It has taken a lot to adjust to living in the big city. It’s nothing like the little farm house I was used to as a child, helping out my father with the animals and thinking that riding on the tractor in the warm sun was the most exhilarating thing any human could do. That was before I was old enough to ride the horses though, after that the tractor seemed dull and clunky. Downtown Chicago was very different indeed.
Every building was a skyscraper with metallic and cold windows and walls, dark grey suits littered the place speeding through the streets without a thought of whom they may bash into on their way to the very important meeting with head office. The structures had no life to them but the kinetic energy of the inhabitants and the neon lights during the night kept the city alive. I settled into my office job on West Monroe Street, a little ways up from the Bank of America Theatre. It was one of the reasons I took the job here rather than anyway else, I just love musicals. In fact it got me a few disapproving glances during my first days when I absent-mindedly start singing to myself while filing some paperwork away. Self-expression was not something celebrated in my particular office block, although my boss didn’t seem to mind.
She was a nice lady, somewhere in her early to mid-fifties with a very practiced smile; I watched her during my first few months trying to figure out the best way to act around her. I had been given some advice a friendly co-worker, Liz – although in my head I used her full name Elizabeth, I just preferred it but never told her – who advised me to act differently while the boss was around. People stopped gossiping, started typing when they hadn’t touched the keyboard in half an hour, some even photocopied blank pieces of paper in the hope that their illusion of working hard would be opaque enough to not be challenged. I nodded politely at Elizabeth and thanked her for the advice but deep down I knew I wouldn’t use it, I was there to work and work I would do.
The first time I properly spoke to my boss was at the end of my first week when I was called into her office. As I tentatively walked from my desk to her door, I went over in my head what I could have possibly done to warrant a meeting; I hadn’t been late, all my documents had been filed correctly and on time, my desk was never cluttered nor the area a disturbance to anyone. Well, other than that one afternoon where I accidentally hummed the tune to various Wicked songs without realising until someone threw a screwed up post-it note with the words ‘stop humming’ on it. I think my face went as red as the pen I was using to point out spelling errors in a report. I knocked on her door as a child would knock on their parents’ and cautiously poked my head around.
“You wanted to see me?” My voice fell on the same trail as my knock.
“Yes I did, please take a seat.” She looked up from her desk and smiled. I entered the room, looking around at the labelled boxes on the shelves and the generic motivation posters on the walls. “Do you know why I called you in?” Her eyes were piercing but with a hint of softness although I was sure it could be evaporated in a split second if she didn’t like what she heard.
“I-I don’t know, Ms. Gothel. Did I file or format something wrong?” I tried my best to act like the adult I was but I couldn’t help the feeling of being a student in front of a teacher.
“Oh Heaven’s no, flower! I just wanted to see how your first week was going. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have said ‘do you know why I called you in’ like that,” she exaggerated how seriously she had said it the first time around with her hands resting on her ribs and a frown covering her face, “it’s just a little joke I like to play on the new workers. I once had a fellow in here who worked himself into such a state he sweated himself into an unconscious nap.” She laughed, seemingly at everyone else’s expense.
“Well I think it’s going well so far, I’m not finding the work too challenging and I’ve just about figured my way around the office although the filing system in the records room does trip me up from time to time.” My chuckle was not reciprocated as Ms. Gothel was too busy writing something down. I cautiously peered over but couldn’t make anything out until she looked up at me again with a smile.
“Oh yes, it’s definitely one of those things you master in time. Have you had any problems or concerns you wish to bring up? Any issues you’ve had while you’ve been here? I can see from your file,” Ms. Gothel lifted up a few pages looking for the information she wanted, “that you were born a little ways out of Little Falls, Minnesota. How are you finding the big city?” Ms. Gothel rested her elbows on her desk and her chin on her hands, almost intently anticipating my words.
“It’s very different to say the least, there’s a lot more people and traffic, a lot more of everything really but I’m adapting.” I repeatedly looked away while speaking but her eyes never wavered.
“I think you’re adapting marvellously, much better than some of the other people I’ve had in this office.” Ms. Gothel was a little too cheery and it made me wonder what she was like with other people.
“Like the passing-out-from-sweating guy.” I recalled with some measure of concern. Ms. Gothel however laughed instead.
“Exactly! Oh you should have seen him when he got fired, I nearly had to get new carpets installed!” It was bordering on disturbing how much she seemed to enjoy the poor man’s torment and with that, I took a chance on leaving.
“I’m sure it was a sight to see. If that is all, Ms. Gothel, I would like to get back to work, I’m sure I’ve got a few more papers on my desk by now.” As I stood up to leave her expression changed from happiness to, what was it, worry? Longing? I wasn’t sure but wanted to leave.
“Yes that’s fine, you go right ahead my little worker bee and please, call me Rhiamon.”
“Right, thank you, Rhiamon.” I knew from then onwards that I would never use Ms. Gothel’s first name. It felt wrong somehow, like calling one of your parents by their name rather than relation. I headed towards the door with a weak smile and walked quicker than normal to my desk. I noticed a few co-workers looking at me, figuring out whether I had broken some rule or even told Ms. Gothel about the passive aggressive post-it note but I didn’t see the point of bringing it up and sat down, burying my head in my work as always.
Months passed and I settled in nicely, made friends with some of the co-workers and avoided others, and seemingly became the not-so-secret favourite of Ms. Gothel; she gave me the best cases and so I got one of the highest bonuses in my department at the end of each month. On a few occasions I found peanut butter brittle on my desk with a note saying something along the lines of ‘well done on Mr. So-And-So’s case last week, flower!’. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t like peanut butter brittle and so stashed it under my spare stationary in my desk.
