Monday, November 22, 2010
Carl R. Purdon
I knew she was trouble the first time I saw her. Something in the way she stood reminded me of the others. The way she moved about the room with her hypnotic innocence. The way she looked in my direction without seeing me. Wrapped up in her own world as if me and my small cubicle didn’t exist.
Her blonde hair flowed across her shoulders, tangled in a single ray of sunlight that had cheated its way through the slats of the closed blinds. The fist-sized flowers on her dress followed her curves and tricked my eyes into looking more than I should have allowed myself to look. She was a living breathing floral arrangement. So much for starting over in a new city.
I tried to busy myself with the task of transferring the tools of my trade from the cardboard box to their rightful places on and in my new desk. Pens and pencils, notepads, and a tape recorder small enough to fit into my shirt pocket came out of the box first. Reporters, even junior reporters like me, should never be caught without the means to capture a moment.
She turned and lifted a slat in the blinds with her finger and peeked out the window. More sunlight drilled through. For a tiny slice of time the dreary room filled with the hope of sunshine. But that hope vanished when her finger allowed the slat to fall back into place. I stared at her back, devouring her with my eyes, invading her privacy without her having the slightest clue. Twice I looked away, trying to resist those old urges, urges that burned in the pit of my stomach like hot coals. I guessed at her height; just under five-six. Her hips were full, perhaps a little too full for someone of her size, but they added character to an otherwise perfect body. The hem of her dress brushed the delicious bends of her knees. Even the backs of her legs were tanned. She turned and I searched her face for the slightest imperfection that might stop my torture. But it was not to be. Her perfect mouth, straight, shaped into neither a frown nor a smile, outlined by full unpainted lips only increased my desire. Her eyes showed not the slightest hint of emotion. It was as if I had been given a blank canvas and the talent to fill it from my own secret dreams. The very thought of approaching her made my palms sweat.
She moved away from the window and disappeared into a cubicle identical to my own. I lifted my dictionary from the box and wiped a layer of dust from the tattered cover. My mother, God rest her soul, bought it for me when I started working for the local newspaper fresh out of high school. It didn’t matter to her that I only worked the mailroom. “If you’re gonna be a reporter you gotta have a good dictionary.” Mother believed in me.
“Forget her,” a strange voice said, “she’s a cold fish.” I looked up at my uninvited guest. He wore polyester pants and a checkered sweater. A toothpick dangled from his thin lips. He smiled and revealed tobacco stained teeth. His high cheekbones dominated the shape of his face, reminding me of The Joker in the Batman cartoons I read when I was a kid. His hair looked wet, the kind of wet that never dries. He stroked his pencil-thin mustache as he looked down at me. I detested him immediately.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, returning my concentration to my cardboard box.
"My guess is she’s a dike,” he said. “Hit on her myself a couple of times. A real cold fish.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. Yes, already I hated him.
After lunch I slipped from the safety of my cubicle and hurried down the hall to make some copies for my first assignment. The room was small, not much bigger than the walk-in closet in my new apartment, and reeked with the coppery smell of toner and fresh paper. Right in the center stood the copier and I wondered how in the world they got it through the doorway. Maybe they built the room around it, I thought, or assembled it on the spot. Suddenly I sensed her behind me.
My nostrils savored the enchanting fragrance of fresh-cut flowers, not any certain variety of flower, but an entire garden. She smelled just as I imagined she would. My palms began to sweat onto the papers in my hand. My breathing became shallow and quick. I prayed for her to go away, to leave me without speaking.
The static whine of the copier masked my pounding heartbeat. I fed my last sheet into the beast and waited for it to spit out my reproduction. My hands trembled as I retrieved it. I felt her eyes burning me and imagined those soft lips smiling at my embarrassment. How could she not enjoy an internal chuckle at my expense? Seeing me come apart just from being near her, how could she not pity me?
“Are you finished?” Her voice was smooth, like a silk sheet floating to rest on a new mattress. My God, did she have no blemishes at all?
“Yes, yes I am.” I brushed past her, avoiding direct eye contact, struggling to maintain my self-control. But just as I reached the freedom of the hallway I stopped and stole a quick glimpse of her face.
“My name’s Arnold,” I said, barely audible.
“Excuse me?” She turned to face me. Her eyes captivated me with their translucent blue innocence.
“Ar-Arnold,” I stuttered, “my name is Arnold. I’m new here.”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m Susan, it’s nice to meet you.” She smiled and stuck out her hand but I couldn’t touch her, not yet. So I just stood there like a statue, worse, like an idiot, my face growing every shade of red imaginable.
Susan, yes, I knew her name now, withdrew her hand and turned her attention to the coping machine.
