He nods and I make a beeline in the direction of the bathrooms. I lean against the wall outside them and take a tissue from the front of my bra and press it to the corners of my eyes. Beautiful.
A shadow darkens the hall, and I know it’s Joshua. Even in the furthest corners of my peripheral vision, his shape is more familiar than my own shadow. He’s holding the coat I left in his backseat.
I burst out laughing, and I keep laughing until the tears stripe down my face, almost certainly ruining my makeup.
“Fuck off,” I tell him, but he only comes closer. He takes my chin and studies my face.
The memory of the kiss floats up between us, and I can’t look him in the eye. I remember the groan I made into his mouth. Humiliation kicks in.
“Don’t.” I slap him away.
I hug myself. “No I’m not. Why are you even here?”
“Parking is a nightmare around here. Your coat.”
“Oh, my coat. Sure. Whatever. I’m too tired to fight with you tonight. You win.”
He looks confused so I clarify. “You’ve seen me laugh, and cry. You made me kiss you when I should have slapped your smug face. You’ve had a good day. Go and watch the game and eat pretzels.”
“Is that the prize you think I’m playing for? To see you cry?” He shakes his head. “It’s really not.”
“Sure it is. Now go away,” I tell him more forcefully. He backs away and leans against the opposite wall.
“Why are you hiding here? Shouldn’t you be out there charming the shit out of him?” He looks in the direction of the bar and rubs his hand over his face.
“I needed a minute. And it’s not always that easy, trust me.”
“I’m sure you won’t have any trouble.”
He doesn’t sound sarcastic. I wipe my tears and look at the tissue. Quite a bit of mascara on it. I heave a shuddery sigh.
“You look fine.” It’s the nicest thing he’s ever said to me.
I begin patting my hand along the wall, trying to find the portal to another dimension, or at least the door to the ladies room. Anything to get away from him. He puts his hand into his hair, his face twisting with agitation.
“I shouldn’t have kissed you, okay. It was a fucking stupid move on my part. If you want to report me to HR—”
“That’s your problem? You’re scared I’m going to report you?” My voice is raising loud enough that bar patrons turn. I take a deep breath and when I speak again I am quieter.
“You’ve broken me down so completely, I can’t even handle it when a guy tells me I’m beautiful.”
Dismay spreads across his face.
“That’s why I’m crying. Because Danny told me I’m a beautiful girl, and I nearly fell off the barstool. You’ve ruined me.”
“I . . .” he begins to say, but he’s got nothing. “Lucy, I—”
“There’s nothing left you can do to me. You win today.”
From the look on his face, I think I’ve landed a punch. His shadow recedes along the floor, and then he’s gone.
I call Helene in the morning to say I’m not hungover but I’m having a few personal issues and I’ll be in a little late. She is kind and tells me to rest and take the day off.
Rest, and finish up your job application because, darling, it’s due tomorrow.
I’m missing out on a pale yellow shirt today. It’s the color of nursery walls when the unborn baby’s gender is a surprise. It’s the color of my cowardly soul.
Last night after Joshua slid away from me, his face twisted with guilt and regret, I tidied myself up and sat back down with Danny and salvaged the evening. Danny and I have some things in common. His parents have a hobby farm, so my revelation that I grew up in a strawberry patch didn’t garner the usual amount of amused, patronizing scorn.
It gave me the courage to talk more about it than I usually would. We swapped stories of life on a farm. I watched the expressions slide across his face like clouds. We hung out for hours, laughing like old friends, as comfortable as a pair of slippers.
I should be happy and excited. I’m should be polishing my job application. I should be thinking about a second date. I end up doing the one thing I shouldn’t. I lie in bed with my eyes closed, replaying the kiss.
Shortcake, if we were flirting, you’d know about it.
Maybe he forgot I was Lucinda Hutton, people-pleasing Strawberry Shortcake, and I morphed into something different for him. An enclosed space, different makeup, my dress short and my perfume fresh. In a moment ruled by insanity, I was the object of his lust from the time it took us to travel from tenth floor to basement. And he was definitely mine.
I needed to test a theory I’ve had for a while. What theory? How long is a while? If I were some kind of human experiment, he could have had the decency to give me his conclusion.
