Dead End Job
They were supposed to be doing something at work, and they were.
She was doing something, anyway, talking to him while sitting
beside him on super-structured swivel chairs imported at great
expense from Finland (or some foreign place) in her office, which
had been presented to Isabel as an incentive to take the job—she
wouldn’t be working in a cubicle, in other words—and
which had actually become a boon for them, since it was small
enough for them to be close together—“conferring on
data”—without arousing suspicions when she did this,
when she told him stories about herself to excite him and he touched
himself through his jeans or—if he was feeling bold enough—unbuckled
and unzipped his pants and touched himself directly.
had started doing it a few weeks ago during lunch hour when the
rest of the office emptied out. She had learned that Martin didn’t
eat lunch, hardly ate at all, unlike herself, who felt even at
twenty-three that she ate too much, even though others thought
she was being silly, others found her attractive, Martin did,
at any rate, though it took him forever to say so and, come to
think of it, maybe he never actually had: he had just moved toward
Isabel like an object on a ship’s table sliding amidst a
storm at sea. Maybe his not eating enough explained more than
his—not entirely unappealing—ultra-slimness, it had
caused his—how should she say it?—lack of strength
in a certain area, something she had discovered during their first
date, if you could even call it a date; it had been more, again,
a kind of gravitational drift in each other’s direction
after hours. Though now that she thought of it—as he came
forcefully, hearing the most erotic part of her monologue breathed
into his ear—he was only weak sexually in certain ways and
not in others; in fact, he was incredibly avid when he heard her
tales; she might even have called him potent, if potency didn’t
imply an interaction with another person, though maybe it only
meant having the potential of powerfully reproducing, which Martin
obviously had, even though he was currently wasting his precious
(or was it inexhaustible?) reproductive material in the front
flap of his underwear.
They had started doing it at work because they had been so fucking
bored. Not that Isabel had expected to be thrilled, exactly, collecting
data in a company that made security systems—let her get
this straight—so that “passive requestors” could
strengthen the “trust realms” between “insecure”
computers, so that web browsers could better “make requests”
of—oh, the whole thing had been so lame to begin with, and
so would anybody working in it; but, well, she had needed a job
and the industrial park was in driving distance from her apartment
(the first she’d ever had, gotten right after graduating
college, where she had studied art history, as useless a major
as she had been warned it would be), and this was sold to her,
too, as another incentive, the short commute, though now in fact
she would have preferred a longer ride in the morning, since pressing
her foot to the pedal and turning the radio knob were more actions
than she performed at work, more of a physical and mental workout,
and she was only half-kidding
had not been her first office mate: Rita had been there to begin
with, a nondescript woman of fifty who, to Isabel’s amazement,
had already worked there for ten years, and who had a heart attack
and took early retirement two days after Isabel arrived (Isabel
was not the reason, she had been solemnly reassured by her boss,
Owen, as if she ever would have imagined that she was; though,
in fact, the reassurance actually made her consider it for a second),
and Martin arrived soon after, at about half Rita’s salary,
He was, she immediately noticed, her own age, dark-haired and
not unhandsome, though so slight as to seem positively fragile.
Isabel had never fantasized sexually about being physically bigger
than a man, but in truth she wasn’t the most experienced
in this area, having gone through college just racking up short
relationships with an aspiring and seemingly pot-addicted musician,
mostly because they lived on the same hall, and an acting student
who had said he was bi-sexual but whom she soon learned was homosexual,
or at least would be—he confessed while leaving her for
a male stage manager—after his experience with her. Their
affair, too, had come about through inertia—they had been
at the same cast party and left at the same time, and this, it
turned out, was the most they would ever have in common.