Just like that she dismissed my attraction for her. One by one she fed a small stack of sheets into the machine. I wanted to interrupt her again, to ask her for a date. A simple three-letter word from her could change everything, but it was not to be. I mentally rehearsed every conceivable way of asking but there could only be one answer. If only I were tall, dark and handsome instead of short, pale and plain. Suddenly I was fifteen again and she was the first girl I ever asked out -- the first girl who ever turned me down. I walked back to my desk, my safe haven, like a zombie. My dad had been right all along -- I was a loser.
“Don’t sweat it, Mack. I told you she was a cold fish. Look, let me set you up with a babe I know. She won’t let you down, if you know what I mean.” It was him again. The obnoxious toothpick with the wet hair.
“My name’s not Mack, it’s Arnold and I’m not in the mood for conversation right now, okay?”
“Whoa, Mack, don’t take it out on me.” He held his hands up like I had a gun on him. “Derk’s the name and love’s the game. I can set you up. What do you want, redhead, blonde? You like blondes. I can tell. Look, you’re new here. Tell you what I’m gonna do.”
“Look! I’m not interested in your babes, or chicks, or whatever it is you call them. Just leave me alone, okay?” Maybe it was my eyes (I’ve been told my eyes can be fierce at times), I don’t know, but something scared him away. Thank you, God.
I tried to put her out of my mind, to get back to my unfinished article. I didn’t need to miss another first deadline. For the remainder of the day I buried my nose in my computer screen and tried to think of anything but her.
We met at the copier again the next day. Actually, we bumped into each other in the doorway. She was coming out, I was going in. An inch-thick file folder tumbled from her hands and hit the tile floor. Papers fanned out onto the floor like a peacock’s tail.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, and dropped to my knees to retrieve the papers. She squatted beside me, our faces only inches apart. I envisioned our lips touching, slowly at first, then with the fury of passion. Strangely, she didn’t seem at all upset with me.
“Good move, Slick.” It was Derk. I shot him a warning glance.
“Get lost Derk,” she said, “it was an accident.”
“Sure, sure, sweet cheeks, I’ve used that accident myself a few times. Maybe you don’t know it but Romeo here’s got the hots for you. He wants to do the belly bop with you. Told me so yesterday.”
I dropped the papers I had collected then scrambled to recover them. I could feel the crimson heat searing my face.
“One more word out of you and I file a sexual harassment suit,” she said. Derk disappeared.
“I-I’m sorry,” I said.
It took me three days to get over my embarrassment enough to risk another trip to the copy room. On my way past her desk I overheard the editor, giving her directions to a six-car pileup out on the interstate. I hurried back to my desk, grabbed my jacket and slipped out the side door which opened directly into the parking garage.
Seconds later I heard the hollow echo of her high heels tapping the sidewalk and ricocheting off the concrete walls. I moved toward the sound and rounded the corner just in time to see her door close and brake lights flash.
“Hey! Wait up!” I ran toward her car as she backed out of her spot. “Wait for me!” She stopped. I ran to her window and looked through the glass at her surprised face. She cracked the glass just enough to hear my explanation. “The boss told me to tag along.”
“Uh, he said I needed to learn my way around.”
“Oh, well, I guess it’s okay. Get in.”
She fingered a button on her door and I heard the door locks thump. I pulled the back door open and slid into the seat directly behind her.
“You’re welcome to ride up front, you know.”
"No, I-I’m afraid I get carsick if I ride in the front.” I saw her face wrinkle in the rear-view mirror. My pulse raced. Adrenaline spurted into my bloodstream and blurred my peripheral vision. My face felt hot, like fever.
“Okay,” she said, “but just tell me if you start feeling sick and I’ll pull over. I just paid fifty bucks to have this thing cleaned.” Her words faded into a drone of background noise. My mind flashed scenes of my past in front of my eyes, keeping time with my rapid breathing.
“Are you okay? You’re not getting sick are you?” Her sluggish voice, like that of a record playing at slow speed, became lost in the mix of other voices. My hand found the silk scarf in the side pocket of my jacket. I wrapped the ends around my fists and pulled it tight. “If you’re getting sick you can get out and get some fresh air before we start moving. It might do you good.” I stared into the blonde hair on the back of her head and noticed her dark roots. Fake, just like the others. My focus relaxed and my vision doubled, then blurred again, completely this time. I could see nothing but Jenny Olsen -- she had been the first. “Hey, do you need a doctor?” I mechanically moved the scarf over her head and brought it down to touch the soft front of her neck. “What are you...”
Sweat dotted my forehead as the intense rush began to subside. When I pulled the scarf from her neck I pressed it against my face and inhaled the mix of perfumes. My bouquet.
Author: Carl Purdon
Carl Purdon was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi in 1964 and currently lives there with his wife and two children. Writing has been a favorite pastime of his for most of his life and he is currently seeking representation for his recently-completed novel.