Fiction, Vol. 5.3, Sept. 2011
As if we didn’t know. A blind person would’ve caught on to that flirting. A married woman, with a toddler in the house, and here she was acting like the new guy’s own personal cheerleader. Brewing him coffee, bringing him pens, showing him the secret stash of colored Post-Its we keep in the back of the supply closet. Somebody finally tore a picture of some pom-poms out of the sports section in the breakroom and taped it up in her cubicle with a little penciled caption—“Claire’s props.” This was before the rumor that they were caught holding hands.
It was nobody’s surprise when she came in that day all white-faced, no “good morning,” no “how was your weekend,” just sets down that big red bag of hers and says, real quiet, “I have to move out of my house.” And when we ask if she means, with your husband and Isabelle, like we didn’t know, she bursts out laughing and crying at the same time, which turns her face all blotchy and makes snot spurt out of her nose, which some of us find just a tad melodramatic, considering.
Now, there’s only so many things you can say about a cheating woman, and we pretty much say them all, while she’s off at the bathroom getting composed. That she’s cheap, that she’s a hussy—some of us use the stronger term—that she’s gotten what she had coming. Ruth, who’s got kids herself, and a divorce, shakes her head and says she’s picked herself a hard row to hoe. And that’s with the house and the alimony. Then she heads off to the bathroom after her.
As for the rest of us, there’s no small pleasure in feeling righteous. It takes the sting out of a Monday morning, that’s for sure. Anyway, it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who doesn’t fit in, and Claire has never even tried. She has not personalized her workspace, for one thing, just tacked up the phone list and the university calendar that has the state holidays highlighted in pink, that they gave her at orientation. She has made no attempt on her own to liven up the space with, for instance, a mouse pad decorated with her own child’s artwork, such as Susan was selling just a few weeks ago, or a plant—Ruth’s spider plant is always having babies, and any one of them could’ve been Claire’s for the asking. Or she could have brought in a Martha Stewart miniature water fountain, such as Carlene has, that she got at WalMart. It is just not that expensive to accessorize.
All that Claire brought with her that first day, other than the calendar and the official paperwork, was a thick daytimer and that red Guatemalan bag she calls a purse, and her own coffee mug, which does not have a thing written on it. And loose tea—ha, no pun intended—as though our selection isn’t good enough, though what she could want beyond Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Lemon Lift is beyond us. We’ve even started getting the Vanilla Chai.
And forget about office togetherness. Claire has yet to attend a single birthday celebration, even though they are a regular and talked-about feature of our department. Last month we had marble cake and Edy’s mint chocolate chip, so she really missed out there. She doesn’t take lunch in the breakroom, or keep up with the noon soaps—apparently it’s more fun to star in her own. As The Vow Breaks, we might call it.
The whole mess started at that pool party—which, it might be noted, is the one workplace event she did attend. At the time, it made perfect sense for the new folk to stick together, but in hindsight it’s clearly one thing for a woman to be politely friendly, and quite another for her to be touching her hair every five seconds, and tugging at the bottom of her tankini while her own husband is preoccupied with the bean dip. The fact that said husband has hairy shoulders and no neck to speak of is no justifiable excuse. Claire’s not the first woman to make do with happily enough ever after.
We are trying to decide what would possess a married woman to show up at a family friendly function with bright red toenails when Ruth comes back from the bathroom with an announcement: Claire will be staying at her place for a while. “She can have Jerry’s room,” Ruth says. “Isabelle will be staying with her dad.”
Frankly, we are not surprised—Ruth has a history of taking in strays. That freeloader husband, for one. “Artist” –ha! As though anyone would want a thing to do with those lopsided pots. And if he was so proud of his “artwork,” then why did he leave it all behind when he moved out? No one’s making money at that yard sale.
And what about that awful exchange student—Günter, his name was, though when she brought him by that day he made us all call him Mickey. Well, Günter, AKA Mickey, spent his whole summer abroad at the tattoo parlor, from the looks of him—so much for cultural enrichment. And now Ruth’s son Jerry—barely fifteen—is off in Romania or Sweden or wherever, for his own stimulating adventure abroad. There’s no telling who he’ll come home as—Christoph, maybe, or Hans. But there’s no talking to Ruth about it—she’ll stop typing and stare real hard at her computer monitor if we bring it up. So we are understandably reluctant to press her about Claire.
The rest of the afternoon passes quietly enough, though of course it’s impossible to concentrate. Ruth stops by Claire’s cubicle a few times, but they talk too softly to overhear. At five they walk out together to their cars. The next day brings no clarifying details. Claire keeps her head down—her modesty is touching, if a little late—and Ruth is her usual unaggravated self. Well, it took her husband seventeen years to discover that he preferred men—big surprise—and bless her heart, she’s forgiven him that. Didn’t break a single pot over his head when he told her. It’s as if she has a different sense of outrage and justice than the rest of us. Not to mention ordinary curiosity. After all, it’s only human to be concerned for the welfare of others, and any burden is lighter if it’s shared. But neither of them seems interested in sharing.
