How These Things Start
After thirteen years at home, Ellen has returned to the workforce. She thinks of it in these terms: The Workforce, starring Ellen Gafferty, former stay-at-home mom to Ian, now a thirteen-year-old who would rather lick a toilet seat than be seen his public with his parents. Ellen planned on returning to work when Ian started kindergarten, and then it became third grade, and then suddenly Ian was wearing deodorant and the same shoe size as his father, and she was ready. She is ready to give her son the space he so desperately needs, and she is ready to wear work clothes again, to drink coffee out of a travel mug, to listen to entire NPR programs on her commute. She is even ready for a commute.
“Can I ask you something, Ellen?”
She looks up to find Peter standing in the doorway of her office. He has never stopped by her office before. Most mornings they chat in the break room. Their taste in TV shows overlaps; not so in music and books. During staff meetings, he usually sits next to her, but when the office goes out for lunch, he typically doesn’t. Somedays he calls her Gafferty, others days Ellen. He has nicknames for everyone, even the grumpy intern, and he is no more or less attentive to Ellen than he is to anyone else in the office.
“What’s up?” she asks Peter now.
Up close Peter’s glasses are smudged with fingerprints. She wonders what he would do if she plucked them off his face and cleaned them with the little cloth she uses on her own glasses.
“Are you going to Chrissy’s happy hour tonight?”
Chrissy is turning fifty and wants everyone to celebrate at the Mexican restaurant down the street. There has been talk of taking shots. Ellen mentioned the happy hour this morning to Jeff, and he had said, You should go. Have fun in a way that made her not want to go.
“Yes, I’m going,” she says to Peter.
“Great.” Peter scribbles something in a little notepad, the kind kids carry around when they are part of a secret club. She has yet to figure out what exactly he does here. Glorified gopher? A little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing?
“What’s the deal with the notepad?” she asks.
“Just making a head count,” he says.
She watches as he leaves her office, his coat billowing behind him like a cape.
Everyone at work loves Peter, is indulgent with him in the way an office full of women will be with a single man in his late 30s. He is their pet, and they coddle and flirt with him, offer to set him up with their divorced friends. Peter says no to these offers without ever saying no outright. This seems like his skill, a part of his charisma, although Ellen doesn’t know if anyone else in the office would use that word to describe him.
At the happy hour Peter brings over a sombrero for Chrissy. She pops it on her head and poses for pictures. Chrissy looks like she would have been a lot of fun to hang out with in college. A good time girl, Ellen thinks. There is something sly about the wideness of Chrissy’s hips in her black pants; even the gray in her hair is appealing, the way it would be on a man.
Tonight her laugh is contagious enough that Ellen has noticed people craning their necks to see what could possibly be so funny. You could call it a shrieking kind of laugh, except it’s not. Ellen has discovered that Chrissy really is quite the busybody, but since she isn’t mean-spirited, no one minds, and it’s nice to know someone is keeping track of birthdays and divorces and illnesses.
“Ladies,” Peter says as he sets a tequila bottle and shot glasses onto the table.
Chrissy takes the first one. She even licks salt off her hand.
Peter takes the second shot with a grimace. “That is definitely not good,” he says. The intern takes two in quick succession.
He offers her one. “Ellen?”
“I shouldn’t,” she says.
“We all know you’re going to,” Peter says. “And don’t sip it.”
“I would never,” she says.
“You totally would,” he says. When he smiles, the fine lines around his eye are more pronounced; they lend his face a much-needed sense of gravity.
Afterward she doesn’t even have to suck on a lime the way she did in college, which is the last time she can remember being in a social setting where shots were involved.
Peter gives Chrissy a set of Mad Libs for her birthday. “I used to love these as a kid,” he says.
Ellen did too. But when Chrissy opens the book—“Okay, I need an adjective, a color, proper noun and two adverbs”—Ellen is reminded not of her own childhood but of her son’s. Ian had loved Mad Libs with an intensity that had bordered on obsession one summer. Ellen realizes Peter has none of that blurring that comes with parenthood, that his past and memories are strictly his own.
“Morose, pink, Daffy Duck, eagerly and prematurely,” Peter says.
After dinner Peter insists on walking everyone to their cars. Ellen’s is on the back side of the restaurant.
