Sam had asked what my favorite subject in school had been one night in our bed.
“History,” I said. “Only it wasn’t called that. It was always ‘social studies’ or ‘civics.’”
He was shocked. Genuinely shocked. But I do. I like history.
“It’s just so surprising,” he said. “It’s just not what I would have thought. It’s not what I would have thought at all.”
I didn’t understand. What subject did he think should have belonged to the catalog of my childhood? Was this because Jesse had said, in front of Sam, that all of us in the company were, at best, Microsoft smart, and not even approaching Google smart? Sam had seemed to be buying into the story I spun for him up until that point. We are not computer nerds. We are creative.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I honestly don’t have another class in mind that would be more ‘you.’ History seems so wide, so open to be your specialty.”
He sighed and stretched back on the bed. Sam was thin and tall and made up of continuous, soft lines. When he stretched, his arm above his head, there seemed to be just one smudge of pencil at the edge of his skin that brought him to the surface of the definitive boundaries of the bed frame, night stand, bookcase. He was like the echo of a found object, the evidence of nature left on a tracing paper rubbing, and his light form suggested only the healthiest of activities. He had the heavy judgment of someone whose movements are easy and easily made and to whom, success came easily, and reflection was a character flaw.
“I guess I would think—well, computers. Except, I bet you weren’t nerdy about those as a kid. I would think…well, auto shop. Or English—grammar. Math maybe. Whatever had the most to do with taking apart and putting back together stuff and thinking while you did it. You’d enjoy those classes.”
But I enjoy history—probably because there is something concrete there. Sure, historians come up with new ideas, new interpretations. But in the end, something happened, and even if we don’t know about it, it’s there, like bedrock underlining our current moments. I can be a bit new-agey about this. I’m pretty sure that the impression made on time of these actions is inherently known to us. The creative impulse, I’m sure, comes from this.
It’s amazing to me, the remnants of cultures we’re left with. For example, in Pompeii, archaeologists have found graffiti—one person scribbling about loving another, two boys (I assume) debating which is sexier—brunettes or blondes. Elsewhere, in peat bogs, in northern Europe, men and women centuries dead have been found so well-preserved that they could appear to be someone’s daughter or napping grandfather. Tollund Man, for example. Found in Denmark, has stubble on his chin, as if he’s had a late night, went off to work without shaving and has fallen asleep at his desk. The description for all dead bodies: sleeping. The long dead are siblings who sleep a room away, well-known to us, though we are not on speaking terms.
Another programmer, Gary, sat diagonal to my cube. He was the only other person I could see, actually, as I worked all day at my desk. I wondered how he hadn’t been fired yet. He’d never come up with any real projects. Over the eight months I’d worked for the company, I felt like things between him and Arthur had gotten worse, or maybe I’d just witnessed the entire range of their wholly dysfunctional relationship. Arthur teases him at staff meetings, literally has stolen his office supplies more than once, and on a bad day, threatened to fire Gary while standing and yelling between our cubes. At the same time, we know that he’ll never fire Gary because he’s been there longer than any of us, and they haven’t done it yet. Plus, it seems like he can consistently be relied upon to do the work none of the rest of us really want to do.
For some reason, the younger we are, the happier they want to keep us. Every Monday morning, for example, I get to work on programming whatever it is that I want. My first pet project pretty much solidified my position here. It’s an addition to our image search tool. There’s a large amount of imagery online that has been disconnected from its source citation. Once a photograph or a painting is divorced from this information, issues of copyright can come into play, usually for individual website owners, but policymakers have been pushing for our legal culpability under anti-trust laws. Nevertheless, many of the actual laws regarding online proliferation of imagery are still to be decided by legislation. There are a great number of people who see images, copy them, download them, post them to different online social sharing sites without having the proper digital citation. My search tool would allow a user to input a visual element into the search bar and receive search results comprised of visually similar imagery—including accredited visual information. Our legal department is thrilled with the idea because it could potentially allow us exemption from any legal responsibility for user break of copyright as we’ve allowed for users to reproduce imagery legally.
