A Short Story
This is not a love story, at least not the romantic kind.
It’s actually about the absence of love, the true love of others. It’s about a place with people who try to strip others of their dignity, because they didn’t know where they’d misplaced theirs. I would have been happy to help them find it, except I became too busy defending mine, and by the end, all that was left was a dream that never was, in between square walls, under a gray, concrete sky.
On a cool, cloudy day at the end of March, I walked into the place. I had worked hard for two years and had been applying to find a job in a place like it for nearly a year. This was it. I was finally here. I was my best dressed self, my most confident self. I went through the day as if I had always been there. It was the only way I knew how to deal with new situations, and new people.
I was walking to the main office at some point, and suddenly there he was, the man. He was one of the people who’d emailed me the Friday before to welcome me. My interest had been immediately piqued. I’d looked him up right away, and saw that he was married with kids. Nevermind, I told myself. It’s not what I got this new job for, anyways. When he appeared in the hallway though on that first day, something was triggered. Actually, he’s gorgeous. But he is not photogenic. He changed directions and started walking with me to the main office, something I didn’t think about at the time, but later felt significant. We made small talk, and once or twice I looked down to make sure I was seeing what I needed to see: a wedding band. He walked away once we got to the office, cut across the wide hall, and into a different office.
I don’t remember the timeline of things well. I only remember that suddenly he was around me a lot, in a span of several days, and over the following couple of weeks. We were in a few meetings together, which felt routine. One day though he came to have lunch in my shared office with a couple of others. Nothing out of the ordinary, but for a minute everyone but him disappeared. We sat there in silence, with me looking down. Eventually I dared to look up, saw him looking me up and down, and I could see his lips smacking against each other slightly. It silenced me even more. I was frozen and didn’t know what to say or do.
At the end of the workday one day, I was walking back into the building from outside, and I saw him hiding behind a wall at a distance. He appeared from behind it once or twice, and looked straight at me both times. I pretended not to notice. The feeling that I was his target though was burned in my head.
The truth was, I couldn’t process any of it at that point. I had a new job to worry about, and throughout the nightmare that followed, this was the only thing that mattered to me. Not him, not who he was surrounded by, or his wife (wait until you hear about her). One evening though I broke down to my best friend Nikki. I didn’t know what she would say, but I decided to tell her about him, the man. The married guy with four children. The ex-college football player with the physique to match, and to her dismay, tattoos on his upper arms. She was understanding. He was handsome, and aggressive compared to the weak, damaged men of our generation. “Admire from afar,” she told me, and it was true, at times I wanted to find him and gawk. I had a new job to worry about though, aside from the not-so-little fact he’s a married father of four. It was always the job, first.
What gave him encouragement? Was it that I spoke minimally to him for the first two weeks, and suddenly I was more conversational? Was it that I involuntarily kept looking down at this wedding band whenever he came to my space, or stopped me in the halls, which was frequent, too frequent? It was his job to go around the place, to talk to different people. He was just welcoming a new employee, right? Wrong.
The day I saw his wedding band was gone, the day things blew up at work in the morning, the day that left me reeling for hours after work, to the point where I couldn’t attend my night class, this was the day that changed things, and the day I wish never happened.
There was a big incident that morning. I told someone to call for support. He showed up in the periphery, and when I saw things were getting further out of hand, I motioned for him to come over. It took him and several other people to deal with the situation. More importantly, it meant I was going to spend a big part of the day talking to him.
He had come running from his lunch to answer the call. Eventually he asked me if I could go get it for him while he kept an eye on things. I felt bad, so I grabbed it for him while I made a couple stops along the way. Then came the moment that makes me cringe whenever I think about it now. The moment he sat down with his lunch, took a deep breath, and placed his left hand on the table, with his wedding band removed. I don’t know if the shock I felt showed on my face. I don’t know if anything showed on my face really. All I know is I was silenced again. All I could focus on was what I had to do next to deal with the incident. I moved on the best I could. When I told Nikki about it all that night, even she didn’t really know what to make of it.
Saying nothing to him was my one and only mistake. Not telling his wife, which still had grave consequences for me, not sending letters later to whomever would hear my pleas, but letting him get away with so brazen an act, even if just a symbolic one, I made myself the perfect target for his broken marriage, his broken mind, his broken soul.
He was gone the next day.
I wish I’d noticed the warning signs from Ava from the beginning. She whined a lot, sometimes without even so much as a “Good morning,” or “Hi” as we walked into work. I made some allowances for her being at the start of her third trimester and already looking like she’s nearing the end. The frequent frowns on her forehead, the way the pierced side of her nose flared upwards when she was upset, and her lack of response to my comments, should’ve also been a warning.
She was watching me, it turned out. I was on her turf, even when I wasn’t on it. I was a threat to something I didn’t completely understand at the time. As much as naivete could be a blessing, I worked and lived life as if nothing was wrong.
The day following the one he was gone, he was oddly absent from a meeting in the morning. I told myself I’d eventually see him or head in his direction. Later in the day I found myself in his shared office to ask about a report regarding the incident. I had a legitimate question to ask another person in the office, but it turned out only he was there. This was one of the only few times I entered his office.