Not long after, the job started getting monotonous and boring; the same old clients coming back even though we’d resolved their issues, the same stories being told, the same answers being given. The only interesting thing I had in the months running up to my one year anniversary of being there was watching the construction of the office block next to ours. Elizabeth and I would watch the workmen on our break. Well, she would, I would do some less taxing work while sitting next to her and occasionally looking up to see what she was making strange noises about – mostly it was topless men, Chicago does get rather hot in the summer. After the building was completed and inhabited by the same kind of people around me, we would – she would – people-watch on our breaks. And that was when I saw him. He sat facing the same way I did and I caught him glancing over a few times but just put it down to Elizabeth obviously staring at him.
“Isn’t he handsome?! I mean, have you seen that jawline? I could watch that harsh angle all day.” I laughed at Elizabeth and looked over to the other building. He was typing away on his computer, checking his papers, typing again, finishing his coffee – I couldn’t see what was in his cup but he looked like a coffee man – and stood up. He buttoned up his light grey suit and adjusted his dark red tie before tossing an embarrassed smile at the group of women gawking at him in my office. His blue eyes looked to mine and seemingly got locked in place, my gaze only broken my Elizabeth bashing my arm. “Hey he’s looking right at you! Wave or something! Go on, do it!” I tentatively raised my hand. What if he wasn’t looking at me? What if I wave and he doesn’t wave back? What if I spend too long asking myself questions and he walks away? So I waved and as he waved back, his smile turning into a grin. We only realised our hands were hovering when his boss walked over and startled him, breaking the moment and sending me crashing back to the reality of the giddy women around me.
From that day onwards, we waved every morning when the last one of us would arrive and take a seat at our respective desks, and in the evening when the first one would get up to leave. Even though my job hadn’t changed, the work was less of a bore since I could look over at my handsome stranger any time and feel butterflies when I realised he had been looking at me. One day, when our offices were quiet and we had nothing much to do, we attempted to engage in proper conversation through holding up pieces of paper to the window. It took a few attempts to get the handwritten font to the right size so the other person could read it and that meant there was little space on the page for much of a message so our exchanges started off small with ‘hellos’ and ‘how are yous’. Normally, I was very mindful of where Ms. Gothel was as I had been inadvertently appointed look out for everyone else and would subtly alert them when she was inbound, however this day I was preoccupied and was startled when she appeared behind me at my desk.
“As charming as that man may be, I hope he’s not distracting you too much from your work.” Her tone was not the usual overly pleased to see me but had an element of authority and maybe even a hint of hurt.
“Oh no, Ms. Gothel, I was just… um on my break, I’ve finished the report you wanted on Mrs. Rogers,” I hurriedly moved things on my desk trying to find the right paperwork and discard my messages to my new friend, “and everything is ready for tomorrow’s meeting.” I could feel my face glowing scarlet as I tried – and failed – to calm down.
“Thank you.” Ms. Gothel snatched the folder from my hand and turned to leave. “One more thing, that office over there is part of Guardian, our rival company. Just be mindful of that when getting close to your… new friend.” Ms. Gothel almost stormed away to her office and ignored Anderson as he tried to talk to her on the way. I could see a few people look at me in surprise and turned to Elizabeth.
“I think she might have a problem with me and the handsome stranger.”
The next six months went on as before; same old work, exciting handsome stranger, notes held up to windows and the constant sense of anxiety that Ms. Gothel knew what I was doing. Gradually, her mood changed towards me – the nickname of ‘flower’ had long since been forgotten – and I had stopped being given the best cases. However, on one particular Tuesday something was different.
“Where’s your pen pal?” Elizabeth perched on my desk and grinned.
“I’m not sure, he wasn’t here yesterday either.” Was he ill? Had he moved desks? Had he taken a holiday and not told me? As I went over possible explanations, both logical and extremely illogical, one of the gossip girls came bustling into the office and over to us.
“Have you heard?! Handsome stranger, whose real name is Henry so now he’s Handsome Henry, was in an accident last night!” I stood up from my desk – a little too quickly – and stared at Doris.
“An accident? What kind of accident? Is he okay?” I couldn’t hide the fear in my voice.
“Apparently he was walking home and got run down by a car and he went flying into someone’s garden! But that isn’t even the worst part!” How could this possibly get worse? “The worst part is… his suit got ruined!” Everyone gasped, some out of genuine shock, others because it was preposterous.
“Doris?!” Elizabeth was the latter.
“Oh wait that’s not right. The worst part is… he went flying into a rose bush and the thorns… they blinded him.” No sound was made after that. Everyone silently shuddered and prayed for his recovery.
The next few weeks were the least enjoyable of all my time working for Ms. Gothel. Every day I’d leave and return but it felt like I never really left that metallic tower. Every day I hurriedly left my office and kept my head down as I pushed through the crowds, but on one particularly day I was stopped when I bumped into someone and started apologising vehemently.
“Oh my I’m so sorry! I wasn’t paying attention—“ I suddenly realised who it was.
“Sorry, I have a little bit of trouble seeing nowadays.” He chuckled and as he pointed to his sunglasses, it broke my heart. “My name’s Henry” He extended his hand to my right side and I moved to shake it properly.
“I’m Rae. Rae Punzelle.”