Gary has to be 45 or 50, and he wears his age poorly. He looks like a comic strip’s reproduction of a middle-aged IT cube-slave. He has tufts of brown hair in a monk’s crown around his head. It’s unclear to me whether he’s trying to do a comb over or if his hair is unwashed. His shoulders curve down from his neck in one half-circular bow pulling down and away from the collar of his dress shirt. Longitudinal folds crease the remainder of the oversized shirt that rises in crests over the sphere of his upper body. The white of his fingers makes his cuffs appear to be beige as they shoot for the keys, all of which seem to be just out of his reach.
Being a woman could allow me to help Gary, I think. I’ve thought of stopping him in the parking lot or in the nook by the elevators, early when we’re the only two here and taking his stubby, white hand and shoving it inside my bra on a day when my breasts are feeling particularly large. While he was still shocked, maybe trying to pull away, I’d take his other stubby hand and pull it under my skirt. I’d have taken my underwear off—I guess I would have to wear an A-line skirt to maneuver, and I’d put two of his fingers inside my vagina and sort of moan in his ear. You know—like give him his own porn. It’s this sort of thing that every man longs for, but never happens, apparently. He could say that it happened to him, and that would be some sort of an improvement.
Of course, I’d never do that for a few reasons, some of which may be obvious to you. Sam can tell you that, when attempting to replicate porn with the likes of me, you have to be ready for things not to go as planned. In my defense, Sam is tall, and tall guys break things in the best possible environment. With a long-time partner, error can be forgiven. With a stranger, error allows for every evil simmering beneath the surface to shoot into the air like hot ash and stone. What if there are cameras in the elevator? What if Gary somehow had evidence and blackmailed me? Would he threaten to tell Sam, or Arthur? Would he use it to get me fired or take over my more lucrative and interesting projects? I can tell he has the evil of someone who’s unexpectedly been given power. I’ve seen enough movies and worked with nerdy, mild-mannered men enough to know that the bullied are soonest the bulliers when the tables are turned, and those who aren’t successful at creating can make up for it with the force of easy destruction.
It is a pity, after all, that I feel bad for him, I thought. I knew that we were not equals, and that I was the superior programmer. I like this job. I wouldn’t risk it just because I feel sorry for him.
What really made it possible for me to come here was an idea I had in college for a multi-copy function. When browsing through information on different websites and in different articles, it was annoying to find several pieces of information in the open windows that I wanted to paste into a document in order to study the information further, or to include it in a paper. I’d have to perform several different cut/copy commands, and scroll through the windows to find each piece of information I’d come across. By the time I got through cutting and pasting, I’d lost the train of thought I’d had regarding how the information fit together. I’d often accidentally eliminate information I’d had saved on the clipboard, so I tweaked the functions to allow for multiple copies without slowing me down with extra keystrokes.
This current project is obviously bigger and much more tedious. The programmers are working the algorithms alongside mathematicians, but we’ve also had to hire some art and art history people and linguists. We have to teach the search to return similar components of an image. Errors that could be common once everything is up and running seem to have the potential for flattery: a photograph of someone’s aunt with her hands folded returns the Mona Lisa, the curve in a girlfriend’s neck returns a Degas ballerina.
Gary has a red splotch that’s appeared on the side of his neck. Is that psoriasis? What is psoriasis?
The following Monday after my history conversation with Sam, I was having a bad day. Jesse, my coworker who’s obsessed with National Enquirer, was being particularly distracting with his links to articles about Bat Boys and world’s fattest people and other bullshit that I have no business reading. I finally turn off all instant messaging or chatting devices. There is the green cursor, flashing at me, insistent, and I have no idea what to do. I think of the e-mail signature of one of my grad school professors: The great virtues of a programmer: laziness, impatience, and hubris.
I finished the bitter coffee Sam made for me, sipping it out of the tiny cap of the thermos shaped like a silver bullet. I said to myself in a whisper, “Someday, they will find a code you’ve written, and it will be the same as finding you and your DNA.” I had the sense that, like the ruins of Pompeii, someday, my digital world would go screaming through the inside of someone with a thought like, “I knew I would meet you here, motherfucker! Here we are talking across time and digital space!”