Martin and she had quickly formed a tighter bond, one based on
incredulity at the fact of their daily tasks, disbelief that they
were meant to merely man computers, waiting for data, feeling
as suffocated as those at battle stations in wartime submarines
but nowhere near as necessary (Martin had said this; he’d
been a history major). The two were nearly stunned by the idea
of doing this all day, unnerved enough that they couldn’t
even laugh about it, until, one night on the way home, after they’d
each had two beers apiece at a nearby bar, they couldn’t
Even here, the torpor of the job had taken its toll, sapped their
spirits; they hadn’t actively chosen the bar: Martin had
just caravanned behind her car until Isabel shrugged, put on her
turn signal, and he had followed. In the same sleepwalking way,
they had gone to her place afterwards, since he still lived with
roommates, one of whom slept out in the open, on the living room
They had watched an animated movie for awhile, one that both had
seen several times without even liking. Then, neither being the
aggressor, they simply moved closer on the couch like commuters
making room for others on a crowded subway car, freeze-framed
the film, and got close enough to touch.
hands had skittered over her like bats, and she had darted her
tongue into his mouth, as if trying to reach something under a
couch where it had not been vacuumed for years. While each had
made the least amount of effort possible, both became aroused—it
had been ages for Isabel, after all, and she heard Martin moan
in what sounded like agreement when she rubbed his half-erection,
her wrist pressed somewhat painfully against the clump of keys
in the right front pocket beside it.
Yet by the time she’d returned hopefully from the bathroom—carrying
a condom, which she’d taken discreetly from a bowl of free
ones in a progressive bookstore downtown—wearing only her
panties but still holding against her the T-shirt she’d
taken off, self-conscious as ever about her size, she found that
Martin was already pulling back on the pants he’d partially
yanked down and was reaching again for the remote.
He gave no explanation (later, she understood he’d been
too embarrassed or at least too unhappy with himself to speak)
and at the moment she blamed herself and then him and then herself
again, and sat there feeling strange, still gripping the unwrapped
condom with her right hand and the T-shirt with her left, as he
began the movie again from the place where they’d stopped
While they watched—or while he did, and she stared into
a middle distance, wondering if she was blushing (it seemed like
it) and, if so, whether if it was from anger or embarrassment
or both—without a word or muting the movie, Martin turned
and began touching her again, fingering her through the side of
her underwear and occasionally moving her T-shirt away to inexpertly
but intently suck her nipple. He did it, she thought later, out
of guilt and obligation or as a kind of good form and fair play
(he was a WASP, after all, he had said so over drinks, though
he had gone to school on a scholarship) or from an excitement
that (and here she began to feel compassion for him and not contempt)
he was unable to fully feel but only witness and acknowledge,
the way one smells food that one doesn’t actually crave
but understands others eating. Whyever he was doing it, he made
Isabel come, a bit more intensely than she usually made herself
in the evenings, her experience diminished somewhat by the accompanying
sound of a song sung by cartoon flounders in the movie, along
with which she suspected Martin was quietly humming, though it
might have been more of the agreeing-with moaning he had done
Afterward, he pulled away, leaving her to readjust her underwear
and fully pull on her shirt. The fact that he had even done it,
after being impotent (because he lacked strong enough blood circulation
or didn’t desire her in that way or didn’t eat enough—he
had only nibbled at the nachos in the bar, while she ate almost
all of them—or was, well, ill) somewhat endeared him to
her, and she placed an elbow upon his shoulder, as if they were
players on a high school soccer team or something, as they watched
to the end the movie they still thought mediocre.
As the credits rolled—and Martin finally pressed the mute—Isabel
thought she should say something to comfort him, in case he felt
“I bet you’ve had more exciting evenings,” she
said, to take the rap, though she knew—or at least suspected—she
was unworthy of such punishment, a tiny residual doubt notwithstanding.
hey,” Martin said, after a long and tortured pause, direct
expression clearly—along with other kinds of human interactions—an
ongoing and excruciating trial for him, “it’s you
who had to… I mean, I hadn’t been…” and
that was the best he could do to grab back the ball of blame.
there was an even longer pause before, not able to look at her,
he asked, “When was the first time you—you did it?”
