I started back toward my desk. (As I had told Donnie, I really did have work to do.) The third floor of the building—like the rest of the Thomas-Smithfield headquarters building—was arranged in an “open office” configuration, which, I believe, had been originally popularized by Japanese companies. Or maybe it was based on the older American concept of the “bullpen”; I’m not too sure. In any case, the office was set up so that the average employee had minimal privacy.
Each person had a desk, surrounded by low cubicle walls, which never blocked either the view or the sounds of one’s colleagues. The managers had offices, of course, but they were in a different league.
The entire third floor was allocated to the company’s purchasing department, and we were subdivided into groups and sub-groups, based on the suppliers we handled. Donnie Brady, Bethany Cox, and I formed a sub-group. Needless to say, I was the odd man out.
We also had an administrative person, or admin, assigned to our subgroup. Our admin’s name was Ellen Watson. She was about ten years older than Donnie, Bethany, and me. So far as I knew, she had never been married.
Ellen was something of an island to herself; but I sensed that in the ongoing cold war between the Donnie/Bethany alliance and me, Ellen marginally sided with the other two. I was the newcomer, after all; and besides, Donnie and Bethany formed a slim majority.
When I returned to my desk, Ellen was the only person present. Donnie still hadn’t returned from the men’s room. I suspected that he was outside the building, smoking a cigarette—a bad habit that he somehow reconciled with his weightlifting. Or maybe he was off somewhere again with Bethany.
“Hello, Ellen,” I said, as sunnily as possible. She looked up briefly and nodded at me without speaking or smiling. The bare minimum, just short of outright rudeness. Oh, well, I thought. It can’t hurt to try.
I knew all too well how I felt about Donnie and Bethany; but I wasn’t quite sure how to assess Ellen. Maybe she actively disliked me, and maybe her manner could be attributed to middle-age weariness and apathy. Her life probably wasn’t very exciting. She was by no means a wholly unattractive woman. But like many middle-age people—both men and women—she had allowed herself to put on excess weight, and she had acquired the blank, slouching appearance of the permanently disappointed and defeated. I realized that such a fate might await me, too, if I wasn’t careful.
I was seated and just getting back to work, examining a recent supplier quote on my computer screen, when Bethany Cox returned, sans Donnie.
Bethany was a year or two younger than Donnie and me, perhaps twenty-nine or thirty. She had dark red hair, a good figure, and an expression that seemed to shout “take me now and use me hard”—if you were a guy like Donnie Brady, that is. For me she had nothing but disdain. She wore a form-fitting black sweater, the sleeves rolled up, and a black leather skirt. The outfit was impossible not to notice, if you were a heterosexual man, that is. At the very least, her attire was a marginal violation of the company’s dress code—not that I was going to say anything, mind you.
She sat down in the desk across from me. As always, I resisted the urge to check her out. But I did look up at her and nod. She gave me a supercilious smirk in return. Oh well. I noticed the tattoos on her forearms and sternum, as I often did.
In case it isn’t clear yet, I was conflicted about Bethany Cox. She captured my imagination, even as she was an opposing factor in the little war within our purchasing subgroup. And as I’ve mentioned, Bethany was very “noticeable”, from a male point-of-view.
I was also in starvation mode. Since my separation and divorce, I had had little in the way of either dating or sex. (The two do not always go together, I’d discovered long ago.)
Six years ago, I’d thought that “dating” was something that I’d never have to worry about again. I’d believed that my ex-wife, Claire, was my exact fit, and vice versa. Then Olivia was born, and things had been even better. I’d had a happy home life and a great job in Dayton with a company that I’d liked a whole lot better than Thomas-Smithfield. I’d believed that my entire happy state of affairs was going to endure forever, more or less. What the hell had I known?
So mostly I had been focused, of late, on getting my life back together. But I supposed, even then, that “getting my life back together” ought to include something in the relationship department. My ex-wife, Claire, had certainly been moving on.
“So,” Bethany said, abruptly. “I heard you’ve been sucking up.”
There had been no formal announcement of my grade promotion, but the word had trickled out, in dribs and drabs. Donnie and Bethany weren’t the only coworkers who had heard; but most were a bit more supportive—or at the very least, neutral.
Bethany was waiting for me to respond. Once again, I wanted to say something like, No, I’ve just been working while you’ve been sneaking off with Donnie. But I held my tongue.
Well, I didn’t completely hold my tongue. “I’ll take that as a congratulations,” I said, “Thank you.”
She had no comeback for that. She had been hoping to get a rise out of me, and her efforts had fallen flat. Maybe I was learning how to deal with Donnie and Bethany, after all.