“Hey, is X around?” I asked.
He replied he didn’t see her. He seemed quieter, aloof. I started talking about the incident from the other day briefly. Then I moved on to ask about his kid who was sick, which was supposedly why he wasn’t there the previous day. He shut me down then, became red faced, and lifted his hand to show the wedding band was back on.
Again I was speechless. I didn’t say anything the first time, so why would I say anything this time? He said something about needing to be somewhere and got up. I never sat down, but I let him go first. He stood at the doorway, as if expecting me to come with. I took my time moving to the door. Strangely enough we made small talk for a few seconds as we walked, until I decided it was better I took a different route, even though we were heading to the same place. I didn’t see him for days after that.
I started to struggle with work. I was making frequent calls for support. Strange, I thought, he was around a lot when I didn’t need the help, but now that I am, he’s strangely absent. It didn’t matter too much though. There were others responding to my calls, so I was still getting the help I needed, even if it was part of his job to respond to calls.
What did he expect to happen? That I would seek him out because he disappeared from my presence? Possibilities that had been buried deep in my consciousness started to surface. Is he a player? Is he after an affair? Eventually it became, Is he targeting me as a new, non-white employee, one of the few there, who knew no one and was vulnerable?” Or was it a genuine but still very wrong attraction that was bringing him around? A mix of the two? After all, I never sought him out unless it was work related. I couldn’t be bothered with all this though. My work was starting to really struggle, and I needed my work to work. There was no other alternative.
Pulling away from the parking lot one day, I noticed him come out of the building as he was leaving too. He looked angry, as if I’ve done something wrong by saying nothing to him. It was his choice to come around, and it was his choice to disappear. I never told him he had to do one or the other. I worked with what came my way. That was it.
I blew up with frustration and anger in a span of two days. I was perfectly fine with him disappearing from my presence. I didn’t need the complication. He started reappearing around me again though. He would stand nearby and stare, similar to the first time around. Occasionally he said, “Hi Makda.” I would say a brief “hi” back, but I kept moving on. What was my trigger? I think it was the fact he pretended that nothing happened. That he didn’t come around a lot displaying frequent albeit false warmth at seeing me. That he didn’t come with his wedding band removed when he always had one on, two different kinds, actually, one black, one light blue. That he didn’t disappear without an explanation, and reappear again trying to do the same things all over again.
So I snapped. How much of it was the stress of a new job, on top of what had already been a very difficult year, and how much of it was any genuine feelings I’d developed from him, I couldn’t tell. The only thing I knew though was that I couldn’t work with someone who behaved like him, not when the job was already hard enough, and not when the likes of Ava, I learned later, were lurking in the background, watching, and taking notes.
I left him a note in the middle of April. “The man, I hope you got whatever validation you’re looking for, but you do need to leave me alone. Otherwise, I’m calling your wife.”
I contacted his wife two days later. Even after I left the note, he kept trying to stop me in the halls and say hi. The night I sent it, I did five loads of laundry trying to stop myself from doing it. Eventually I sat down and wrote out my message to her. Social media makes people too accessible. Then I actually got down on my knees, for the first time in what was at least months, and prayed. Then I got up, sat down, and hit submit.
Immediately I got a message back. “Lol.” Then went my long message to her. That obviously I don’t want her knowing who I am (I used an alias), and here’s the gist of what happened.
She flipped out. The words “troll” and “crazy” were used frequently, including in the email she sent me the next day when she found me on a different online platform. After the third exchange, I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her. I told her that I’ve said what I felt I needed to say and will be moving on. She replied with a threat to report me to human resources, including showing them the note I left him. Clever man, I thought. He had to cover his tracks, and play the open and honest husband.
The email from her that came the next day was a strange one for many reasons. First of all, she had already threatened to report me to human resources, after which point I blocked her on that platform. To find me on a different platform, continue to call me crazy and tell me that I made everything up, but also at the same time ask me for specific details of what happened between him and I, I knew she had to be crazier than he was, and perhaps the one that drove him to be crazy enough to remove his wedding band around a woman he didn’t know.
The truth is, I knew I was going to be in trouble even before I messaged her. That’s the thing about having a clean conscience. The price is hefty. It was the hardest, but cleanest way I could absolve myself. I told her that her husband is handsome, and that if he’s an honest one like she claimed, then she was very lucky to have him. I returned his attention, however superficial and brief it was, and it was something I needed to let go of and move past.
The storm started the following Monday. As always, hindsight is 20/20, and this storm was brewing long before I arrived at the place. I just happened to walk in at the worst possible time. How else would I be placed on a 3-day leave, have all my access to my work accounts taken away, and never be told what I was being accused of? I fessed up immediately to writing the note and contacting his wife. Still I was continuously asked strange and gaslighting questions, and was asked to be in more meetings to “discuss what happened.” What happened was I left the man a note, and then I contacted his wife. That was clear from the beginning. So I told them they had to make their decisions on whatever information they had. I refused to do any more meetings.