Isabel was surprised, even taken aback, by his inquiry. For a
second, she didn’t answer and so he took her silence as
a rebuke and, “Sorry,” he said, “maybe I shouldn’t
But that he had had the energy to ask her anything, had taken
an initiative that wasn’t to make up for a failing (as when
he’d touched her) or express a negative emotion (as, at
work, when he had once “mistakenly” deleted incoming
data) so impressed her that she felt obligated to reply, if only
to encourage him to continue.
was, well, in high school,” she said, “at a boy I
Slowly, he asked her another question about the encounter (which
had been with Bailey Glynn, arts editor of the high school lit
mag, The Long Island Epiphany), and then another, and each time
she answered, because, as she did so, she sensed a commitment
from and curiosity in him that she had never seen and did not
want to quash, uncomfortable as she was revealing details which
up till now had been known only to Bailey and herself.
undid my bra, and then we thought we heard his parents pull into
the driveway, but it wasn’t the case, and, strangely, that
seemed to make him harder, and—“
did you do then?”
She told him about her first fumbling yet erotic experience with
fellatio, distancing herself from the event by pretending to describe
a movie she had seen and, accordingly, embellishing it here and
there, which both allowed her less unease and increased his avidity,
the almost entranced quality of his arousal (his eyes closed,
his mouth slightly open) which grew more and more marked as she
were you excited?”
As she reached the peak of her story, Martin began to undo his
pants with great haste, as if he simply could not wait a moment
longer. She was surprised by the strength and size of his erection
now, as if he were another person, had a whole other body, when
she talked to him like this. Before he could touch his penis,
she did, and before she could touch it more than once, he came,
so loudly and powerfully that he sounded as if he was in pain
and had to place a hand on her arm to steady himself, as if he
was afraid of what was happening, though this only made her excited
and not concerned for him.
Afterward, Martin looked down and saw that his semen had shot
the entire length of his bare leg and onto her couch, some of
it even hitting the TV remote inches away. He said nothing, just
rose to pull one, two, then three tissues from a nearby box and
start to fastidiously clean up. Before he had finished, Isabel
had tugged his hand toward her, pried the tissues loose from it,
and placed it between her legs: he pushed three fingers inside
her, and she held his hand there and came again, this time much
more deeply and electrically than she had before, than she ever
had, she later admitted only to herself.
Each briefly looked in the other’s eyes, aware that both
were alive in ways that were unknown to other people in the office,
and that neither would have known if neither had exposed—sacrificed—something
(he pride, she privacy); that both had done things that night
and been rewarded, in other words, the opposite of how they spent
their time at work. Then they looked away, each secretly knowing
what would happen next.
Isabel and Martin didn’t discuss or arrange it: speaking
to each other was not their strong suit (especially not his).
Yet the next day, after staring immobile at information on a screen
before pressing a button to distribute it, when no one was passing
their door, she quietly asked him what else he wanted to know
about her, and he answered her question with another question—
“What was the next time you, etc.”—and she answered
his question with an actual answer, and that made him ask another
question, with an urgency he showed about nothing else (had maybe
never shown about anything else), and she answered again, his
excitement exciting her (her power to excite him exciting her),
until he—“nonchalantly”—placed the base
of his palm quickly against the large lump that had
below his belt, and she naughtily brushed it once or twice with
her elbow, and ended the exchange, Martin gasping and seeming
almost lifted up in the air by the wild rush it afforded him.
Then Isabel excused herself and went into the ladies’ room
where she locked herself in a stall and made herself come, too,
which happened almost instantly and left her so sweaty and aromatic
that she realized her “natural” deodorant didn’t
work and probably never had, she just never had known, for she
had never tested it with enough effort.
As weeks went on, they got the routine down to a science, knew
when to stop if they heard sounds in the hall, when to swivel
away from each other, when to start up again. One day, Martin
stayed out sick with a cold and called her from home. This was
physically easier for her—Isabel only had to eyeball the
hall and not physically disengage from him if the coast wasn’t
clear—yet it took some getting used to, it being more impersonal.
did he say about your tits?” he asked, after she had quietly
described an event.
he liked them.”
they were big. That I had nice ones.”
what did he do?”
kissed around, then licked around, then bit around my nipples.
