[Author's Note: We simply must stop meeting like this. The Thing That Has Become A Thing is continuing to be A Thing. Please read Maid Marian's marvelous addition to the saga here, which we are calling Part 6, partially because it's the sixth part, and partially because we haven't thought of a better name. This is Part 7. Your move, Runaway Sentence! (For a link to parts 1-4, please look here on the entry for Part 5.) (As always, the standard disclaimer applies: NSFW, Your Mileage May Vary, Some Settling May Occur, Manufactured in a Facility Where Peanuts Are Present, Past Performance Is No Guarantee of Future Results, Costume Does Not Enable Wearer to Fly)]
I had settled into my morning routine. I answered some routine emails, took care of other minor business, then spread out some paper on my drawing table, removing a mug full of drawing pens to sit beside me. I really only needed a dozen or so, but I bought them compulsively, seeking out new ones on exotic Japanese pen sites, filling up mug after mug, the excess spilling into my duffel bag. I needed 5 concepts to take to a meeting this afternoon, and while I had 4 drawn up, I really wanted to have a fifth. I was still shaken by the strong emotion Aimee had left in her wake, so I sat quietly, allowing my mind to drift, waiting for the muse to take me.
I certainly had felt stirrings before. While I had never been unfaithful, like anyone, I daydreamed. Surrounded by women who are smart and smell nice and look pretty all day long, who wouldn't? I didn't consider it infidelity, but I certainly didn't make a point to bring it up at home. We had more than enough items to fight about without dragging in new ones. It was just harmless null activity, like a screensaver on a computer monitor, something that your brain does between other things. While the feelings Aimee evoked were startlingly strong and explicit, I didn't act on them, and she didn't suggest that I do so.
I was doodling a stylized version of the Major League Baseball logo, a silhouette of Harmon Killebrew lacing a double into the gap, thinking about my different lunch options, when my door opened. It was general practice to knock, our offices being home to some temperamental artists, so it startled me. I dropped my pen and pushed my chair back. The pen fell to the floor.
Aimee was standing there, a cardboard box of copy paper in her hands. The box was full of what must be the contents of her desk. I could see the top of a bonsai tree, and the back of what was probably the framed picture of her sister's kids. Aimee wasn't the crying type- some women were, and she adamantly wasn't- so to hear her voice crack was heartbreaking.
"I'm-I'm-I'm sorry, Michael, I...I just....he didn't take it well." Her face was already reddening, the makeup around her eyes starting to blur.
"He wants me out. Now. Today."
"He doesn't want you to help with Griffiths? That was your baby!"
"Nope," she said. She sniffed once. "I just wanted to say goodbye. Again. I've learned so much from you. I really appreciate everything you've done for me...God. I've got to get out of here before I lose it completely."
I was stunned. Dave, the mercurial bald mystic that built our firm into a leader in the Pacific Northwest, was the prototypical founder. If you were pleasing him, you could do no wrong. But if something didn't go well on your watch, there were few people you less wanted to see. He took every business decision personally- if the firm placed first and second in a competition, he wanted to know why we didn't get third place too. We put up with his rages because he paid well, and because he didn't stand over your shoulder as you worked. To throw someone right into the street when they resigned was cruel, even for him.
Aimee was backing away. I jumped to my feet.
"Aim," I said quickly. "Let me buy you lunch. Something."
"Oh no," she said, her lip quivering. "I couldn't."
"No, let me," I said. "Let's go to the shiny diner and talk about it." A local eatery with cheap, decent fare, the shiny diner was so named because the new owners decided to cover the outside of the building with silver siding that made it look like a spaceship.
"I'm a mess, Michael. I can't."
"Aim, please. You clean up pretty good."
She looked down. "Thanks." I could hear her breathing, labored and short.
"OK. Fine. You win. I'll meet you there."
She went into the bathroom, and I locked up my supplies and left. I went in as the lunch rush was beginning, securing a table that overlooked the parking lot and a grove of trees on the other side of the highway. After ordering drinks (I worked with Aimee enough to know she would want a Diet Coke), she finally came in. She had washed her makeup off, but enough residual redness remained to give her a sort of glow. Traces of water lingered in the hair around her face.
"Sorry. I started to clean up, then I lost it again. I had to wash all over again. I left a mass of paper towels behind."
"Serves him right," I said.
"I appreciate this, Michael. I just feel so...so ashamed. He made me feel so small!"
"You have nothing to be ashamed of. He's a small man. He's very driven, and he feels like if you're not on his team, you're on the opposing team. He takes resignations personally. He shouldn't. But he does. He's a child. It's what makes him great, but it also makes him petty."