“This is me,” she says. “Where’s your car?”
“In the shop.”
Last week she rode in his car to an off-site client meeting. The car had been self-consciously clean, like a college student’s dorm room on parents’ weekend. Each time he accelerated, an insistent tapping had filled the car. “Where is that coming from?” she finally asked.
“Good question,” he said. “I’m afraid the answer will be expensive, though.”
“You’re getting the noise checked out?” she asks him now.
“Yup,” he says.
“How are you getting home then?”
“Nonsense,” she says, a stern librarian. “You can’t walk home. It’s dark.”
“That tends to happen at night,” he says. “Darkness.” He has a very direct gaze when he wants to. This unexpected seriousness from him makes her feel loose, unmoored.
“It’s not safe,” she says.
“I’m not worried,” he says.
She waits for him to make some crack about how strong he is, how a person wouldn’t dare mug him. In the office there is no doubt he would say such a thing.
“Really, I’ll just walk.” He steps backward and stumbles slightly on the curb. One of the shoelaces of his sneakers is untied.
“It’s more respectful that way. I wouldn’t want my wife giving a drunk co-worker a ride home.” He says this last part without looking at her and then walks in the opposite direction, so fast he’s nearly jogging.
Ellen has trouble falling asleep that night, and she looks over at her husband’s side of the closet, which is full of work clothes. Even on casual Fridays, her husband wears khakis and button-down shirts. Gone are his flannel shirts worn thin in the belly and the jeans that showed a little too much sock and the orange puffy vest he used to wear to mow the yard.
The way Peter dresses, like a teenager, mortifies her. A grown-man running around in Converse sneakers. And why doesn’t he own a jacket that fits him? Peter would probably wear jeans and a ratty sweatshirt to a dinner party, he might even be the kind of man who has no problem spending a Friday night in an arcade, and just thinking these things makes Ellen’s face burn, an equal mix of desire and shame. She does not know who to confess these embarrassing feelings to. Not her friends—they would think she was in the throes of a midlife crisis or a mild nervous breakdown. Sometimes she is tempted to tell Jeff, to laugh at the absurdity of the crush. (No. She is never tempted to do this.) Such an embarrassing word, crush. It’s best not to think it at all.
In her own bed, her husband asleep beside her, she feels safe.
According to Chrissy, Peter dated a woman named Stephanie for two years. Stephanie still works upstairs in the H.R. department. Chrissy supplies the information easily and with little prompting. Apparently the romance ended badly. “Epically bad,” Chrissy says.
Has the policy against inter-office romance changed in the thirteen years she’s been out of the workforce? Or maybe it’s even more basic than that—that some people don’t deny themselves the things they want.
Chrissy also tells Ellen that they have the same birthday. “You’re both May 17, same year even. Wouldn’t it be funny if you and Peter were born in the same hospital?” Chrissy asks. “I mean, wouldn’t that be something!”
Ellen hoards this information, tucks it away deep inside of her and pulls it out on Sunday when the priest tells them to pray for those things we hold in the silence of our hearts.
The week before Thanksgiving, Ellen ventures upstairs. The only woman working in the office is much older, with greasy, colorless hair. She is wearing slacks and an ill-fitting navy blouse. White flakes dust her shoulders. Ellen is too stunned to speak for a second until she sees that there are two desks in the small space, and that the empty desk has a nameplate that reads Stephanie.
“I was told to speak with Stephanie,” Ellen tells the woman. “About insurance.”
She has no idea if Stephanie is in charge of insurance.
A blonde woman pokes her head out from an adjoining room. “Did I hear my name?” She doesn’t say this in the flirty way of a woman in her twenties but in the measured tones of someone who has been working in an office for at least a decade. Ellen can’t decide if this is welcome news or not.
Stephanie is wearing thick, black glasses, the square kind, too severe for Ellen’s taste, although they look just fine on her. She is trim and efficient in her fitted green cardigan and even more fitted knee-length skirt, her strappy heels and bright red lipstick. Stephanie’s hair is short and blonde and curly. The glasses are meant to detract from how cute she is, lend her an air of sophistication Ellen supposes, but the word adorable stubbornly clings to Stephanie.