I made my way to the break room, where I found Gary taking over the circular table with mounds of silver and white plastic hardware. His dark eyebrows crested over his forehead, which was pushed forward with complete concentration. His round face appeared childlike under its 1950’s school-kid glasses, his tongue gently tipped outside the crease of his thin lips. I opened the glass door, pushing against the greasy white handprints of the weary procrastinators of yore who’d also made this pilgrimage. Gary looked up, seeming apologetic, bashful. I’d seen this look on his face many times when Arthur came up between our cubes, vaguely taunting Gary within the limits of civility, beating him in places where the bruises wouldn’t show.
“I hope you don’t mind I’m taking up the whole table,” he said, as if I were entering my house to find him, the guilty terrier eating the curtains. “No one’s here at this time, usually.”
I shrugged my shoulders and could feel that I was sticking out my lips in an exaggerated noncommittal expression before crossing the room to the coffeemaker. Already, I felt embarrassment at what I must have looked like making this face, but part of me still felt as though I could escape this room unseen if I didn’t speak. I tried to make coffee as quietly as possible, but he seemed unable to concentrate with me there. He stood, fiddling with a tiny, silver screwdriver, and I turned to watch the coffee percolate, thinking with my back to him he’d jump naked again, into the swimming hole of his project.
Instead he asked me questions.
“How is your search feature coming along?”
I let out my breath. The bear in the woods had spotted me. There was nothing to do but make myself big and threatening.
“It’s about the same as it was at the status meeting yesterday.”
“Right, yeah,” he said, adequately dismissed. But he perked up again. “I just think that’s such a clever idea. You have a real creative programmer’s head on your shoulders.”
I felt the irritation in my throat, a meniscus inching its way above my trachea, but I continued pouring the entire coffeepot into my deceptively accommodating thermos.
“I don’t mean to sound condescending,” he said. “Only I mentioned it to my wife, who’s an artist, and she thought it was just a really amazing idea.”
“I didn’t realize you’re married,” I say, and I didn’t. A range of possibilities was cultivated in seconds. Does Gary have kids? Is Gary in love? Does someone kiss Gary when he arrives at—what—an apartment? A house? Does Gary have a house, for God’s sake? But the overwhelming thought I have is, He is a grown up. He is grown up for real. What the hell is he doing in this horrible workplace situation he’s carved out for himself? Why doesn’t he go and live a real life?
In my defense, at the time I hadn’t yet had to do a job I didn’t want to do.
“Oh, yeah, twenty years two months ago,” he said, as though he felt like he should apologize again but just couldn’t bring himself to feel sorry for his joy. “She teaches art at my kids’ school actually. You can bet they hate that.” He laughed. “Especially the older one. She turned fifteen, and she just thinks we can’t do anything right.”
“Sure,” I said, and I felt as though the bottom had fallen out under me. Gary seemed, for the first time, as though he might fit somewhere, as though he had a place in the world outside. It made me uncomfortable. I guess I liked the idea of Gary being on a rung below. There was a simplicity to it that I recognized that fit in with everything I’d learned from childhood schoolyards. Now, Gary seemed to have this thing—a family—that seemed so far away from me. I’d thought of marrying Sam, but we’d never talked about it. In retrospect, it must have been jealousy that made me say, with the attitude of someone reinforcing predetermined office hierarchy, “Does Arthur know about this stuff you’re doing here?” And I motioned to his pile of plastic as if I thought there were no internal chart he followed to animate his Frankensteinian monster. I knew better.
But he trumped me, saying, “Arthur and I have an agreement that this is how I’ll spend my personal project time.”
Again, the idea of him having an agreement with Arthur blew my mind. I left without saying anything else. He politely waited, but it was more for my benefit than for his. I could just feel him, picking up his tools again, forgetting me completely, and concentrating, wholly, behind my back, as if I had never been there in the first place.
Two days later, I was working at my desk. My co-worker Jesse was draping himself over the grey-carpeted wall of my cube and absentmindedly brushing his thumb against the curling corner of a magazine clipping I had tacked up. He was so short, though, that this position was awkward for him, and it seemed as though the school bullies had hung him up by his shoulder. A southerner, he vaguely twanged away at his vocal cords, asking me to lunch.
“I can’t. I have to get an e-mail back to this linguist before I go anywhere,” I say. “And, to be honest, I can’t really understand what she’s asking me here.”