He wouldn’t suck them. He was tormenting me.”
your nipples get hard?”
did you do?”
begged him to suck them. And he said I’d have to wait.”
made me promise that I would swallow his come if he sucked my
what did you do?”
promised that I would.”
really want to hear about that.”
There was a brief pause on the other end of the line, as she heard
only Martin’s slow, slightly cold-congested breathing. Then,
“I’ll call you back,” he said and hung up.
She made up the stories, of course, having long since exhausted
her actual experiences, which she had fictionalized in the first
place as to make them virtually unrecognizable. She saw herself
as a kind of Sheherazade, though only vaguely aware of who that
was. When Isabel looked up the name online, she saw that the analogy
wasn’t perfect but close enough to make her feel connected
to an oral tradition, in a line of great raconteurs.
Yet after more weeks, this remained the only connection she could
feel. Martin never stopped wanting to hear her “memories”
(which she assumed he knew were padded with details picked up
from porn films she saw online, actually had researched at home
in her idle hours, the sites not being “safe for work,”
and then made less mechanical and cold when she offered them up
as her own) but this remained the extent of their physical relationship.
Soon he was not requesting to do it after work any more but only
in the office, and didn’t reciprocate by touching her (for
she, being shyer, refused to have that done in public and still
insisted on going to the ladies’ room by herself, and then
even stopped doing that). Isabel began to feel their actions were
fading into another form of passivity, more work, in other words,
a new and modern job, the pressing of a penis the same as that
of a “send” button, etc.
It was around this time that their boss, Owen, requested her appearance
in his office after five.
Isabel had spoken to Owen just two or three times—once when
he assured her she hadn’t caused Rita’s heart attack,
once when she rode the elevator with him after only he and not
she had carried an umbrella in that morning’s thunderstorm
and she had tried to laugh off the water literally dripping from
her hair and clothes and pooling on the marble floor of the car
and he had smiled, politely, seeming she thought repelled, and
another time she couldn’t remember—he hadn’t
even hired her; it had been an obese woman named Cybil in Human
So she had been startled when Owen poked his head in her and Martin’s
office, only a few minutes after Martin had excused himself to
clean up in the men’s room. Owen had an open and expectant
look, as if about to ask if she wanted anything at the store,
he was making a run (“I’ll fly if you buy,”
they used to say in college) but that couldn’t be it, of
she walked to his office later, it was with trepidation—an
instinctive reaction to being summoned by someone in authority,
she thought—but she also had a flickering hope that she
was about to be fired, though if the cause was her office adventures
with Martin, that might turn out to be embarrassing, maybe even
featured on the evening news, then splashed all over the internet,
where her parents could see it.
When she sat opposite him, though, Owen didn’t mention Martin
and only wanted her to do some special project on a freelance
basis; he would understand if she were too busy.
She was unable to keep a tone of comic disbelief from her voice
and immediately sorry about it. “I mean, no, I don’t
think so. All right. Thank you.”
Isabel needed the money, after all—and she tuned out when
Owen explained about the mild tax complications that “freelance”
would mean, “estimated,” or whatever. She concentrated
instead on looking at Owen, who was forty-two but whom she thought
was either thirty-five or fifty. He had a boyish, snub-nosed face
surrounded by graying hair, reminding her of a modern painting
in a gilded frame from another century. He didn’t meet her
eyes as he spoke yet what he said couldn’t have been more
simple, innocent, and non-incriminating. Was he avoiding something
else of which he was ashamed? She didn’t know. She had walked
in wondering why he’d chosen her and left convinced it could
have been her or someone else; maybe he’d just stopped by
her office after counting to ten.
