Harold watched her through glass, mistakenly thinking that meant his fantasy wasn’t dangerous. He leaned against the wall and stared between the slats of half-drawn Venetian blinds draped over the narrow window next to his office door. The blinds were usually closed as there wasn’t supposed to be any reason for him to look at the cubicles on the main floor – it was just an adornment of privilege that reminded his colleagues that he did, in fact, have an office.
With the blinds open, the window provided him with a spy porthole of sorts through which he watched Maia sitting in her cubicle as she gyrated through an endless cycle of leaning back in her chair, chatting on her headset, then leaning forward to update financial forms on her computer screen. She was constantly in motion, like a good waitress in a coffee shop who understood the value of all movement, thus wasting none.
Her brown hair fell half way down her back and each time she moved, it swayed back and forth with a luminescent sheen, some ballet accompaniment to her fingers playing over keyboards and phones like a pianist.
Harold jerked with the sensation of waking to a clamoring alarm clock when the door next to his spy porthole clicked open. He stepped back from the window, nervously twisting the spindle to close the blinds. He fiddled with the button of his jacket and turned to face the intruder, as if closing the blinds and re-buttoning his jacket were all quite natural when he should have been sitting behind his desk looking at his own monitor instead of the curiously fetching AP clerk working in the cubicle just feet away from his office.
He thought she was fetching, anyway, even if she had occasionally been described around the break room as “round” and, always, “short”. Maia was not the kind of woman most men would look at twice, but she stirred in him a primal desire that wouldn’t abate and every time he saw her, a warm soothing sensation flowed through him. It was a spell, really. When he was tense or frustrated, he would walk over to the window and watch her. Within moments, the tension ebbed away, as if he were standing on the beach and cold water receded to leave his bare feet standing on warm sand. And he could breathe again. If he ever drank enough alcohol at the company Christmas party to foolishly proclaim his feelings for her, he supposed he would try to explain that it was how she expressed herself. How her eyes looked when she talked, curious and available all at the same time, how she spoke with a casual and unpretentious voice, how she walked with an oddly deliberate gait. The only part he didn’t understand was why none of the others fell under the spell of her aura. The eye of the beholder was a vast mystery, indeed.
He felt his face redden at the sight of the woman who had opened the door to poke her head into his office and stare at him, because he knew she could read his every thought by the expression on his face. Harold couldn’t decide if he should step away from the window or try to look as if he were standing there on purpose.
A slender woman with a prim nose, plain-looking face and piercing eyes that betrayed her ambition as much as her brilliance, Cheryl pursed her lips almost imperceptibly as she stood just inside the door. Perpetually dressed in a grey tweed skirt, grey jacket and white blouse buttoned almost to her neck, she looked him over with the playful accusatory expression that comes with friendship. She wore light makeup and her hair bounced in a short bob. It was the perfect combination of pleasantness and respectability. She was the same age as Harold and although more than a few men in the office had dared to flick a glance in her direction, Harold didn’t see her that way. Being comfortable in her presence was easy and he was grateful for the one woman in his life who didn’t invoke some flavor of angst. Oddly, she understood him far better than any of his male colleagues, a fluke of social evolution that fascinated him because he couldn’t explain it.
She shifted her gaze to the window, the blinds still weaving slightly because he had tugged them into motion in his haste to close the slats.
“What are you doing, Harry?”
She traipsed into his office and sat on the edge of his desk, crossing her ankles. “You know that going to night shift is actually a promotion for her.”
He tried to ignore her remark, because to acknowledge it meant admitting to his sad voyeuristic adventure.
Cheryl persisted. “She’s handling the APAC accounts now. Overseas stuff.”
Harold looked at his shoes and fought the urge to again re-button his jacket.
“And everyone thought she just left,” Cheryl said. “They didn’t even take her out for drinks. Nobody said goodbye.”
Unable to stand it any longer, he looked at her and asked, “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you drooling over the night AP account manager, Harry.”
“I was just thinking about the Marbry deal. I’m not sure the return is there – not like everyone is expecting. Certainly not like everyone is selling.”
“Uh huh. You know what your problem is, Harry?”
“It’s been a long day, Cheryl. Can this wait?”
