“Goddam. It’s just sad. The whole thing is so sad. I can’t believe I didn’t even get to introduce her around. Her name’s Claudia. She works thirty-four feet from my desk. I see her almost every hour. We’ve worked together for about eight, I don’t know, maybe ten months. One of those people you see every day you wish you could see more, you know? She has one of those looks about her. You know me and looks. She came in one day with those glasses I like. That’s not all there was, though; this goddam thing isn’t about glasses. I’m past all that. But she was wearing those glasses and I liked her face immediately. I liked her eyes. She had conviction. Intent. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the astronomer in me but some people immediately grab you, you know? I knew I’d like her. I knew I would be glad to have her in the office. I wished at the time that we had more business together so I’d be able to get to know her but I also thought how fortunate not to have to work with her every day in case something started to happen. Then something did happen, something so light and fair you might miss it, hell I think maybe I missed it, and now work is hell. I hate waking up, I hate going in, I hate sitting thirty-four feet away from something that makes me warm and I hate that I can’t move any closer without feeling cold. I don’t know. Maybe that sounds stupid.
“She sits there all day with her conviction and her posture and sometimes she doesn’t wear her glasses, which I like much better now, and I’ve lost sixty percent of my vision because she sits right over there and I can’t hardly look up without seeing her or seeing something close enough to her that it makes me think of her and how easily I could see her by moving my eyes one millimeter to the left. So I just don’t look up anymore unless I’m sure somebody is standing directly in front of me and blocking all of my view but of their belt buckle and tie and even then when I do look up I find myself glancing over to make sure I cannot see her which is just the same as seeing her because I’m thinking about her and the fact that she’s right there and if this guy would just take a step to the right, his left, I’d be looking directly at her. And maybe she’s noticed she can’t see me because Bill or Jonah is directly in front of me and if he or they or whoever would move quickly to the left, her left my right, Claudia and I would be looking right at each other and then we’d be forced to smile or nod or wink or laugh or look away and then later, when I left or went to lunch or the men’s room, I could give her a knowing smile and we’d laugh at the awkwardness and it wouldn’t relieve anything but at least we’d be awkward together as opposed to miles a part in the same ugly ship. Three weeks. All this for three weeks! My favorite part about going into the office is the thing I now dread leaving my apartment. To see her is sadness.”
“You know I’m daft, so it was several weeks of flirting before I allowed myself to believe it for what it was and revel in it, and then several more weeks. Months of excitement for a lousy three-week failure.
“I picture, you know, the small things. The first things. She kissed me. She came into the office one night, very late. It was a Friday. I was still there of course. She said she thought she’d run into me. I don’t know if she meant she only came back because she wanted to see me, or… I don’t know. But we started talking and I told her it was great to see her even though I had seen her only a few hours ago. She made it sound like she actually needed something from the office. I don’t know. She went to her desk and gathered some things and then she dug me out from behind my desk pretty much. At that point I wasn’t even doing office work, I was reading a book, Suffering Our Second Lives, by a fellow named Powell. Really fascinating book, it’s fiction but the whole thing is written as an extensively researched cover story for some magazine called ‘The Erudite,’ which of course doesn’t exist, apparently there’s a whole series. Anyways, I’m reading the book and Claudia –My lord I love just saying her name, thank you for giving me a forum in which I can repeatedly say her name– Claudia walks over and sits on the edge of my desk and stares at me. I suppose the word is coy, but coy implies falseness and there wasn’t anything false in her actions. She said to me, God the words haunt me, ‘You can always read at my place.’ I looked her in the eye and said ‘Thank You,’ now I was being coy because I didn’t know what the hell response was appropriate. If you’re just reading, she says, ‘You can always read at my place.’ I remember everything she said exactly. ‘Listen, I’m finished here and I’m just going home. I’ve nothing to do. I was probably going to read myself so if you’re just sitting here reading I’d really appreciate if you came with me to read at my place.’ Goddam she was a sight! Her stockings were red. Her shoes were that reddish leather and her skirt was a dark, dark brown, which I don’t even have to tell you how much I love everything brown. Her eyes are brown and her hair; she’s got this short hair that falls just beneath her jawline and curls forward like it’s reaching for her lips. But I remember the red stockings because the only lights in the office were my desk light, one of those green desk lamps, brass with green glass hoods, you know, like in really big wooden libraries, and her desk light. You know me, you’ve seen the office, it’s all wooden and brown and dark and full of books; I’ve no reason to go home. But I remember she definitely wasn’t wearing red stockings that day. I couldn’t help but think she went home and changed stockings and came back to talk to me. So there are those two sexy–knowing me you understand how desk lamps are sexy so I don’t need to explain myself–two sexy lights and books surrounding us; those books are anything but sexy, they’re just legal tomes but they make their presence