[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, SAM gave me this prompt: "Grab a favorite book from your shelf. Open it to page 68 and count 7 lines. Add that line somewhere in your piece. Please share the book and the line in your required Scriptic text." I gave Grace this prompt: " 'Think of writing as writing a letter to someone.' -Kurt Vonnegut". I chose Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding", and the line is, "The chatter stopped midword." This story is called "Graceland".]
At every place I had worked, there was always a true center of power. There was the boss on the org chart, and then there was the real person in charge, the one who remembered all the birthdays and made sure the coffeemaker got cleaned. This time, her name was Jenny, and when our latest release finally made it into the world, after almost three weeks of nonstop effort, sad eyed Jenny stood up and insisted that everyone come to her apartment for beer, wine and snacks Friday night. I loathed such occasions, but I also knew better than to offend custom if you want to be tolerated.
Jenny lived on a tree lined street in a tan and red three decker. Her place was on the bottom floor, and when I came in, fashionably late and carrying an imported pale ale I had read was tasty, the proceedings were in full swing. The room was hot, even with air conditioning purring in the corner. Our entire team was 8 people, but when you added everyone's significant others, the gay couple upstairs who they invited so they wouldn't complain about noise, along with cousins visiting from Seattle and younger sisters home from college, there were about 5 more people than her place, even expanding to use the tiny communal backyard, could comfortably hold. I set my gift down on her kitchen counter, next to an array of other beverages, and began to circulate.
The key was to make sure you are seen by as many people as possible, so that you will be remembered as having attended, and then quickly sneak home in time to catch up on your DVR before bed. I didn't believe in socializing at work- my old pal Henry called it the colliding worlds theory. But working in such a small place, to be unsocial is to be unemployable, and since I was the new guy, I had to act sociable. I had joined the company, an anxious, eager startup, hoping for a new start after a toxic breakup drove me out of San Antonio. I had plunged in, working the same insane hours they all did, driving to the finish, shaping the code until it sang like a high performance engine. We weren't done, of course- no computer program is ever done. But we had earned, Jenny thought, a brief respite. And everybody listened to Jenny.
I walked around the room, stepping around already active conversations, nodding hello, engaging in the awkward waltz of the stranger. Jenny had some subtle music playing, just short of clearly audible. I thought I recognized the bass line from Paul Simon's "Graceland." I let Jenny corner me near her dining table. She was finishing a glass of white wine.
"You came!," she exclaimed.
"Of course I did," I said. "I said I would."
"But I didn't think you would!" Jenny had the wide hips of an older woman, with an open face that betrayed everything. She was as secretive as a whiteboard.
"I know, silly," she said, giggling. Jenny had this way of making you do what she wanted. She carried herself like you had already agreed, and all we have to do is work out the details.
"You didn't, um, bring someone?" She was pretending to peek behind me, as if I had someone in my pocket.
"I guess you and I are the only single ones here, huh?" We had this discussion at least once a week. Either she was unusually forgetful, or trying to drop a hint.
"I guess so." I looked over the spread, reached over and took a crab puff.
"You never talk," she said firmly, as if she were correcting me.
"I'm talking now," I said. We both slid over slightly and allowed Jayne to get to the wine. I took a beer bottle for myself.
"No," she said with gentle exasperation. "You don't talk about yourself, your family. Your personal life. Nothing like that."
"I like keeping that personal," I said. "Hence the name."
"Ha!," she said, barking a short laugh. "You're funny. When did you start with us?"
"February," I said. I had moved here on a slim reed, crashing on a college friend's couch until I fell into this job, then a tiny studio apartment several streets away. Since the breakup, I had felt like a piece of paper blowing down a windy street.
"You've been working really hard, and you fit right in with everybody. It's really been great having you around."
"Thank you," I said. "It's been a real pleasure."
"And I feel like I don't know you. You never talk about yourself."
"I know you broke up with somebody before you moved here."
"Yeah," I said. I had a vision of Katherine, slamming the door as she left, the duffel bag of her things getting caught in the door like we were on a sitcom. I thought about the Bob Dylan song, "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry."
"I guess you're not over it."
"Not really, no."
Jenny poured herself another glass of wine. She had a very cute little dress on, a deep blue, which was charmingly snug on her. I took a sip of beer. She straightened up, standing a little closer to me than I expected. I looked into her eyes, which were a pale blue, and looked incomprehensibly sad.
"I might be able to help you there," she said. If she could have purred, she might have.
"I appreciate that," I said. "Really. But I can't."
"Don't you like me?," she said, sounding hurt.
"Of course," I said. "You're beautiful. I've told you that."
"So what is it? You said you're not gay."
"No, I'm not."
"So what is it, then?," she said, taking another sip of wine. Her face was beginning to flush.
"I'm just...," I said, suddenly unable to complete the sentence. What am I?
"I'm trying to say I'm in love with you, you asshole," Jenny spat a little too loudly.
The chatter stopped midword. Conversations about the Mets, and Murakami novels, and the new exhibition at the museum, all stopped dead. All that was missing was that record scratching sound from old 80s movies. Jenny's face was fully flushed, with tears forming at the corners, and she drained her glass in one long swallow. She moved past me, into her bedroom, and we all heard the door to the bathroom slam shut. I tried to look around the room, but I couldn't, so I opted to take my half bottle of beer and slip out the front door as quietly as I could. I heard the "rooba rooba rooba" sound of conversations starting up again, and I pictured pretty Jenny, looking into the mirror, wondering who I was. I wondered the same thing.