Neil sits four feet away from me. Most mornings, he’s there before I am. He sees me from the moment my day begins, as I slip off my shoes into other shoes – leaning into the mirror, inspecting my mascara, questioning the cleanliness of my blouse.
Neil stares at his computer, but he knows what I’m doing. When you are forced to be around a person for 8 hours of a day, five days a week … you can’t help it. They are your environment. That’s what we are to each other, Neil and I. There are natural exchanges – gum, tea, cash, snacks, snide emails, and inside jokes that make zero sense to anyone but us.
A coworker like Neil will know your weaknesses.
For example, the 3:00 PM Snack Machine Ritual: Peanut Butter Nature Valley Granola Bar. Or a close second: Fat Free Gardettos.
A true coworker-friend will let you know when your vending issues are getting out of hand. If you are headed to the snack machine at 8:45 AM, Neil will let you go there – but when you get back to your desk and start unwrapping that shit, he’s going to stop you and ask you what time it is. And then you’re going to have to look at the clock and pretend to be confused as to why it’s so early.
“I don’t know how this even got in my hand,” you’ll say. And then you’ll put the shit in the drawer, because eating that crap before lunch is an embarrassing situation.
“What is going on?” he’ll ask. Indeed.
Moving on …
Neil has overheard every phone conversation I’ve ever had with 1) my insurance guy 2) my esthetician and 3) ZoomCare. Neil lent me his Swiss Army knife so that I could open the UPS box that contained the handmade wind chime, a birthday gift from my mom. He watched me cry as I opened it.
Neil knew when I met someone. The day I came in, my raincoat completely soaked, but I didn’t care.
“The way he kissed me, I could barely sleep last night,” were the first words out of my mouth, that morning.
Neil put his fingers in his ears. But he couldn’t shut himself off from hearing everything that unraveled in the months after that… he knew every meal that I planned to cook with my boyfriend, every potluck I planned to attend, and every obligatory birthday dinner that I didn’t want to go to.
And over a series of months, Neil eventually came to know every small annoyance… every grievance, every wistful complaint … regarding said boyfriend.
Yet, despite ALL OF THIS, Neil NEVER remembered my boyfriend’s name. Instead, he called him Paul.
He’d wince, like he knew it wasn’t right and say Paul? like it was a question.
“The name is not Paul,” I’d say for the billionth time. (Probably while chomping Gardettos – the sodium and annoyance elevating my heart rate to a dangerous level.)
But Neil kept it up.
“You and … (one-one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand) Paul … got any plans this weekend?” he’d ask.
***Imagine that you are reading the details narrating the downward trajectory of my relationship with said boyfriend here. Imagine that the details read similar to your details and other peoples details that you know. They may be in the same family of relationship problems – same genus, family, species of issues.*** GOOD. Now that you’re pretended to read those details and understand that we are linked by a common experience and that you are on MY SIDE… you won’t be surprised to hear that, eventually, we didn’t have plans – because we broke up. Kaput. Fin. The end.
But it’s not the end, because …
I have Relationship PTSD. Do you know what Relationship PTSD is? It’s when, OUT OF NOWHERE, I remember the acts of kindness that I performed in my relationship – which lead to nothing. And by nothing, I mean: NO FUTURE OF ANY KIND.
Lots of times these realizations occur during work hours, under the florescent lights of my cubicle. Suddenly, I feel my soul getting sucked from my body. And the next thing I know: I’ve been just been sitting there in front of my computer, checked out for 40 minutes, stacking a pile of rye crisps next to my keyboard like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And then a vision appears in my mind, like it’s happening right in front of me: THE TIME I CLEANED THAT FUCKER’S BATHROOM, WHEN HIS ROOMMATE MOVED OUT. This is all just so embarrassing and crystal clear in retrospect. Were the acts of kindness just desperate manipulations in order to get a person to love me?
Oh Jesus. I slam my head down on my desk. SO SO SO STUPID. HOW WAS I SO BLIND? WHY? HOW? WHY?
Then, I snap my head up from my desk and make an announcement: “I once got on my hands and knees and scrubbed his bathroom with bleach. And q-tips.”
“Wait. What? Whose bathroom?” Neil asks.
“Paul,” I say.
It doesn’t matter anymore. It feels good to say it now. So I say it again.
Neil smiles at me, takes a rye crisp off my desk, about to pop it in his mouth.
“Paul,” he says.
And I nod, “Paul.”