"Yeah," she said softly. The waitress, a wide hipped blonde with black roots, took their orders, and then they were alone again.
"I wonder why he can't just be happy for me?"
"It's not in his DNA," I said. "That software was not installed on his machine. This is a good opportunity for you. You need to do things like this now, before you get tied down."
"I kind of wish I was tied down," she said.
"Oh, no you don't," I said chuckling. "It's no fun. Trust me."
"I know," she said. "I don't really mean that. But I have always envied you. You have permanence. You know who you are."
"Ha," I said. "I have no idea who I am. Never have."
She looked down and blushed a little bit more. "You know what I mean. You're Dad. You're a husband. You're a son. You're a brother. You have a network. People who are linked to you, forever and ever, no matter what. I feel rootless. The only connection I have is to an ex husband, and I don't even want that."
"I see what you mean," I said. "But you have freedom."
"I know I do. Believe me, when I see some mother trying to maneuver a stroller in Starbucks, I thank God that I do. But sometimes it feels like a curse, being free. I want to matter. I want people to notice when I'm gone."
"I notice. I have noticed. I will notice."
"I know, Michael. You're sweet."
The food came, and we busied ourselves with cutting, arranging, and pouring ketchup.
"Do you remember the Christmas party? The one at the Hilton?" It was two Christmases ago, when a particularly fertile final quarter put Dave into a munificent mood. We hadn't had one since.
"Sure. You wore that short sparkly green dress, but you got sick and had to leave early."
"I'm flattered you remembered," she said, chewing on a bite of salad. "But I wasn't really sick. I spent the whole first hour just staring at you and your wife. If I was sick, it was envy. I've never wanted to be someone else so much in my life. I watched you two, how you would be talking to someone else, but your eyes...your eyes would just flick back to her. Just for a fraction of a second, but you tracked her, probably without knowing it, the whole time. And she tracked you. It's that kind of connection I'm talking about. It's atomic. It's primeval. I went home because I couldn't stand the fact that I don't have that connection with anyone, and I never will."
"I don't think that's-"
"Don't, Michael. Don't. I know what you're going to say. I have read it in a thousand magazine articles, and I've seen it on a hundred TV shows, and I've read it in a thousand books. 'You'll find someone! Don't worry! Just be yourself!' I've heard it before, so don't say it," she said, her voice edging up the register now.
"Okay," I said. I didn't know what else to say.
"Michael, I'm going to be honest with you. If you were single, we would be at my apartment right now."
I really didn't know what to say to that. After a moment, I managed to muster, "What makes you think I'd say yes?"
Her eyes twinkled, a long absent sign of merriment. "Michael," she said with disapproval. "I'm not 16 anymore. I know the signs. I'm not stupid." She was right, that was the damnable thing.
"I've been thinking about this for a long time, so I'm pretty sure I'm right. Almost positive. They say everybody has one person, a perfect match, a yin to your yang. I thought my first husband was mine. Obviously, I was wrong. Now, after knowing you for 5 years or so now, I'm positive. You were mine. You were the one who I was destined to spend the rest of my life with. And she's got you, and I'm never going to have you. And I'm not OK with that, but I can live with it. And I have to, because I'm not going to be anyone's other woman."
She took another big bite, chewed and swallowed. I was staring at her, trying to get a handle on what she was saying. I was afraid to speak.
"Look, like I said, I'm not 16. I'm a grown person. I've read the books and the magazines. I know where my G spot is. I've been making myself orgasm since I was 12. So it's not that. There were days I wanted to throw you down on your desk, sure, and there were other days where I wanted to take the first guy to approach me at McGee's home. But I can take care of those needs myself. It's the kind of connection you have with your wife, that mystical something, that invisible force- that's what I was supposed to have with you. But she got you first. So I have to let it go."
She took a deep swallow of Diet Coke, then pulled her purse into her lap. Her salad was half eaten. She took out a ten and laid it on the counter, halfway between us.
"Thank you, Michael. Thank you for inviting me to lunch, and giving me a chance to say this. I had to get this out of my head. I feel a little better now."
She slid down the vinyl of the booth. She stood up, brushing a few crumbs off of her thighs. I looked up at her, my lunch still half eaten in front of me.
"This is it, Michael. Goodbye. I'll miss you. I'll miss you more than you can possibly know."
She turned to leave, then stopped and looked at me.
"By the way? There is no job in Philadelphia. I made it all up."
I watched her walk, her hips twitching invitingly, between the tables and out the front door.