Miraculously, Stephanie is the person in H.R. to talk to about insurance. Stephanie refers to Ellen as Mrs. Gafferty when she asks if she’d like to take home paperwork. Ellen can’t remember the last time someone called her Mrs. Gafferty; Ian’s friends all call her Miss Ellen.
“Paperwork?” Ellen repeats. She is distracted by the delicate necklace that trails Stephanie’s collarbone, the diamond pendant no bigger than a crumb.
“To discuss insurance options with your husband?” Stephanie says. She looks pointedly at Ellen’s ring, although later when Ellen re-plays this in her mind, she decides that she imagined the pointedly part.
For the rest of the afternoon Ellen is distracted by all the noise in the office—the shrill of the phones and the chatter of keyboards and the click of high heels on the linoleum. She hates the gray pants she’s wearing, and she hates her hair, which is also blonde but too thin and overly layered, and she eats her lunch in front of her computer, blinking rapidly and taking deep breaths that don’t calm her at all.
For Christmas Peter gives everyone in the office a calendar he has made; he titles it “Cats in Sweaters: Portraits of Quiet Desperation.” March is everyone’s favorite, the gray and white striped kitten in the blue hoodie. September is Ellen’s favorite, the plaintive look on the calico, the bonnet pulled tight around his face.
At the end of the day she sends him an e-mail.
Thanks for the calendar! I like the title, although I think September is about to go spastic in a not so quiet way.
Peter writes back a minute later.
She has no idea what this means. At dinner, Ellen asks Ian if he knows. She says the letters carefully, like they are eggs she doesn’t want to crack.
“It means rolling on the floor laughing,” Ian tells her. “But, Mom?”
She looks at her son expectantly, her heart twitching inside her.
“Nobody uses that expression anymore,” Ian says.
No one is very interested in her new job. Her neighbors and friends, all the moms with whom she spent countless hours over the years, planning block parties and back-to-school nights, none of that matters or is even remembered; her return to the workforce has been treated as a defection. Time is not cumulative, it appears. Goodwill can be both accrued and lost. Or maybe she really does have a heightened sense of herself now that she works outside the home, maybe they are right to think that she feels distanced from them. Truth be told, she doesn’t miss the time she spent at home. But she doesn’t regret it either. Instead, it seems as if it happened to someone else, like she is continually molting into someone new every few years. She isn’t the same person she was when she married at twenty-one, nor when she became a mother at twenty-six. When they cleaned out Jeff’s office last year, she stumbled across the paperwork on their home loan, and she had marveled at her signature, the letters so rounded and looped. Even her signature has aged.
When she first started working again, Jeff briefly feigned interest in her job, which she appreciated. Her job is boring to other people; as soon as she says the words refresh and databases together she can almost see the other person’s eyes glaze over. The combination of these words often leads people to assume she is very smart and her job very complicated. She doesn’t mind people thinking this, especially since she took a thirteen-year hiatus from working.
People are interested in the hiatus. Some people even ask her why thirteen years, why she waited until Ian was in middle school. Ellen doesn’t pull out the list of things she did during those years because she knows she was busy and mostly happy and it isn’t anyone’s business if she spent her time volunteering at her son’s school or watching soap operas. She learned long ago that people like to classify and file people into compartments. This one’s a stay-at-home mom, that one’s a working mom. He’s a lawyer, he’s an electrician. Men are classified by their profession, women by their children.
Maybe that’s what she learned in those thirteen years at home.
Peter interrupts their first staff meeting of the new year. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t paying attention because I was distracted by Ellen’s shoes.”
Everyone turns to Ellen.
“Her shoes or her legs?” Chrissy teases.
“How come no else has commented on them? Ellen, stand up and show everyone those shoes.”
She stands up and holds out her foot, Cinderella awaiting her glass slipper.
“They’re awesome, right?” Peter asks.
In her opinion, he overuses this word. A week ago he dubbed both the new e-mail system and staplers awesome. The addition of Paydays to the vending machines and Chrissy’s new haircut were also awesome. The memo about no Facebook at work—not awesome.
“They remind me of a yellow highlighter,” Peter says.
“I do like that look,” Chrissy says. “Mixing navy and yellow. It’s classic but with a twist. Christmas present?”
“Yes,” Ellen says. “From my mom.” The shoes are not a present from her mom.