“I’ll bring you something back.”
“Don’t!” I shout, before realizing I’ve done it. His eyes go wide. Gary looks up from his desk across the aisle. “Whatever you get me usually burns out the inside of my colon! Just don’t get me anything.”
He continued walking away in a retreat, hands raised, with a look of amused but impatient pity before turning and initiating the step of a man who has been somewhere he knows will be absent from his memoirs.
Gary and I continued to work. Well, Gary worked. I tried not to watch him now that we were alone together in the office. I watched the pillow of his back rise and fall with a sense of space brought on by the affluence of semi-solitude. When I finished my e-mail, I crossed the divide to his cave of a desk.
“Did you bring lunch?” I asked.
He looked up, and instead of being surprised, said, “No,” as if we were in a house with a parlor on a summer day.
“Do you like that salad place?” I said, and off we went.
All the times we went to lunch over the next few weeks, he didn’t bring up his art-teaching wife or his kids again. I was so curious to ask, but it was easier to talk code and office gossip until all of a sudden, he invited me over to his house. He told me to bring Sam along after I’d spoken a bit about my boyfriend, my significant other, my partner—as I named him, in that order. I was thinking that, by telling him about my life, he’d give away more about how he’d managed this feat of creating a happy world on the outside of the office. Gary must have known something about Sam and I before I did because he said I should come even if Sam couldn’t make it on Saturday, and then, of course, Sam couldn’t, because he was taking clients to a bluegrass show an hour away.
It turned out, though, that Gary did not have a perfect nuclear family, as I thought. Gary’s younger child was a daughter instead of a son and she was crazy. I could tell right away that his older daughter, perched on the ottoman and moving her head like she was advertising hair care, was a real pain in the parental ass.
“Have another glass,” said Gary’s wife, Sully, as she poured me more white wine. She was a person I could not believe actually existed. Not only was she Gary’s wife, but she also seemed as though she was the inspiration for every mother who comforted lost TV watchers throughout American prime time history. Her nickname was short for Sullivan, a name she’d opted to keep in a stroke of brilliance rather than taking Gary’s last name, Wheeler. She asked me how long I had been working at her husband’s place of employment, and I tried to answer two and a half years without letting on that, for most of that time, I’d worked so closely to her husband I could have practically touched him, and though, oddly, I’d fantasized about having pity sex with him, I’d never actually spoken to the man now interlacing his fingers with hers who was in the middle of telling me how much his wife had looked forward to meeting me.
“Yeah?” I said. Wine turns me into an instant idiot, but I can’t stop drinking it. I could already tell I was outmatched in the area of sipping slowly and with propriety.
“You hear so much about the company being a boys’ club,” she said. “It’s good to hear about a creative woman having such success in an environment like that.”
I wanted to be modest and say that I hadn’t had that much success, but she’s right. I did do some incredible work, and I really had to throw my weight around. Plus, my tongue felt too big, I didn’t want to stumble over my words in front of Gary’s snide teenager. It seemed to be her mission to provide balance to her parents’ amicable expressions, and the more impressed and polite her mother seemed to become, the more this miniature version of Sully looked at me with disdain.
“I’m doing okay,” I finally managed. “It’s good to be doing something that matters.”
Sully politely excused herself to check on the lasagna and she called Gary in from our shop talk after a few minutes to deal with a predictably surly and defiant teenaged girl who refused to set the table because she was supposed to be able to hang out with Mark tonight instead of talking to dad’s stupid work friends.
I realized, sipping the last of this second glass, that Gary’s younger daughter was still in the room. She was Hazel, named for her grandmother, I remembered. With a little, old lady’s scrunched up face, she sank back in a huge, puffy green club chair, her tiny legs crossed, and investigated me. She snapped the elastic of two sets of colorful tube socks that covered her from toes to calves. I thought I was in trouble for sure and that this kid was going to devour me, when she unceremoniously declared, “Your scarf is cool.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Then, she uncrossed her legs, leaned forward, and whispered, “Wanna see my chinchilla take a dust bath?”
She went to a ledge in the kitchen and captured a red bucket with abused daisy decals on the side and a plastic jar for garlic that now appeared to be half-filled with sand. Returning to stand too close to me, she said we would have to be quiet.