When I think about his teeth biting softly down on my bottom lip, I get a clenching flutter between my legs. When I think of his hand on the back of my thigh, I have to reach down and feel where his fingers spread. The hardness of his body? I can skip breathing for a bit. I wonder how I tasted to him. How I felt.
I’m loafing around in my pajamas at three P.M., paralyzed by the looming application deadline, when my door buzzer startles me. My first thought is it’s Joshua, come to drag me back to work. Instead, it’s a deliveryman with flowers. A huge bouquet of lipstick-red roses. I pinch open the little envelope and the card says three whole words.
You’re always beautiful.
There’s no signature but it doesn’t need one. I can imagine Jeanette’s expression softening as she hands Danny a Post-it note detailing my address with a muttered, You didn’t get this from me. Even HR ladies break the rules for love.
I text him: Thank you so much!!
He replies almost instantly: I had a great time. I’d love to see you again.
I reply: Definitely!
I stand, hands on hips, looking at the flowers. The ego boost couldn’t have been timed better. I turn back to my computer. That job will be mine. And Joshua will be gone.
“Let’s get this finished.”
HE’S A BIG blur of mustard out of the corner of my eye when I walk in on Friday. I hang my coat and walk straight into Helene’s office. For once she’s in early. I could enfold her in my arms and squeeze.
“I’m here,” I tell her. She waves me in and I close the door behind me.
“Is it in?” I nod.
“Joshua’s is too. And two external applicants so far. How was your date? Are you all right?”
She’s always the picture of composure. Today she’s wearing a blazer over what is probably a pure silk T-shirt, tucked into a wool skirt. Nothing as common as cotton for Helene. I hope when she dies she bequeaths her wardrobe to me.
I ease into a chair. “It was fine. Danny Fletcher in design. I hope that’s okay; he’s finishing up next week to freelance.”
“Shame. He does good work. Seeing him won’t be a problem.”
My mind flashes to kissing Joshua in the elevator. That’s a problem, all right.
“But something happened,” Helene surmises.
“I had a huge argument with Joshua before the date, and it rattled me. I woke up feeling unstable. Like if I came in here we’d both be wheeled out by paramedics, drenched in blood.”
Helene is eyeing me speculatively. “What was the argument about?”
Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to vent about my personal issues with Helene. I’m terminally unprofessional. My cheeks heat and when I can’t think of a lie, I abbreviate.
“He thought I was lying about having a date. I’m so lame.”
“Interesting,” she says slowly. “Have you thought about this very hard?”
I shrug. Only obsessively, to the point where I couldn’t sleep.
“I’m upset with myself for letting him push my buttons. You have no idea how hard it is, sitting opposite him, trying to resist his constant attacks.”
“I’ve got some idea. It’s called brinkmanship, darling.” She gestures at the wall with her thumb.
She’s the perfect person to confide in. Mr. Bexley is on the other side of her wall right now, plotting ways to assassinate her. She follows my eyeline. We hear a faint honking sneeze, a fart sound, and some grumbling.
“Why would he assume you were lying? And why did it upset you so much that he did?” Helene is drawing spirals on her notepad and I feel a little hypnotized. She’s turned into my therapist.
“He thinks I’m such a joke. He’s always laughing about what my parents do. I’m sure he laughs at where I went to school. My clothes. My height. My face.”
She nods patiently, watching me try to untangle these complicated thoughts.
“It bothers me to know he thinks that of me. That’s the bit that trips me up. All I want is his respect.”
“You prize your reputation of being likable and approachable,” she supplies. “Everyone likes you. He is the only one who resists.”
“He lives to destroy me.” Maybe I’m getting a little overdramatic.
“And you, him,” she points out.
“Yes. And this isn’t the person I want to be.”
“Don’t interact with him today. You could take the vacant office down on the third floor for a few days. We could divert the phones.”
I shake my head. “Tempting, but no, I can deal with it. I’ll draft the quarterly report and keep to myself. I’ll forget he exists.”
I can still remember the taste of his mouth. I breathed his hot exhalations until my lungs were filled with him. His air was inside my body. He taught me things in the space of two minutes that the span of my lifetime did not. Forgetting his existence is going to be a challenge, but this job is nothing but challenges.
I gently close Helene’s office door and gather myself. I turn and there he is, slouched at his desk.