Peter leans over and gently smacks her arm after she sits down. She hasn’t seen him do this to anyone else in the office. All morning she’s felt his attention shift toward her, a subtle shift, not unlike a small earthquake tremor. Even if it doesn’t disrupt anything, you still notice it, you still want to ask, Did you feel that?
“Did I embarrass you?” Peter asks.
She can feel him watching her as she adjusts her dress, which has a full skirt and pleats and reminds her of something a 1950s secretary would wear. It is also not a Christmas present from her mom.
“A little,” she says before looking up at him.
It’s his eyes. She didn’t even think she liked brown eyes all that much and that’s what amazes her the most; you can think you know who you are and what you want, and life can still sneak up behind you and knock you over the head with a two by four.
“Good,” Peter says with a smile so small she can’t be sure it’s not a grimace.
“Delivery for you.” Peter walks into her office carrying a vase of red roses.
Jeff has never sent her flowers on Valentine’s Day before. She used to complain about it, nag him even. But she hasn’t brought up the subject in years and now here they are—a dozen, no a dozen and a half red roses—and she is embarrassed. The flowers make Jeff look silly, unoriginal, unappealing, and suddenly he is all those things to her. One night last week Jeff asked, “Does anybody work in that office except Peter? Seems like all stories involve him in some way.”
He knows, she thinks. Not that there is anything to know.
“Where do you want them?” Peter asks. He is gripping the vase with two hands.
She points to an empty space between her phone and computer. Her face is hot and cold, feverish.
“I’ve never sent someone flowers on Valentine’s Day,” Peter says. The vase makes a muffled clunk as he sets it down. “Too expensive.”
She desperately wants this to mean something, even though he is much too old to complain about the cost of sending flowers on Valentine’s Day.
“A nice gesture is always appreciated,” she says. She reaches out a hand and strokes one of the petals. It is cold, stiff-feeling.
He doesn’t answer but also reaches out a hand to feel a petal. His fingernails are bitten to the quick.
“You’re left-handed,” she says.
He looks down at his hand in surprise. “There’s a story there,” he says.
Of course there is. There’s always a story with him. After work he will head to a bar, and he will go home with someone who hates Valentine’s Day, someone depressed about not getting flowers. For the life of her, she can’t imagine him buying a woman a drink. He isn’t charming, really. He isn’t all that handsome, if you break down his features one by one and re-assemble them. He’s even wearing that fucking sweater. She wills herself not to seek out the hole by the elbow, to not stare at the surprisingly dark hairs on his arm.
“You can still buy someone flowers.” She looks over at her computer. “It’s only 12:15, you can still get in the window.”
Their eyes meet over the flowers, and she can’t breathe, all she can smell is the roses, and she hates the smell of roses, so cloying and juvenile, like a perfume you only wear as a teenager.
“Back to work,” Peter says finally.
“Yup,” she says.
In the afternoon Peter brings a bouquet of hot pink flowers to the break room. They resemble daisies but are wider, more vibrant-looking. He presents them with a flourish, the same way he presented the shots at Chrissy’s birthday. There is something so self-conscious about him in these moments; Ellen almost can’t stand to be around him when he is like this.
“Someone told me flowers are always a nice gesture,” he says.
“Oh, Peter!” Chrissy exclaims. “You’re going to make my husband feel bad for forgetting.”
“But not Ellen’s husband,” Peter says. “He remembered.”
She doesn’t dare look at him.
“Well, they’re still young,” Chrissy says, giving Ellen’s arm a motherly squeeze as she walks by. “Look at Ellen—of course her husband remembered! I bet there’s lingerie and wine waiting at home for her.”
Jeff and Ian decide to go camping over Spring Break. When Ian was little, Ellen was always encouraging Jeff to spend time alone with him; she imagined she was helping them forge a bond they might not have forged on their own. Now they spend loads of time together, they seem to truly like each other’s company, and Ellen wonders if she should feel left out. But she doesn’t. It’s nice they have their own thing. It’s the way things should be if you have a son: you get all their attention for years and years, and then suddenly they want to spend time with their dad. It’s so normal, so exactly how Ellen imagined things would be once Ian was a teenager, that she doesn’t know why she is feeling out of sorts until she gets to work on the first Monday of Spring Break, and it is just her and Peter in the office. Chrissy is on a cruise with her family. The women are off in the wine country. The intern no one likes is backpacking up north with her boyfriend. Or girlfriend. No one really knows much about her.