Cheryl folded her hands in her lap. “There aren’t enough women in your life who are nice to you. That’s your fault, by the way. And because there aren’t enough women in your life who are nice to you, you’ll puppy dog any woman who gives you the time of day.”
“You’re nice to me. Do I look like a puppy dog to you?”
“No, Harry, I’m the only honest woman you know. Don’t try to deflect me on this, it’s too important.”
“Jesus, what are you going to do, quote the book to me?” He stepped away from the window and pretended to straighten books on a shelf next to his desk.
“Maybe. If that’s what it takes.” She nudged him with her shoe. “Look at me, Harry.”
He whipped around to face her. “What?”
“You need to turn off the lights, stop by the store, buy flowers for Margaret and go home.”
He scoffed. “Have you met Margaret?”
“Look, you just need to give her flowers and then keep your mouth shut. Listen to her. Ask questions that are important to her and then help her cook dinner or something.”
“Yeah, well, if it were only that simple.”
“It is that simple, Harry. You just don’t want it to be.” She looked at him the same way he imagined a sister would, both of them knowing that she was right while she waited for him to realize it for himself.
“She’ll just throw them at me.”
“Or beat you to death with them. Whatever. Try.” She looked at the floor. “Did you call that number I gave you?”
“Do you still have the card?”
She had given him a marriage counselor’s card weeks before. He fished the card from his shirt pocket and deliberately flicked it over in his hand.
“Then call. Trust me, he can help.”
“Yeah, it only took you three times to get it right.”
She frowned. “At least I tried.”
“But you don’t need a counselor with Pete, do you? Did counseling help with the first two?” Cheryl shrugged her head to the side. Smiling, he said, “I can’t imagine a man alive who could handle you, Cheryl. They’re intimidated by you. Which is kind of stupid, actually. Except for Pete.”
“Yeah, we’re not talking about me. Quit deflecting. See, this is what I mean. Right here. You don’t listen.”
“You know what the difference is between you and Margaret?” he asked. Cheryl rolled her eyes, her gaze growing impatient. “You say things that are worth listening to.”
“So does Margaret.” She hopped off his desk. “Just because she says things that make you uncomfortable doesn’t mean they’re not worth hearing.”
Harold let out a sigh, defeated, although he decided to chalk it up to being tired more than her being right. He would admit to her being right later, when he was alone and he didn’t have to face her piercing gaze telling him that his problems were all his fault. There were two sides to every story and he wondered if she understood how difficult Margaret had become.
Cheryl walked to the door. “And take the south elevator. You don’t need to be walking through the cubicles tonight. Understand?”
She stared at him for a moment, and he knew to take her tone seriously. Right now she was his best friend, but she could choose to talk to him as the Director of Human Resources instead. Harold knew when to take his hand away from a burner.
Harold nodded and felt his eyes hood over, forfeiting a last impulse to try and pretend she didn’t know what was going on. “Yeah, okay.”
Her expression softened. “Get those flowers, Harry. Trust me.”
After she left and closed the door, Harold let out a long sigh and unbuttoned his jacket. He looked at the closed blinds for a moment, wondering if Maia was still out there, her hands fluttering through the air as her hair weaved back and forth. He thought of opening the blinds again, but Cheryl had ruined it for him. He hated to admit it, but maybe she had caught him just in time to keep him from embarrassing himself too much.
Instead, he sat down behind his desk and jiggled the mouse to bring his computer humming back to life. Staring at the corporate logo splashed across the screen for several minutes, he tried to force the endless loop of Maia’s hands, her weaving hair, and the occasional glimpse of her profile, from his mind. It was her profile that soothed him most. When she turned sideways, he could see one eye almost looking at him and her succulent mouth as she talked. In those moments, if she had turned just a little more, she would have seen him. And he always wondered – would she show him that gleaming smile that was a little too big for her face, or would she quickly turn away? Maybe even stomp over to his door and ask him why he was ogling her. He sensed that kind of courage in her – she was the type to confront the world on her own terms.
He opened his browser to search for a florist that was still open, but they were all closing soon. The image of Maia still reeling in his mind, he waited until he could tell himself it was too late to buy flowers for his wife.
©2021 Michael J Lawrence