The paper stack by Lizzie never seemed to get any shorter. Being moved to human resources seemed to mean that she had to handle the brunt of everyone else’s bullshit, particularly when the bank was going through something of a public image problem. All she really wanted was to go home for a bubble bath and an evening of soap operas. Her feet ached from the unreasonable high heels she wore to give her diminutive form a bit more authority, and she could feel a headache beginning to form behind her eyes.
When her phone blared out, she did her best to put on a fake smile. Her supervisor was always telling her that people could hear if you were smiling or not just by your tone of voice, and good customer service was always delivered with a smile. “Lizzie Tweedy. Can I help you?” she asked, using the tone that she had perfected during her years behind the bar.
“Lizzie, it’s Anita.” The receptionist’s tone was icy as she spoke, the perfect reason for Lizzie to let her false cheer slip away. “There’s a gentleman here to see you. Says he has a lunch appointment with you.”
She glanced at her calendar first, then the time in the corner of her computer monitor. The taskbar assured her it was 2:30, and she had returned from her break more than an hour before. There were no meetings on her agenda. “I don’t have any appointments written down. Could you check with the gentleman to ask what his name is?”
“He says to tell you it’s Gordon. He appears to have flowers with him.” Her voice was muffled for a moment, then resumed its monotone. “I’m not supposed to tell you about the flowers.”
She leaned back in her seat and glared at the ceiling. Surely this was her punishment for being a lapsed Catholic or for failing to listen to the rules of the church, she was sure of it. If she left her desk for too long, she knew that she would never be forgiven. She’d be stuck in the same job forever, if she managed to keep her job at all. “All right, just keep him down there. I’ll be down to talk to him in a minute.”
Reaching into her handbag, she fished out a pack of Marlboros. Gordon had never really approved of her smoking, but she needed the cover and the hit of nicotine to stave off all this unnecessary stress. She knocked on the cubicle next to hers and gestured to the pack. “Just nipping out for a quick one. You want to come, Angela?” She was completely aware of the fact that her co-worker only smoked under extreme duress and when drunk, but the other woman would at least be a good cover for her. As soon as Angela declined the offer with stuttered grace, Lizzie hurried off to the elevator and assessed her appearance in the reflective door. Dark circles under her eyes, hair starting to stick out from humidity, makeup fading.
“You’re in control,” she told herself. Her reflection seemed skeptical.
When the door opened, she hurried through the lobby to the door. Her boyfriend, who clutched a vase of calla lilies, watched her go before he realized that she wasn’t stopping to get him. She could tell he was following when the rubber soles of his trainers squeaked against the polished floor, no doubt leaving uncoordinated scuffs behind. She had to walk a bit to get to the designated smoking section. Even Mayor Bloomberg was ganging up on her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she hissed as she fumbled for her lighter. That instrument was at least merciful, catching the end of her cigarette without protest.
She almost felt sorry for how gobsmacked he looked. “I thought we could get a bit of lunch. Valentine’s Day and all,” he said. “And I got you lilies. I know you don’t much like roses.”
He’d remembered her favorite flower. That was something, even if he’d forgotten the holiday. No, she told herself, straightening up to try to reduce their height gap as much as possible. Don’t let him charm his way out of this one. “Gordon, do you know what time it is? I already had lunch. Most of the city has already had lunch. Not everyone is getting breakfast at noon like you are.”
His cheeks flushed, but there was a certain spark in his eye as she spoke. Something inside him came alive at the sign of conflict, something beyond the man she loved. “Well, I was in my meeting at noon, as you’ll recall.”
“I know you were. And I was at work. I’m still at work.” She took a long drag and noticed that he was looking at her oddly as she smoked. “What?”
“Nothing. I thought I’d just see where you work. You’ve never taken me here before. You’ve never introduced me to a single coworker of yours.”
“Yeah well, maybe up until now I didn’t want to make you feel bad in a corporate atmosphere. And then you started to really blow up and make your own way, and well, who the hell’s going to believe me when I say that I’m dating the singer of the area’s hot band of the moment?”
“They’d have to believe you if they saw me. I mean, it’s not like you have to be ashamed of me now. It’s not like I was always sitting in my boxers and talking about how famous I’d be. I’ve worked damn hard all these years, the same as you have.”
“Oh no, it has not been the same. Don’t even say that it has been. You get to have fun in the middle of the day, but I have work up to my eyeballs, and the only reason I could come down to even see you is because everyone knows I’m hooked on these fucking things.” She shook the cigarette but wished that it would burn down even faster so she could get away from this conversation.
He held up his hands in surrender as best he could while holding the flowers. He looked ridiculous, such a skinny man raising his arms skyward, and she would have laughed at him in any other situation. “Fine, it’s not the same. And these past few years have been shitty for you, I know that. You took care of the bills, and that was incredible of you. But why would you do that if you didn’t believe in me? I never asked you to.”
She could feel the tears start to well up. This wasn’t the place to have a conversation like this, and if she cried and a coworker saw, that could be the end of her career. It was difficult enough for a woman to make an impression in the workplace, especially when she happened to be young and didn’t hold a degree. “We really don’t have to do this here, Gordon. I have to work. You have to…I don’t know what you have to do right now. Go have your lunch. Write some music. Rehearse. Find yourself a new bassist. I don’t know. But I really have to focus on my life right now, and I can’t have you here.”
“But why?” She could tell just by looking at him that he was genuinely confused. He didn’t see why he couldn’t persuade her with a look, a request, a bunch of flowers. Because he’d actually made his one dream come true, he thought that with enough determination, the world would always be malleable to his will.
She sighed and used the tip of her cigarette to light a second. If someone asked, she’d say that her boyfriend was telling her about a family emergency. “That’s just not the way a place like this works. I’m really nobody here. I can’t just decide that I want to have a visitor at any given moment. There are rules here. And no, I don’t love it, but it paid the bills when we had nothing else. Can’t you just respect that? I appreciate the fact that they took me on when I wasn’t qualified for much else. If I ever leave this place, what will I have? I left school. I’m not that clever or smart. I don’t want to go back to being a pair of tits behind a bar, okay? Don’t you see that?”
“But you’re not that. You can do whatever you want. We have time now. You can figure it out.”
She found herself flinching back toward the wall even before he could reach out to her. “You have time, but I don’t. How long are you even home? A month or two? Then you’re going to go off and record another album somewhere else. I’m going to be the one at home, and I can’t just sit around unemployed, waiting for some stroke of inspiration. This keeps me busy, and yeah, it’s not ideal, but it’s what I have right now. I’m not going to be your bored housewife without a ring just because you feel like you owe me something for my years of support. I went to work because I always worked. I made enough to cover the bills, and that was fucking lucky. And yeah, I did believe in your music. I still do. But you need to let me have my own life so when you go record or tour or promote or whatever, I still have something other than some bragging rights and an empty bed.”
The cigarette was only half gone, but she could stand to have her lungs a little less blackened. She crushed the smoke underfoot and didn’t bother to pick it up, littering laws be damned. She snatched the vase from his arms and met his eyes, knowing that he would probably just pity himself rather than try to man up and make himself understand her stance. That thought made her feel sick to her stomach already. “I’ll be home after work, Gordon. We can talk then, or we can just have dinner or whatever you want to do. Just try to understand that. Please. For me.”