing much. It was big enough to fit a larger bed, maybe some shelves, or a small table.
My phone bleeped once more. ‘Only a little. Not nearly as much as last time, thankfully. I might have eaten too much bar food, though.’
Ouch. Still, she impressed me with her ability to keep up the conversation despite her apparent anxiety. If we met at The Pub, I wondered how she would’ve reacted. Did she really go out alone on a Friday night? Downtown seemed like a dangerous place for a tiny girl like her to go at night alone.
That sounded like as good a question as any. ‘Did you really go alone last night?’
The stretches of silence between texts left me time to listen to Vivaldi. The violins helped me think for a bit. The more I thought about what she could’ve done lastnight, the more I thought about what might have happened if I went. Even if I decided to meet her, I wouldn’t have gone alone. I would’ve invited some of the guys from work first. Failing that, one of my two real friends. In the first place, I didn’t know whether she really planned to go or not. A case of the nerves sounded like something that could happen to her. Part of me expected her to bail, especially after a week of her ignoring me as Sylvia. In case she did indeed bail, I didn’t want to drink alone. Yeah, bringing coworkers or friends would’ve been good.
But then again, what if she did show up, like she said? Did she come as Sylvia or as Jun? Did she dress nice for the “occasion?” If she came as Jun, did she hide the ears and tail? How would I have gotten away from my coworkers without rousing suspicion?
If I saw her there, we would’ve pretended we didn’t know each other, if only to keep up the façade in front of our coworkers. Then I’d point out the young brunette cutie sitting at the bar with the girly drink. Because she’d totally have a girly drink. After refusing to leave the table and talk to her, Scott or Connor would probably have egged me on. From there it would’ve been a regular first meeting with drinks and snacks. That’s the proper way to meet someone, compared to what happened last week with the charade and trickery.
But why would go out of my way to talk to her, again? Why did I care enough to think through the scenario? Did I crave female attention so much that I’d go out of my way to talk to her? Last time I checked, I turned her down flat. On top of that, she’s a liar. Right? That fact, for whatever reason, kept being pushed into the background.
Both of my hands scratched at my scalp feverishly and my stomach tied itself into heavier knots. That was too much thinking in too short a time. Vivaldi was too good at making me think.
I was almost scared to continue the conversation. It felt like uncharted territory, even though it was just texting. Regardless, I picked up my phone to see her response.
‘Yes, I went alone. Although, I half expected you to come.’
My fingers moved too fast for my rational mind to stop them. ‘Did anyone hit on you?’ Send. The blue text bubble floated up from the bottom of the screen and added itself to the conversation.
The sweat on my back and neck tingled. “Well, crap.” Clearly part of me didn’t want to think too hard about this.
Letting my phone flop down onto the couch, I stood up and headed for the kitchen. Clearly I was dehydrated. After filling a glass at the sink, I caught my reflection in the window above it. My hair was disheveled from messing with it earlier. Stubble cropped up around my chin and upper lip from the last few days of work, when I didn’t usually shave. My lightly tanned face held a dull shine of sweat from the midday heat. Who would want to go out with this in the first place?
I let another sigh leak out of me before slumping back onto the couch with my glass. Thankfully, Jun was yet to text me back. Gave me time to sip water and gather my thoug— Bleep. Texting technology can go to hell.
It read, ‘Two men approached me at different times. Neither had good intentions, but I had trouble turning them away. Sally helped me out a lot.’ Sally? Oh, right, the bartender lady.
‘She’s a tough lady.’ Send.
Stalling. That's what I was doing. Stalling and trying not to think about the obvious. The obvious what? The obvious fact that she’s a liar? No, of course not. For fuck's sake. Just had to let go of the things holding me back. My fixation about liars would be a good start. It was there for good reasons, but I was at the end of my rope.
As I thought about turning her down for a second time, my heart sank. My reasons probably weren't good enough to keep myself from communicating with other people. Everyone lies. I lie. I lied to Jun (who was Sylvia at the time) whenever she asked if I was slacking off at work. Sure, not much of a lie, but lies all the same. And as far as I knew, Jun was nothing but honest to me ever since I “met” her.
My lungs emptied with a trickle. Staring at the device in my hand, I cracked the knuckles of my other hand against my jaw.
My last text didn’t leave her much to go off of.
‘Are you busy tonight?’ Send.
I had to send it fast, before I could stop myself. The sight of the blue text on my screen sent a streak of adrenaline through my stomach. The last time I threw caution to the wind was more than a year ago. It was just my bad luck that the choice left me the way I was. But things were different. I was older, had a new job, moved to a new place, and knew better than to go after something I didn’t need. But I was stuck alone.
And I was sick of being alone.