We went to her room, which was filled with all kinds of pink and green crap. She scooted some stuffed unicorns away from the chinchilla cage, making way for the bucket and revealing the furry grey lovechild of a squirrel and a neurotic rat. It stared at me from behind the mesh of its tall cage and sniffed as though about to have a panic attack. Hazel poured half the dust into the bucket and opened the cage door. The grey fur-ball, fear forgotten, made a beeline for the bucket, sniffed, and hopped in, beginning to elaborately squirm.
“Holy shit,” I said, watching the large rodent wriggle around. Hazel’s eyes got kind of big, and she wouldn’t look at me, but she smiled as if she was in class and she knew someone else, not her, was going to get in trouble this time. “Sorry for swearing,” I said.
“That’s okay,” she said, still smirking and looking down. “I hear swear words all the time.”
Alright, kiddo, I thought, and I go back to viewing the wholly unbelievable spectacle of a large rat rolling in dirt.
“Don’t you think if I put a video of this online it would get, like, a million views?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said.
Sully’s figure loomed in the door suddenly and my primal fear of silent-footed parents was activated, then exacerbated by her tone.
“Hazel, we’ve talked about this before. You can’t keep giving Chuchu bath after bath. It’s not good for him.”
“But she wanted to see it,” the little brat protested, pointing at me.
I woke up on the couch in the morning, and thought immediately not: I had too much wine, what an asshole I am, but I have to get Sam to come back with me next time. Even strolling into the kitchen hung-over seemed like a vacation. Gary and Sully had all kinds of spices or pastas or something in little sealed containers and had a framed needlepoint of a blue octopus on a white background above the breakfast nook. Why was this so charming to me? I felt like a child in a fairy tale, captured by their creative black magic.
Gary arrived, suitably bathrobed over his red flannel pajamas, which no doubt were dreaming of a life of ironic use in Brooklyn or Portland while in fact living out their days in the Midwest covering a portly middle-aged man with no pretentions.
“She lives!” he yelped, jovially beginning machinations required for coffee and aiding in my search for the cabinet that housed mugs. “Great to have you over. You’ll have to bring Sam next time.”
“I was thinking the exact same thing,” I said. “Thanks. Thanks so much.”
I don’t know why I was afraid of what I’d find at my apartment. In retrospect, I guess I knew what was going on with Sam and that bitch behind my back, because I had a presentiment, putting my key in the door, that I would find some beautiful, blonde girl in our bed, an appropriately cool tattoo covering her naked shoulder. My nerves were tuned to catch the unexpected, but the apartment sat there, blank-faced, with no one inside. When Sam joined me in the afternoon, I had forgotten my fear and we passed back into the old habits and conversations of our free time together, and I thought, only once, that it was strange we’d gone a day and a half without seeing each other and he hadn’t checked in via phone call or text. I waited until his detailed summary of the concert was over before giving my own report on Sully and Gary.
“You’d have liked them,” I said. “I really love their house. Their kids are a little annoying, but all kids are, I guess. They’re fun. The younger one has a chinchilla as a pet, which is weird.”
He didn’t seem to be picking up on my excitement.
“It was lots of fun,” I said.
“Sounds like it,” he’d picked up a magazine. “I’m going to go out later with the guys.
“Really?” I felt myself ready to whine. “I thought we were going to dinner.”
Driving to work on Monday, I was overcome with two feelings: I did not want to work on my project this morning, and I couldn’t help but develop complicated feelings for men I admired. It was what made me interested in Sam. He had a confidence that bred success, and I had always wanted to be able to get out of my own way and just believe in myself, as cheesy as that sounded. Part of me loved Sam, but part of being with Sam was hard work. More and more, over these four years, I felt like I had something to live up to, something to prove. I’d earned more money than he had since college, I had gotten a job with a company anyone would tell you was impossible to get, but still, there was something far and away above me, something he seemed to know instinctively that eluded me. I felt like part girlfriend, part dorky younger sibling.
Arthur approached my cube at 9:27. I noticed, glancing across the aisle, that Gary was not in. “Can you join me in my office, Claire?”
As soon as I was seated in the modern metal and black leather chair, Arthur sat behind his desk and leaned back.
