For days, I tried to forget everything that had to do with that evening and with Mike Thompson. I tried to forget the shallow conversations I had with most of Rob’s coworkers, their strained smiles, the three broken wine glasses, Mike sneaking out with one of Rob’s coworkers, whose name I later found out was Diane, the hours I had to spend cleaning the apartment the next day… Only that by trying to forget it all, I kept remembering it all. It is something explained by psychology, isn’t it. Memory being circular, going around and around, like a planet orbiting the sun only to end up in the exact same spot one year or several hundreds of years later, or something to that effect. I don’t know if I’m making any sense but anyways, that’s how I felt. Like a distant and lonely planet.
If you think about it coldly, a few broken glasses and a bit of dirt is a small price to pay for a successful party, which undoubtedly it was, since Rob was met the next day at the office by cheers and friendly shoulder taps, and soon enough everyone started treating him like one of the “team”, whatever that might mean.
Sure, it would have been easier for me to put the evening behind me if I had had something to do other than sit at home musing over broken glasses, etcetera. I think that’s when I first started missing my old job.
For five years after I graduated from technical college, I was a bookkeeper at an insurance company, back in our hometown. I had landed the job quite unexpectedly. I had applied without discrimination to all the work ads in the local paper, as I was sure many others were doing as well –the economy was down and many young graduates were forced to go back and live with their parents –so my outlook was rather grim. However, they called me to several interviews and I finally got a few job offers.
I chose the insurance job because it was the highest paying one, and for good reason. Our office was the regional branch of a major national insurance company, its scope extended beyond town and we dealt with a large clientele. My office specialized in home and car insurance, we also did life but only when a client requested it. The office was located in a stately, red-brick building on Main Street, between the bank and the library. On the main façade, there was one those digital gadgets that read the temperature and the time of day. It was a popular location, maybe that is why we had so many walk-in clients. It wasn’t usual for the agents –young beefy white males who had earned their college entrance thanks to their sportive qualities– to have to chase clients down, therefore they were not used to rejection and that made them arrogant and overconfident. This I first learned from my boss, Mr. Sheridan, who had worked for the company for over 20 years, was a nice soul and wanted to warn me against the agents, who, he said, wouldn’t make it easy for me. Soon, I was in a position to confirm that my boss had been right down to the last comma, and I understood too why so many others before me had quit.
My job consisted in crossing the dots on all the contracts issued by our office. No contract would be placed in front of a client without me having checked it thoroughly first. Otherwise, the number of mathematical errors the agents would make in the contracts could put the organization in jeopardy, legally and financially. I have always had a good eye for detail, so I was good at spotting those types of errors quickly. When that happened, the contract would go straight back to the agent’s desk and he would have to redraw it from scratch, which let me tell you they all hated.
In retaliation, they would eye me deviously whenever we crossed paths, they never invited me to their dinners or little office parties, they called me names, made fun of my clothes and of my hair behind my back and played stupid tricks on me. I knew it was nothing personal and I did not let it get to me. I regarded them as no more than spoiled children and I continued pushing their contracts back to them over and over, like a tough teacher, until they got them right.
I did not mind my situation too much because I knew that it was something temporary. I don’t think I would have felt the same if I had viewed myself in that job forever. I was killing time, so to speak. Rob, a couple years younger than me, was still in college. He had always been a brilliant student, always got straight A’s and had a promising future ahead of him, or so his professors said. Not that I expected to depend on him, but working for an insurance company in my hometown wasn’t the career I envisioned myself pursuing for the rest of my days, so when Rob graduated and got his big job, it was easy for me to quit mine. But, all in all, I had to admit that my old job had given me something to do. It had filled up my days, as they say. Now my days were full of exactly what I did not dare ask myself.
It wasn’t until two weeks after the party that I saw Mike again. We met one morning in the lobby. It was dark outside. It was raining hard, the weather regaling us with a prelude of the winter to come. Mike, empty-handed and looking his usual and casual self, immediately smiled and walked quickly towards me when he saw me. I was coming back from my shopping and was loaded with heavy bags. For some stupid reason, I had decided that it would be a good day to walk to the nearest supermarket rather than drive. I was cold and wet and I did not even make myself smile back at him. It would have been a strained smile, like those I hate so much.
–Hi, there –he said–. Let me help you.
He picked up my bags before I could refuse.
–Listen –he said–. I never got a chance to thank you for inviting me the other night. I had a great time.
–I bet you did, you…!
I was in no mood to fake civility but I must admit that even to my own ears I had just sounded like a scolding teacher. And that brought back to my mind mortifying memories of the years I had spent dealing with the insurance agents of my former job. I did not want to get on Mike’s bad side, and most importantly, it was none of my business what he did with himself. All in all, he did not seem to mind my comment. He just laughed, moving his head and in doing so, his black curls sprang in the air.
–Believe it or not, I had a very nice time –he insisted–. Thank you, really. Now it is my turn to invite you. I’m having some friends over this Friday. I would love it if you and Rob could join us.
This coming Friday? Did we have anything? Nothing that I could think of. I was pretty sure we were free as birds the next Friday. I would have to ask Rob first, of course, to discard any previous engagement on his part. But otherwise… But, wait, I told myself suddenly, was I really considering this? No, no way. I didn’t want anything to do with Mike Thompson and that was final.
–Um, sorry, I don’t think we can –I said rather sternly–. I’m pretty sure we have something.
–Really? Are you ok? You seem rather… C’mon tell me, what did I do to make you mad?
I am that obvious, I have never been able to hide my feelings. Any stranger can read me like an open book.
–What is it? –he insisted–. Just wait a minute. Is it because I left with… -he chuckled–. I think you’ve got the wrong idea. She asked me to walk her home because she felt ill. So I did, as the nice gentleman that I am. Nothing happened. Promise.
He crossed his fingers and kissed them. He sure was charming, I must admit. I don’t know how but I found myself agreeing to go to his dinner. He patted me on the shoulder, as if I was one of the “team”, whatever that might mean.
–Great! Friday at 9, then –he said and then he left.
I stood in the lobby waiting for the elevator. A big poodle of rain had formed at my feet. My hands felt raw from the cold and the rain as I picked up my bags. Before I got into the elevator I saw Mike exiting the building. He was not carrying an umbrella. It was as if he didn’t even notice the rain.
(to be cont.)