known. And this woman, she’s such a hard worker, she’s not just a great colleague and a great addition to the team, I mean this woman is efficient. So she’s wearing these red stockings and her lips and glasses and her hair. I don’t even need to go on. That’s heaven right there what I just explained. It gets better, everything can always get better. Who knows what I said. Luckily I didn’t make a fool of myself, but I got out of there. We walked to the elevator and I started telling her about the book but I didn’t want to talk about a book so in the elevator I said I liked her stockings. I said I hoped they were warm enough because it was getting cold out and she said thank you and they were plenty warm. I tell you, I’d never noticed it before but the carpet in the damn elevator is red. We walked to her place, which was only a little farther than I would’ve liked but I’m glad for her because you never want to live too close to where you work. She said it was in walking distance and I said I’d like to walk if it was all right with her. We stopped in the lobby of the Horton there on Oak Street because they’ve got that nice little piano bar on the first floor. For some reason I like the idea of going to bars in hotels better than regular bars. When we were in the bar she made a crack about renting a room and staying in the bar all night which would’ve been fine with me but I didn’t want to say so because I’m technically one of her supervisors, but I’m technically everybody’s supervisor except Mr. Schumacher, but you’d have to be born in the Neolithic to be his supervisor. Anyways, I also didn’t want her to think–and I know what you’re going to say, you’re going to tell me it’s all right for women to think that I want to sleep with them if I want to sleep with them and there’s reason to believe they like the idea–but I didn’t want her to think I was just sticking around to sleep with her. Which I now understand, you’re right, is stupid. We had a few drinks in the piano bar of the Horton and then walked to her place and the first thing she did when we got inside was take off her shoes, and I love those shoes, those reddish leather slip-ons with the wooden sole and heel. I’m a pushover for classy footwear I guess. But her feet, littler than I would’ve expected, but then again without shoes on she was shorter than I expected and I guess you could call her petite, so her feet are normal for petite women and, well I don’t want to get into foot-binding, but anyways it turns out I’m very attracted to the feet of petite women. She invited me to take my shoes off but I kept them on, hell you know me, I never take them off, I try to sleep with them on when no one’s looking. And then she put on coffee and grabbed a book, she wasn’t kidding with her book, and sat down at one end of her rather long leather couch. This woman, I’m telling you, she has class. Her entire apartment is very classily decorated. I don’t even have enough class to describe its classiness, so there’ll be none of that. But among all of this feminine class, goddam everything about her is tasteful and you know how I am with tastefulness, right in her living room is this massive dark brown leather couch. And get this, the little throw rug she has right by the front door where she put her shoes… Bright red. The whole night was themed. Anyways she sits down and opens her book and looks up at me, now I should tell you we’d been very chummy for some weeks now at work and we had a formidable friendship going into all this, so she looks at me and it’s the first time she looks at me from her big comfy couch holding a book while I’m standing there like one of those great actors of years past, Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck, one of those old guys, standing there with my smart-looking suit and my hair combed and stunned that everything is real around me. I realized in this instant that I’d finally grown up. My whole life I just wanted to be one of those guys who wears suits everywhere in all climates and always has his hair parted and gets invited up to the tasteful apartments of professional women. I realize I’m this man in the world and I’m standing as tall as can be in front of this warm woman in her warm living room and she looks at me and I cannot believe that I haven’t noticed before and I love this woman for drawing my attention to it. So I sit down next to her and pull my book out of my case and set it on one knee and just then you can smell the coffee fresh as day so Claudia stands and goes to get it. She comes back and hands me my mug and she picks up her book again and notices I’m not moving. I’m just static. She asks if there’s anything I need and I say no, then she asks if something is wrong and I say no. I tell her, and it’s true, I tell her I’ve never been that comfortable in my entire life. I was too comfortable to read. She smiled a bit and then she really looked at me, really just looked at me from behind those glasses. And then of course, oh god everybody who loves glasses loves them for this single reason, she took off her glasses without looking away. I was madly in love I suppose. She asked if I liked her better with her glasses and I said when she had her glasses on I liked her better with glasses, but only when she had them on. I was in some mood, that fellow Powell has a queer sense of humor. She smiled and asked if I’d like her to put them back on and I told her ‘I suppose not, but once you do, yes.’ She put them on so we could both pretend to read, but we couldn’t. I just sat there letting her look at me and I watched her looking at me. I liked her looking at me. I put my hand out and she laid her hand in mine and I thanked her. Not for holding my hand, for everything, I think she knew what I meant. It was clear then, I was saying thank you for the apartment and the invitation and the coffee and the couch. I just wanted to be holding her hand while I thanked her; you know how I am with that sort of thing.