“Gary has left us,” he said.
I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. I didn’t think I was in Arthur’s office to be reprimanded, but there was that fear there. The project was not going as smoothly as it had in the beginning. But my unfounded fear over, I felt betrayed. Abandoned.
“Wow,” I said.
“Wants more time with his kids. I didn’t even know that weirdo had kids,” he said.
“Who knew?” I said.
Arthur wanted me to pick up part of the slack, so my project was being shelved. It was only temporary, he assured me, but with the company facing some stiff competition and a potentially expensive lawsuit, we had to focus on the basics. The art historians and linguists we contracted with were costing a fortune. And anyway, he said, it seemed as though there were bigger fish in the programming world who might get my idea online before we could do so. Like he said, it was only temporary, but he would need to suspend my independent project time until they could find someone to fill in for Gary.
I wanted to go home sick, but I held out and only ducked out a half an hour before normal quitting time. I went straight to Sam’s work, and then, stepping out of the car in front of the large, glass building where he had his studio, I saw my naked tattoo girl. I knew it as soon as I saw her through the glass sitting behind the counter at reception. I smelled it as soon as I walked up to the counter, and my voice knew it too because it certainly wasn’t performing its function when she asked who I was there to see.
“You’re being kind of strange,” Sam said in his office. “Did something happen?”
“No,” I said. “Well, Gary quit, apparently.”
“Ahhh, well, good that he finally got out of there, right?” said Sam, his hands, hosting fingers too long and large to be still and listen, were tapping away. “Didn’t you say he should leave? Didn’t you say Arthur’s kind of got it in for him, and he’s not even that good?”
“You don’t know everything, so maybe you should shut your mouth!” I say to him, surprised by how angry I am.
“What is your problem?” said Sam.
“What besides the fact that I never see you, and you obviously don’t even like me even though we live together, and you’re probably sleeping with that girl out there behind the counter?”
Seriously, I didn’t even know before that I had been angry, but I was on a roll.
“Plus, now my only friend has quit and I’m trapped there, and I do nothing—for anybody—ever!”
“Jesus, Claire,” said Sam. “Get a fucking grip.”
I left and practically ran to my car, the thought occurring to me that the person whose behavior most closely matched my own these days was Gary’s surly teenager. I was not only failing to move forward, I was regressing. What a nightmare.
I showed up thirty minutes later at Gary’s house, knocking frantically.
“How could you leave work?” I shouted at him when he answered the door. “Don’t you know I’m going to get stuck with all that boring bullshit that you used to do?”
“Claire,” he began, but Gary, being mild-mannered Gary, looked too shocked and hungry-to-please and could not begin to manage another syllable.
I sat down on his front step. “I think my life is ending,” I said, and true to my script for the day, began crying.
Maybe I used to feel that history was comforting in the sense that, while new discoveries can be made, they can all fit together into the story of the past that you already know. I remembered when Sam and I first got together, it felt like hitting all the lights in your car, and like there was no traffic on the road to work when there always, always had been before. I remembered all the other relationships I’d had or the men I’d dated—before Sam—and there was a moment when it had turned over, and I thought, Now, I’m on the other side of the hill with this person—this is a thing I know is going to end. We’re going down. Someone would say something, or do something—or they wouldn’t, but there would be a moment where you’d come into a room, and they’d be there, but you wish they weren’t. Or you’d see something slightly off about their face that you’d never quite see the old way again. And sometimes, someone would give you too much of themselves in this way that seemed to make a crater in the sand between the two of you. But, I’d never ever seen these things with Sam. I always wanted him around, and I thought he’d wanted me around until one day, he didn’t. And I felt like no one at my job could live without me either—also untrue. I was nothing special. That had been the problem all along, just sitting under layers of ash and rock. Everything was going along on the surface, but once excavated, this problem would throw doubt onto everything else. It wouldn’t fit in with what we knew. It would completely change the way we thought about the past. It would ruin everything built on top of it. It would mean we’d have to start over.
Fuck this, I thought, sitting there, hating the malleability of time.
“There, there,” Gary said to me, patting my back as I cried, and in a soft, fatherly voice, he actually said to me, “There, there.”