“I’ll give you a ride,” he forces out.
“Ugh, no way,” I say over my shoulder and run.
It’s Cream Shirt Wednesday. Joshua is off on a late lunch. He’s made a few more comments to me lately about things I like and do. They have been so accurate I’m pretty sure he’s been snooping through my stuff. Knowledge is power, and I don’t have much.
First, I conduct a forensic examination of my desk. Both Helene and Mr. Bexley despise computerized calendars, and so we have to keep matching paper schedule books like we’re Dickensian law clerks. In mine, there’s only Helene’s appointments. I obsessively lock my computer, even if I go to the printer. My unlocked computer in the vicinity of Joshua? I may as well hand him the nuclear codes now.
Back at Gamin Publishing, my desk was a fort made of books. I kept my pens in the gaps between their spines. When I was unpacking in the new office, I saw how sterile Joshua kept his desk and felt incredibly childish. I took my Word of the Day calendar and Smurf figurines home again.
Before the merger, I had a best friend at work. Val Stone and I would sit on the worn-out leather couches in the break room and play our favorite game: systematically defacing photographs of beautiful people in magazines. I’d add a moustache onto Naomi Campbell. Val would then ink out a missing tooth. Soon it was an onslaught of scars and eye patches and bloodshot eyes and devil horns until the picture was so ruined we’d get bored and start another.
Val was one of the staff who was cut and she was furious I didn’t give her some kind of a warning. Not that I would have been allowed to, even if I had known. She didn’t believe me. I turn slowly, and my reflection spins off twenty different surfaces. I see myself in every size from music box to silver screen. My cherry-red skirt flips out and I pirouette again once, just for the hell of it, trying to shake away the sick, troubled feeling I get whenever I think of Val.
Anyway, my audit confirms that my desk has a red, black, and blue pen. Pink Post-its. One tube of lipstick. A box of tissues for blotting my lipstick and tears of frustration. My planner. Nothing else.
I do a light shuffling tap dance across the marble superhighway. I’m in Joshua Country now. I sit in his chair and look at everything through his eyes. His chair is so high my toes don’t touch the ground. I wiggle my butt a little deeper into the leather. It feels completely obscene. I keep one eye permanently swiveled toward the elevator, and use the other to examine his desk for clues.
His desk is the male version of mine. Blue Post-its. He has a sharp pencil in with his three pens. Instead of lipstick he has a tin of mints. I steal one and put it in the tiny, previously useless pocket of my skirt. I imagine myself in the laxative section of the drugstore trying to find a good match and have a good little snicker. I jiggle his desk drawer. Locked. So is his computer. Fort Knox. Well played, Templeman. I make a few unsuccessful guesses at his password. Maybe he doesn’t hate me 4 eva.
There’s no little framed photo of a partner or loved one on this desk. No grinning, happy dog or tropical beach memento. I doubt he esteems anyone enough to frame their likeness. During one of Joshua’s fervent little sales rants, Fat Little Dick boomed sarcastically, We’ve got to get you laid, Doctor Josh.
Joshua replied, You’re right, boss. I’ve seen what a bad drought can do to someone. He said it while looking at me. I know the date. I diarized it in my HR log.
I get a little tingle in my nostrils. Joshua’s cologne? The pheromone he leaches from his pores? Gross. I flip open his day planner and notice something; a light code of pencil running down the columns of each day. Feeling incredibly James Bond–ish, I raise my phone and manage to take one single frame.
I hear the cables in the elevator shaft and leap to my feet. I vault to the other side of his desk and manage to slam the planner shut before the doors spring open and he appears. His chair is still spinning gently out of the corner of my eye. Busted.
“What are you doing?”
My phone is now safely down the waistband of my underwear. Note to self: Disinfect phone.
“Nothing.” There’s a tremor in my voice, convicting me instantly. “I was trying to see if it’s going to rain this afternoon. I bumped your chair. Sorry.”
He advances like a floating Dracula. The menace is ruined by the sporting-goods-store bag loudly crinkling against his leg. A shoebox is in it, judging from the shape.
Imagine the wretched sales assistant who had to help Joshua choose shoes. I require shoes to ensure I can effectively run down the targets I am paid to assassinate in my spare time. I require the best value for my money. I am size eleven.
He looks at his desk, his computer’s innocuous log-in screen, his closed planner. I force my breath out in a controlled hiss. Joshua drops his bag on the floor. He steps so close his leather shoe touches the tip of my little patent heels.
“Now why don’t you tell me what you were actually doing near my desk?”
We have never done the Staring Game this close. I’m a pip-squeak at exactly five feet tall. It’s been my lifelong cross to bear. My lack of height is an agonizing topic of conversation. Joshua is at least six-four. Five. Six. Maybe more. A giant of a human. And he’s built out of heavy materials.