“God, I forget why I was telling you all that. Thanks though. I can easily imagine not ever having told anybody that. Those sorts of things, those slight, extra-personal stories like that that really make all the difference to you are hard to tell. They never come up, you know? It’s not everyday somebody actually wants you to talk for nine hours about red stockings.
“It’s nice talking about it. If we were to get married everybody’d want to know how we met, when’s the first time we kissed, what happened that first night she invited me over. But when these things don’t work, and this is the worst part for me, when they don’t work out, all those glorious, personal goldmines seem to vanish. Those little moments get thrown out with the whole relationship. I’d like to hold on to them. But if I bring them to work it muddles everything up. Thirty-four feet from my desk is the only other person in the world who knows the same stories as I do. Had you not asked, nobody but the two of us would ever know she went home and put on red stockings for me. It’s too bad. I feel as though all those minutiae are missed opportunities. Wasted enterprise. Like Shoeless Joe hitting a home run in the thrown game. Nobody remembers that. Okay, everybody remembers that.”
“You know what really killed me this morning? Why I called you? Tomorrow we were supposed to drive out to see my mother. Claudia really wanted to meet her and we set the date but tomorrow never came.
“The last couple times we saw each other we just talked about why it wouldn’t work. Which is to say she told me why it wouldn’t work while I tried to convince her it would; which is not fun for anybody. The pressure of keeping it a secret really spoiled it, I suppose. Goddam, I don’t know. It’s too easy to ascribe it to just one thing like that. There’re half a million things to keep every relationship from working. She just… I don’t think we ever laid ground rules, you know? I mean, every living thing needs a habitat, even relationships. We had no way of seeing it because there was no framework, no boundaries. Goddam that’s the damn clerk in me trying to rationalize everything. Why didn’t it work? Hell if I know, really. We were perfect for each other, that’s why. No, that’s not fair. We made each other nervous, maybe. We embarrassed ourselves in front of each other. We were too hushed in our compassion, too quiet. We were surrounded by us. We couldn’t escape. For two or three weeks we lived and breathed our secret tryst. Who knows, man? Who cares? I don’t. Why would I concern myself with that? It didn’t work. That fellow Powell I told you about, Goddam, I couldn’t finish that book because it reminded me of red stockings, but I read most of it and it had a section about Tomorrow Morning, this fellow Powell only concerned himself with Tomorrow Morning he said. Not Today, too many people were worried about Today so he’d leave Today in their hands and busy himself with Tomorrow Morning. What he meant is that the greatest freedom he’d ever known was waking up without worries. A few times in his Second Life, he refers to his Second Life meaning his examined life —this guy’s a real nut, you’d love him— he remembers waking up without bills to pay, without work to worry about or anything to drag him out of bed. He makes his living as a lecturer so he’s got it a little easier than most people who do have to get up and go to work, but the general principle of the thing is there. If you take care of everything, especially yourself, immediately, then when you wake up tomorrow you can lie in bed as long as you please. To stand up out of bed or to continue lying there, that is the ultimate freedom, that choice, or so he claims. So I can’t tell you why we didn’t work and I’m not going to daydream about the possibility of smoothing things out in the future. But I was at work this morning and I turned my day-calendar and saw scribbled in her handwriting a little coded message that said we were driving to Evanston tomorrow. Tomorrow morning I should be getting in the car with Claudia and driving to my mother’s. But instead I’ll be playing Powell’s game, lying in bed deciding when the hell I need to get up, which is never. Except this time as opposed to being freedom it’ll be futility.
“We were perfectly friendly people. And now we’re both miserable, by our own doing. It’s the risk, every time one of these things happen. The wager is sadness.”