Of course we speculate on what might happen next, but unfortunately real life is nothing like Lifetime. For one thing, scriptwriters do not just drop their story lines. It may take several episodes and a cliffhanger or two, but they will eventually come to a resolution—the big reveal, the makeover, the public confession, the regret. Real life is nowhere near as exciting. Carlene’s daughter gets her tongue pierced and declares that she is going to her prom in duct tape. Shirley’s mother passes, finally, and we all pitch in on the flowers. Ann’s husband Bill gets home from D.C. right before the shootings, and Ann takes to wearing an angel pin on her lapel.
Claire brings in a green stick of something she calls Lucky Bamboo, and sets it on her desk beneath the calendar. First bit of décor she’s put up—Lord knows why she’s even bothered, at this point—and it looks half-dead already, just a thick twisted stalk with a couple of thin leaves. How she expects it to live is anybody’s guess. Poor thing doesn’t even have soil—just water and rocks, which must be some kind of torture, like those like tiny compressed trees they sell sometimes at Target.
As for Himself, Mr. It-Takes-Two-To-Tango Neil, well, that man’s new-car smell has just about worn off. He tries to act suave—holding the door for us, smiling when he passes in the hall—but the copier jams, the coffee spills, and those egregious typos tell quite the different story. Poor thing couldn’t write a decent memo anymore to save his life. Apparently he’s realizing that the grass might look greener on another man’s lawn, but it’s still going to have to be mowed. But then, a man will always come to regret decisions he makes with that other brain.
There is no resolution, though—no big scene. Eventually Neil gets a promotion to the third floor. He starts whistling when he comes down the stairwell. He’s attentive again at all the meetings. He gets his own coffee and Post-Its. Claire herself is subdued. Can this marriage be saved? We think perhaps yes. She is still staying at Ruth’s, but if she has any sense left, or any maternal instinct, she’ll go back to where she belongs. There is appropriate behavior for a working mother and wife—all we can do is lead by example.
We are hopeful right up to the day that Claire is suddenly gone. Frankly, it takes us almost til lunchtime to notice, as nothing has changed in her cubicle. Her inbox has never been particularly full. But she doesn’t show up and she doesn’t show up and finally someone from Human Resources shows up instead and tells us that Claire has worked her notice and quit. Not a word to any one of us, which is proof enough of her shame. She’s left behind that little sprig of bamboo, for all the luck it’s brought her. She is not staying with Ruth anymore, either, something we don’t find out until we ask, since Ruth is, as usual, not forthcoming with relevant details. ”She’s moved out,” is all Ruth says.
It’s a disappointment, of course, but that’s life—a taste of excitement and no follow-through. Crises are just as likely to peter out, with no lessons learned. Did Claire go back to her husband, or will she be a lonely divorcée? Will Neil find himself a nice, unattached girl—such as Darla from down in accounting? It is not ours to say. It will have to be enough to imagine the both of them penitent and suffering—there’s no Christian need to dwell on it. We look around our own cubicles, at the framed photos of our own smiling husbands and children, at the appropriate-sized spider plants, at the little cheery aphorisms, and we feel lucky. We will each make our husband’s favorite dinner tonight, pot roast or baked chicken or lasagna, and he won’t even have to know why. It is becoming in a woman to be mysterious.
It feels as good as payday Friday, being secure, being right—in fact, it feels good enough to celebrate. Lunch out is ordinarily a once-a-month treat, but what’s life without a little spontaneity? We are at the The Loop—our usual window table is free—when we see her. Claire. She is pushing her daughter in a stroller, just on the other side of the glass. She is laughing and talking to a man who is not her husband. He is wearing the suit he wore to work this morning, and he is holding a bright green balloon, and they are all three smiling—looking for all the world like a family. There is not a trace of guilt in Claire’s smile. She looks purely happy, as though she’s done nothing wrong or—what’s worse—as though she’s already forgiven herself. But who is she to break the rules without consequence? What would happen if we all simply walked away?
Not a one of us has an appetite for dessert. We don’t even finish the curly fries. Ruth has nothing to say when we get back to the office—she just nods and raises her eyebrows, which could mean any number of things, and then she moves that dusty stick of bamboo to her desk, squeezes it in next to the spider plants. Is she surprised? Is she not surprised? Who can tell with Ruth. Really, that woman can be so irritating.
So much for our little workplace drama. The new girl starts Monday—her cubicle’s ready and waiting. We do hope she’ll be one of us.