At lunchtime, Peter comes by her office. It seems understood that they will be eating lunch together all week.
“Let’s play hooky and eat off campus,” she says.
“I like the way you think,” he says.
They are almost holding hands as they walk down the street.
“Burgers?” Peter suggests.
She shakes her head.
“Remember what I said about burgers?”
“Well, Goldilocks, what will you eat then?”
She laughs. The air is warm, it’s always warm here, but it’s especially pleasurable today. “Something lighter. What about pitas or sandwiches? Or soup?”
“Sandwiches and soup it is, Goldilocks.”
“Goldilocks,” she says. “Can I have a different nickname?”
“No.” He shakes his head regretfully. “It has to be Goldilocks now. But if it’s any consolation, she was my favorite storybook character growing up.”
“No one has a favorite storybook character,” she says.
Their table is positioned directly under the air conditioning vent. Ellen shakes as she eats her chicken salad sandwich.
“It’s cold in here,” Peter says. He takes off his jacket, leather suede, from the GAP of all places. This one actually fits him.
He hands it to her, and she slips it on.
She notices a white bandage on his forearm. She reaches out as if to touch it but stops herself. “What happened?”
“I had a mole removed.”
Something was there, on his skin, and now it is not. She is breathless at the thought.
“The dermatologist keeps trying to get me to take off this one.” Peter taps the mole on his face, the one at a diagonal from his earlobe.
“No!” she cries. She is instantly embarrassed at her tone. “But that’s your mole.”
“That’s what I told her,” he says. He looks amazed. “That’s exactly what I told her.”
“I need to tell you something,” she says. She looks down at their feet while she says this.
“You’re too old for those sneakers.”
“Too old for them?”
She nods. “You know how I know this? I have a thirteen-year-old who wears them too.”
“Consider this a fashion intervention.”
“Does this mean I get to have a fashion intervention with you?” he asks.
She gestures expansively. “Please.”
He is silent as he studies her.
Is there a defining moment with these things? Or is it more a slow burn, a cumulative effect where never becomes maybe becomes inevitable?
“Nope,” he says finally. His voice is too casual. “I’ve got nothing. You always look nice.”
When Jeff and Ian return from their trip, Ellen fusses over them in a way that is very unlike her. She unloads their camping gear from the car, she washes their clothes, she even helps Jeff sweep out the inside of the tent.
“I missed you,” Jeff tells her, kissing the top of her head.
“Missed you too,” she says.
That week she can’t stop thinking about the toast Jeff gave at her 35th birthday. They had gone to her favorite restaurant at the time, an Italian place they haven’t been back to in years.
“Thirty-five and still alive,” Jeff had said. And what had she said back? She can’t remember, and if she could, then surely everything would be different and stay the same, the way it should.
She wants only to think about Ian on his computer and Jeff unloading the dishwasher because she is filled with such love for them in these ordinary moments. She and Jeff created all this, and it should be enough; no, it is enough.
She and Peter are the only two on the elevator on Friday evening. It’s a glass elevator, and Ellen looks out at the park across the street as they slowly travel downward. Outside it’s overcast and gloomy, the kind of day that’s been borrowed from somewhere less desirable. London, maybe.
She thinks she sees her husband’s car. Two women step out instead, one of them holding an umbrella. They are both laughing at they walk across the parking lot, which is slick with oil and rain.
Peter is wearing a blue dress shirt today, the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. Out of the corner of her eye she can see the dark hairs on his arm; it is a very nice shirt. The silence between them that evening has a shape and texture. It is an unbearable silence, one Ellen half-wishes could last forever. When the elevator doors open on the ground floor, neither of them move.
Peter reaches over and presses the button that leads down to the parking garage, and the doors shudder closed again. “Ellen,” Peter says. He presses his hands against the wall next to him, as if bracing himself. He doesn’t look at her, and then he does.
|return to fiction|
Kelly Morris is a recent transplant to Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal, Sundog Lit, Red Savina Review, and Per Contra. She blogs with three other writers at www.literarylabors.com. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.