Marla. The human resources director. Evil epitomized, under the guise of a soft-voice and well-intentions. I cringe at the thought that only a few weeks earlier, I had gone to her with a harassment complaint against an old creep at my previous workplace who still wouldn’t take a hint after six months. “Are you sure you didn’t read too much into things?” “Didn’t anyone explain the man’s role to you?” She eventually made me think of Dolores Umbridge. She put a verbal warning on my record. The day I returned to work, she didn’t give me back access to my accounts. I couldn’t see or check anything that day, and of course, I believe it was intentional. The following Monday, I wrote her an email saying that I still didn’t understand what it was that I was being accused of, and that she came after me because she was fundamentally uncomfortable with the fact that I am a young(ish) black woman who made complaints against an older white male a month earlier. By extension, she was never going to believe that a handsome, well-liked White father of four would ever show interest in a new, black employee.This was the truth, at least my truth, and her silence that followed only confirmed it.
Life got brutal. The day I returned to work I was told by my boss that I wasn’t hired back for the next year, because of my actions. For a week or two, I emailed my boss, and whomever else I could, to get clarification, transparency, and justice, but I was met largely with silence. I decided that the only thing I could do was keep my head down and try to finish the remaining weeks of work that were left. I had signed a contract, and the deadline for resigning had passed me by, not that quitting would’ve been my first choice.
Until I sent a letter to the boss’s boss’s boss, the man periodically kept trying to talk to me. Sometimes I was met with condescending smirks. Other times, angry looks. Other times, flirty, low voices. Without exaggeration, I never uttered a single word to him again.
My work days became strange. The joy I got out of my work was marred by shadows and threats that lurked in hidden corners. I couldn’t put a name or a face on them yet. Everytime I looked outside, I saw a concrete sky that closed in on me, in addition to the four walls that were already there. Many times I imagined a ray of sunshine peeking through it, so that I could step on it and walk out into reality completely different from the one I was in.
I was tempted numerous times to say something to the man. Fear stopped me. Common sense stopped me. The intuition that something was very wrong with him stopped me. Eventually though, after a few weeks, we got to the point of being in each other’s vicinity without much reaction from either of us. We still kept our distance from each other though, and once in a while I still caught him looking my way.
The way the pieces of a puzzle come together is strange. I always had my suspicions, but suddenly a picture was being painted, a very nasty and dysfunctional one.
“The walls have ears,” Kat told me. “You can tell me about it all since we’re outside, but I wouldn’t do this inside.” This was the first big missing piece. That I was being watched and monitored, and from Day One. Who? I wondered.
Leaving the place and walking into the parking lot one day, I heard a large group following me out. I didn’t see the man was with them until I turned around to get into my car. This was the closest he’d approached me in a while, but since everyone leaves at the same time, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I also didn’t make a big deal out of what followed, but I should have. The man slowed down as he passed me. It was one of the few instances where I might have let him talk to me, if only to clear the air a little. Then Ava did something strange. As it seemed he might say something to me, she interjected and told him a random joke. I got in my car, and sat for a minute while I let him and others leave first. Ava sat in hers, across from me, watching and frowning at me. I didn’t get why, and I didn’t care. I can’t remember who left first, her or I, but probably me, because this became an important detail later.
I got called in for a second investigation, on a Friday morning. It was one of those days I had put in for a sick day, but ended up canceling, because even with all the pain, the consistency of work was still something I looked forward to. It turned out to be a mistake, going in, though it would’ve probably only delayed the inevitable. I got grilled for an hour.
“You’ve been harassing and stalking the man.”
“You’ve been waiting for him in the parking lot in the car.”
“You’ve been following him to the gas station nearby.”
I go there all the time.
“You rolled down your car window and yelled at him.”
That never happened!
I was bawling during some moments, talking the rest of the time. I don’t know why I stayed through it all, if in the end I was just going to hand in my badge and walk out. I had my boss called in, and handed her everything. The human resources lady, not Marla (she “couldn’t” make it that day), added in, “Don’t jump to conclusions.” I said, “I’m not taking chances.” Right before I walked through the outside door, I heard what sounded like a genuine and deep felt “I’m sorry” from my boss.
The man is not a man. That’s the first thing to understand. He has the outward appearance of one, more than any other man I’ve ever met, but the outward perfection matches his inner brokenness.
The picture that came together is that he has a female entourage following him around work, led by the hormone driven, perpetually upset Ava. I could make some sense of why his wife came after me. She didn’t want her belief in the stability of her marriage threatened. But why you, Ava? Are you in love with him? Is the baby his, and not your husband’s? Does he really need your protection from the likes of me, a woman who was trying to mind her own business and do her job, but wasn’t ok with his insulting behavior?
I’m thankful for the sun’s rays that eventually broke through the seemingly impenetrable concrete sky. Those in the place who smiled at me with understanding, as if they knew exactly what was happening to me. The ones that opened their spaces for me, and brought me into the fold, when I needed to run as far away as possible from the man. The people I called, texted, and emailed daily, and I knew were right on the other side, listening, reading, and praying for me.