CCW Finalist, Fiction
He hates me, and I don't know why. There are a million reasons why he should, but all that is still a secret, I think. He sits behind his computer, cool and silent, flinging hostility at me like fistfuls of crap. I've always been so good. I just couldn't be any more.
Now our office quivers with an uneasy tension, a quiet that rips at the seams. My skin burns with each hour that passes. I want to leave, but then he'd win.
Everything started so simply. Straight out of college, I knew nothing about the way things worked, from press releases to fax machines. Frustration bit me at every turn, but then Brandon would swoop in and save me. I'd never known anyone in their mid-thirties, and he broke all ideas I may have had about babies, comfortable shoes, a tummy pooch growing into a middle-aged man gut. Brandon stood a few inches above me with long hair that fell to his chin. If he had softening abs, I couldn't see them beyond his sleek bike-to-work physique. His commute clothes—military fatigues rolled up to his calves and an orange T-shirt of a band I'd never heard of—were every bit as hip as the Hugo Boss he changed into before the first coffee and manuscript of the day. He is the editor and I'm his editorial assistant, but he never seemed like my boss.
I asked him how to track editorial changes in Word. That's when I noticed something felt wrong. I slouched over my desk searching through Edit, Format, and Tools tabs. I just shouted out to him like I always do, his desk facing mine a few feet away. He rose up from his seat—the chair creaked and the wheels rolled across hard plastic to a stop—but I suddenly felt him at my back. His whole body pressed into me, so close I could smell the spicy tinge of aftershave. He stared at the screen, covering his hand over mine and moving the mouse through Tools, Options, Track Changes, and setting various preferences. I let my eyes drift a hair's breadth to the left to Carol still typing away, taking a swig of water from her Nalgene bottle without losing her place on the page.
I swallowed, slowly. I told myself I was overreacting and tried harder to concentrate on what he was actually saying. A toolbar appeared at the top of the screen. He turned his chin toward mine, so close I could feel his words on my lips. I shuddered.
"Got it?" he asked, standing up and walking away from me with carefully placed backward steps. I couldn't look at him, so I nodded once at the computer screen.
"Yep," I said. He turned and slid back into his desk. "Thanks," I said, but his fingers were already clicking deeply into an angry letter to an agent, as if the moment had never really happened at all, as if there were no moment.
That night at the bar, I couldn’t even tell my girlfriends. I felt so ashamed. Who was I to think such a thing about Brandon? He had a wife and a dog and a rent controlled apartment in a nice part of town. He ate things with fancy names for lunch, graduated from Yale, called famous authors by their nicknames, and learned Norwegian on the weekends. I was the opposite of all of those things. Sometimes I still wore Keds on my weekends.
Then came the Christmas lunch. We drank a lot; the whole office did. He sat next to me, letting his hand flop onto my thigh. He threw it there with the power of a fish leaping from its bowl, unintentional and careless, but his fingers fell dangerously close to the place I did not want them to be. I waited just long enough not to cause alarm then turned in the opposite direction to talk to Lucy, letting his arm slip off into the dark space between us. An hour later, when we all finally sat with desserts, he opted for a sherry and an arm around the back of my chair. Still, scanning the faces of my co-workers, no one gave even the slightest tsk of disgust, raised eyebrows or pursed lips. The atmosphere jumped with holiday excitement, and I wondered why I had to ruin it by being such a little Midwestern prude. So by the time it really went too far, I felt like it was my fault.
My feet extended up out of my heels, reaching for a book on the top shelf of the stock cupboard. I'd grabbed the groove of the spine with my fingernail when I heard the door shut behind me.
"I'll get that," he said, holding onto the book just above my own grip. I slid down his body into my shoes. He didn't let go of the book, so when I turned we were standing face-to-face and uncomfortably close. He stepped toward me, pushing my back into the shelf. My shoulders caved in. I looked down at my feet. His free hand came up to cup my breast, finding my nipple with his thumb and kneading it through the fabric.
"No," I said, twisting, blocking him with my elbow. "Brandon. Stop." My breath came quickly in little bursts, taking in the smell of sweat and stale paper. He pressed into me, his cashmere sweater licking at my arms, his fists gripping my wrists, book corners digging into my shoulder blades.
"I'm tired of chasing you," he whispered in a musty voice, growing up from a low, dark place. "I want you."
I yearned to run, but those words. They melted me a little. No one had ever wanted me, not like that. The doorknob turned. Brandon jumped back. I squeezed the book to my chest with both hands.
James strolled in, and as he searched through the spines a sly smile passed over his face. Brandon ran his hand through his hair, laughed to himself, clapped James on the back and said, "Nice seeing you, James." He walked out and, after a minute or so, so did James with a black-and-white photography book slung under his arm. But I stood in silence for a very long time, thinking of this change and how it could never be the same again.
The heart of me, beneath the bones, beneath the muscle, beneath the skin and all the little cells feels a catastrophic fear surging. But the me that's growing bigger than my flesh (the me that really is me, the me he couldn't see) settles into a deep sense of, oh yes, sing it, I Will Survive.