When Isabel got home, there was a message on her machine from
Martin. In it, he implied an interest in hearing her talk over
the phone that night, having apparently enjoyed it when he’d
been ill, unlike Isabel, who’d had mixed feelings. Isabel
meant to call him back, yet by the time she’d finished the
assignment for Owen, it was midnight and too late. She’d
completed the task in just one night, despite the “several”
Owen had assumed it would take. Since it had been no more interesting
than what she did at work—seemed more boring, actually,
like spending a vacation in her home—Isabel was surprised
by her diligence and went to sleep without comprehending it.
The next day, she politely demurred when Martin nodded suggestively
at the empty hall during lunch hour. They had sometimes missed
other opportunities—for instance, when they had had to attend
day-long, company-wide meetings after which both confessed they
had fantasized doing it in front of the entire workforce, which
had fueled and made more exciting their next encounter. This was
the first time Isabel had actually said or at least shaken her
head no, and she could see the disappointment—which was
deep—on Martin’s face. At day’s end, he waited
for her to accompany him out, but Isabel simply said she would
see him tomorrow.
call you?” he said, or asked, as if unsure whether he would
or would be allowed to by her, it wasn’t clear which.
As soon as he was gone, Isabel walked quickly to Owen’s
office, hoping he hadn’t left for the night. She carried
the work she had done, which she had printed out and placed neatly
in a folder. She could have emailed it to him but wanted to deliver
it in person, she didn’t know why.
well,” Owen said, impressed, using a way of talking that
was older than his youngish face, as if his graying hair were
talking or something, Isabel couldn’t express it coherently
to herself. “Thank you. I had no idea you’d do it
Suddenly Owen couldn’t finish the sentence—and the
final word was almost certainly “fast” or “quickly”—he
appeared too appreciative and that made him too emotional. Or
was it something else? For whatever reason, his eyes filled with
before his desk, Isabel didn’t know what to do. Had she
somehow sensed this aspect of Owen—an instability—and
complied with the job so quickly out of compassion? She was suddenly
unaware of so much, though many things were presenting themselves.
She only knew that something had been building in her, begun by
her losing interest in—growing to resent really—Martin.
Unintentionally, the older man had stepped into the spill of a
searchlight Isabel had been shining around, and now she had stopped
it; he had her full attention.
I close the door?” he asked, still choking up, and Isabel
nodded, as if to say, please do.
When he retook his seat, Owen again spoke without looking at her,
but occasionally met her eyes and glanced away, testing new waters
wife,” he said, “I don’t—I don’t
mean to put her down. She can’t help it. I know depression
is a disease, that’s what the doctors say. I understand
that. But she sleeps hours and hours a day—sometimes all
day. I bring her books and newspapers—I brought her an easel
with an expensive palette, for she used to paint. They all go
unused. She’s taken every pill invented and none has worked
for more than a week. What am I supposed to do? Nothing? That’s
what it feels like she wants for me to do, not to leave her but
to leave her be. How can I? She stays behind a closed door that
seems as big as that space monolith in that movie where—oh,
of course, you wouldn’t know it, you’re too young.”
The idea of Isabel’s age had stopped his confession, returned
him to reality, and Owen swiveled to the side, seeming grateful
that something had.
felt a bit offended. She had seen that movie, or at least part
of it once, had heard of it, anyway, and besides, he was too young
to have seen it originally, either; he wasn’t that much
older. In any case, she knew that in the only way that mattered,
they were the same: Owen was a person going to waste, as she was.
do know,” she blurted out, and thought she sounded even
younger, a child asserting sophistication. It made him smile—mostly
with his eyes, if that were possible, as he barely moved his mouth—and
that hurt her even more.
Still, her youth meant something to her: Isabel waited for him
to speak before continuing the conversation—not because
he was her boss, exactly, because what he was going through was
something she hadn’t experienced, the depth of his despair
was something she had never known. Wasn’t that worthy of
respect or at least silence? This wasn’t about her impressing
him, after all, though she wanted to, had to force herself not
to keep trying, to make him know that she understood him, understood
everything, even though she sensed she didn’t.