Gamely, I maintain eye contact. I can stand wherever I like in this office. Screw him. Like a threatened animal trying to look bigger, I put my hands on my hips.
He’s not ugly, as I’ve mentioned, but I always struggle to work out how to describe him. I remember eating my dinner on the couch a while back, and a soft-news piece came on the TV. An old Superman comic book sold for a record price at auction. As the white-gloved hand turned the pages, the old-fashioned drawings of Clark Kent reminded me of Joshua.
Like Clark Kent, Joshua’s height and strength are all tucked away under clothes designed to conceal and help him blend into a crowd. Nobody at the Daily Planet knows anything about Clark. Underneath these button-up shirts, Joshua could be relatively featureless or ripped like Superman. It’s a mystery.
He doesn’t have the forehead curl or the nerdy black glasses, but he’s got the strong masculine jawline and sulky, pretty mouth. I’ve been thinking all this time his hair is black but now that I’m closer, I can see it is dark brown. He doesn’t comb it as neatly as Clark does. He’s definitely got the ink-blue eyes and the laser stare, and probably some of the other superpowers, too.
But Clark Kent is such a darling; all bumbling and soft. Joshua is hardly the mild-mannered reporter. He’s a sarcastic, cynical, Bizarro Clark Kent, terrorizing everyone in the newsroom and pissing off poor little Lois Lane until she screams into her pillow at night.
I don’t like big guys. They’re too much like horses. They could trample you if you got underfoot. He is auditing my appearance with the same narrowed eyes that I am. I wonder what the top of my head looks like. I’m sure he only fornicates with Amazons. Our stares clash and maybe comparing them to an ink stain was a tad too harsh. Those eyes are wasted on him.
To avoid dying, I reluctantly breathe in a steady lungful of cedar-pine spice. He smells like a freshly sharpened pencil. A Christmas tree in a cold, dark room. Despite the tendons in my neck beginning to cramp, I don’t permit myself to lower my eyes. I might look at his mouth then, and I get a good enough view of his mouth when he’s tossing insults at me across the office. Why would I want to see it up close? I wouldn’t.
The elevator bings like the answer to all my prayers. Enter Andy the courier.
Andy looks like a movie extra who appears in the credits as “Courier.” Leathery, midforties, clad in fluorescent yellow. His sunglasses sit like a tiara on top of his head. Like most couriers, he enriches his workday by flirting with every female under the age of sixty he encounters.
“Lovely Luce!” He booms it so loud I hear Fat Little Dick make a wet snort as he jolts awake in his office.
“Andy!” I return, skittering backward. I could honestly hug him for interrupting what was feeling like a whole new kind of strange game. He has a small parcel in his hand, no bigger than a Rubik’s cube. It’s got to be my 1984 baseball-player Smurfette. Super rare, very minty. I’ve wanted her forever and I’ve been stalking her journey via her tracking number.
“I know you want me to call from the foyer with your Smurfs, but no answer.”
My desk phone is diverted to my personal cell, which is currently located near my hip bone in the waistband of my underwear. So that’s what the buzzing feeling was. Phew. I was thinking I needed my head checked.
“What does he mean, Smurfs?” Joshua narrows his eyes like we’re nuts.
“I’m sure you’re busy, Andy, I’ll let you get out of here.” I grab at the parcel, but it’s too late.
“It’s her passion in life. She lives and breathes Smurfs. Those little blue people, yea big. They wear white hats.” Andy holds two of his fingers an inch apart.
“I know what Smurfs are.” Joshua is irritated.
“I don’t live or breathe them.” My voice betrays the lie. Joshua’s sudden cough sounds suspiciously like a laugh.
“Smurfs, huh? So that’s what those little boxes are. I thought maybe you were buying your tiny clothes online. Do you think it’s appropriate to get personal items delivered to your workplace, Lucinda?”
“She’s got a whole cabinet of them. She’s got a . . . What is it, Luce? A Thomas Edison Smurf? He’s a rare one, Josh. Her parents gave it to her for high school graduation.” Andy blithely continues humiliating me.
“Quiet now, Andy! How are you? How’s your day going?” I sign for the package on his handheld device with a sweaty hand. Him and his big mouth.
“Your parents bought you a Smurf for graduation?” Joshua lounges in his chair and watches me with cynical interest. I hope my body didn’t warm the leather.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you got a car or something.” I’m mortified.
“I’m fine, sweetheart,” Andy tells me, taking the little gizmo back from me and hitting several buttons and putting it in his pocket. Now that the business component of our interaction is completed, he pulls his mouth into a beguiling grin.
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