by Christine Kettle
The world didn’t seem any different to him when he woke. He got up, dressed and made it out the door as usual, but on the bus the thought stuck him that people stared. They looked at him, and when he caught their gaze they looked away. He’d shaved, showered, worn his usual business casual outfit; his hair was cut in the neat, trimmed, office acceptable manner of the majority of guys employed where he worked, so he felt affronted. What was wrong with these people?
On his way to the office he grabbed a coffee at the same store where he usually did, and when the woman in the shop handed him the cup, in that second when her hand reached over the counter, she hesitated, and she took a quick intake of breath as her eyes met his. He felt the awkwardness of the line behind him, polite people looking away as they tried to not notice him.
At work, he rushed to the men’s room to look in the mirror, but he saw nothing unusual in his reflection. Nothing peeked from his nostrils, no huge boil had appeared on his cheek overnight that he had failed to notice, no piece of food clung to his lip that he had forgotten to wipe away.
He approached Sally, the receptionist he had rushed passed only minutes before. “Hi Sal, sorry about no good morning, you no how it is when you need to go.”
“Don’t worry, that doesn't bother me." And then that same short pause as she looked up from her switchboard, those few seconds where she mouthed words while her brain thought something else.
Jack, his buddy who worked in the next cubicle alongside his, came in and passed them by without a glance. "Good morning,” he said in a rush, and climbed the stairs two at a time, late as usual.
He followed after him. He knew Jack would tell him. They shared the office gossip, which woman was the hottest, which boss the most incompetent, and all that “how stupid can they be” talk whenever the company announced a new office policy, all of these exchanges intended to make their day go faster and their life a little less dull, a brief respite from staring at a screen all day producing drawings for the next new system they didn’t care about. Each day unfolded the same as every other, the same insipid elevator music piped through the building, the same controlled temperature winter or summer. No fresh breeze ever blew through their halls, and fluorescent bulbs flooded everything with the unremitting sameness of their glow. Windows existed only in the offices reserved for management, which ran along the perimeter of the building. No natural light or natural sound or even natural color relieved the monotony of the interior, except for the odd sad neglected plant that looked as if it wished it were anywhere but in this grey world of grey carpet and dull grey paint.
He rushed up to Jack’s cubicle. “Jack do you notice anything different about me this morning?”
Jack stared hard at him, ran his eyes over every inch of his body, a near carbon copy of himself, the plaid of his shirt and the color of the t-shirt underneath the only difference in their clothing. "You look fine to me."
He stood a little taller. "Right, good." He took himself back to his workspace, already behind before he began. The new productivity module had shown that he had failed to complete his assigned tasks in the designated amount of time, and if he did not make the progress he had been deemed capable of making by the latest computer technology, there would be a productivity meeting, the one event in his life he dreaded more than anything else, even his annual performance review, which was almost, but not quite as bad.
Year after year the review began with the same ritual. "You're doing just fine, happy to have you here," and then the niggling little complaints about behavior and attitude, which he exhibited only to keep himself sane. However hard he tried, his boss always stood ready to assure him that he almost, but did not quite, fit the company profile. He knew he should have learned the song, got the pin, the firm’s latest idea to promote pride in the workplace. The CEO himself had introduced the company song, beaming direct from company headquarters. Anyone who learned the song and sang it to his or her immediate supervisor earned a company pin to proudly display on a lapel. Freda in accounting was the only person in his division proudly wearing it, apart from management, and to the derision of all the other employees. He didn’t know that they had all learned and sang and achieved their pins, though they didn't wear them or tell each other.
Last night had been one of the worst nights of his life. It was inevitable that they would break up, he had felt it coming for weeks. He knew someone so clever, witty, and funny would never settle for him. She hated his silences. “We don’t communicate,” she liked to say. He knew about women’s magazines, how they all said lack of communication, big problem, but what if he just didn’t have anything to say? Was he supposed to tell her about his day when he wanted to forget everything about it?
“How can you just slump on the couch every night and watch crap TV,” she had scolded him.
Because it takes my mind away. I don’t have to think about anything. I’m in another world where it’s easy to know who the villains are, they’ve got swords. Now if only those cheating, lying bastards at the office would wear them I might have a chance of getting promoted.
“You never want to go anywhere.”
That’s because I feel uncomfortable at those community plays you love. I'm embarrassed for the actors, they're not that good. I don’t get the point of most of them, I never understand them. And those comedy clubs you drag me to, most of the comedians are really angry at things I don’t care about. Now South Park, that I get, and it’s funny.
“You’d rather spend time with the boys.”
That’s because I don’t have to talk to them if I don’t want to, and if I do, I don’t have to think carefully about my next sentence in case in some small insignificant way I might say something to hurt somebody’s feelings.
Of course, his side of the conversation never took place. He just nodded like one of those guys from the inquisition after they had been tortured and acknowledged his crimes. He should have told her that he would have performed any kind of penance, would have confessed to anything, if only she would stay.
When she had said everything, and was right about it all, when she had laid their relationship bare to the world, she told him that if he loved her he would fight for her.
How could he fight for her? He didn’t know why she went out with him. How could she love him, what did he have to offer? He knew that in a few weeks she would meet another guy much better for her than he could ever be. So, as the tears ran down her cheeks, he said nothing, not even when she opened the door and called to him.
“You never loved me, you can’t find it in yourself to love anyone. Any woman can see that, it’s written all over your face.”