But Owen wouldn’t respond, so Isabel had no better idea
than to leave. When he saw her start to go, he rose at the same
time, actually making a decision, moving toward her as she moved
to the door. He was faster than she, because he wanted to get
where he was going more.
Owen stood before her, no longer on the verge of tears, as if
feeling beyond what tears could tell her. He offered himself as
a desperate applicant, without any other options, beyond all embarrassment.
he said. “Please. Use me.”
At first, Isabel didn’t know what he meant. Then she realized
that she was fighting knowing and did not resist as he came closer,
in fact placed her hands at his hips to help. Soon he was near
enough to whisper,
you want. All for you. Use me.”
As he undressed her, he discouraged her doing anything in return,
shaking his head or murmuring “no” when she as much
as raised a hand to touch him. She felt she was being prepared—anointed,
that was the word—for some ceremony, saw herself in a Roman
movie scene, a princess stripped, bathed, and placed naked under
robes by female slaves—though, in that case, they would
be careful not to caress her, not wishing to offend, they would
be killed if they were caught, and, moaning, Owen was stroking
and kissing every inch of her he could, after he removed her one
good white shirt (which she had feared that morning looked as
un-ironed as it was), then her bra, her skirt and, as he placed
her with her help upon his—slightly cold—leather couch,
her underwear (it had been too warm that morning to wear tights).
Still fully dressed, he moved, a supplicant, down her, and she
spread her legs, not sure but daring to assume that’s what
he wanted. Then he said softly but she was almost sure, “I
want to lick the alphabet on your clit,” and that’s
what he did, speaking each letter before he formed it (with surprising
efficiency) upon and across her, something she suspected he had
seen in a porn film, but a good and imaginative one that she had
missed. By the time he licked the three lines for the stems or
the arms or whatever you call them of the “E,” she
came, feeling more naked even than she was, though this was how
he’d wanted her, she was only obeying him by allowing him
to submit, or something.
Then he lay his head against her thigh, breathing with what seemed
relief that he had actually had an effect on anyone, made an impact,
that he might be remembered by someone for doing something. She
didn’t dare to reach down and touch his head (the gray hair
of which she now decided she liked, without knowing why), though
it was her impulse to at least acknowledge how good he’d
made her feel. Soon he had recovered and was undressing himself,
moving her gently (again with her subtle assistance) so that she
lay beneath him. “So big and beautiful,” she thought
he whispered though she wasn’t positive and couldn’t
say “what?” because that would be weird, given what
was going on, though she was curious, wanted to hear the compliment.
She realized he already had a condom, was taking care of everything,
was weirdly adept at assisting, her sexual valet in a sense, her
“man” as they called it in old comedies about butlers,
and the word had so many meanings now, she thought, as he entered
her, and she realized she was sort of—babbling—to
herself, because she was so nervous and so aroused. As he pushed
into her, he knew what she wanted though he hardly knew her; he
was catering to her, customizing her account, as it were, her
AOL or whatever, in bed. Soon she stopped feeling guilty about
giving nothing and decided to go along, for that’s what
he wanted, to enjoy being on the receiving end, accepting now
an action in a way it had never been before.
That he was acting for himself and for her—that he was aware
of what effect each push was having, that her pleasure caused
his—this was something new. She thought of someone rowing
and how the digging of his oar into the ocean moved his boat,
rippled the water, and built the muscle in the rower’s arm,
a seamless situation, and now she was the water or merely made
of water, and when he pushed into her, he was, well, not like
the oar exactly but like an entire man disappearing into a wave,
which was her, or she was made of water, or anyway, she now knew
what “so excited” meant and it was different from
what she had pretended it meant with Martin, or to put it simply,
it now meant something and not nothing, as it had before, when
it had been something from a porn film, and bullshit.
my God,” she said, helplessly, as he pushed particularly
hard, and pressed the front of his abdomen (which she noticed
was flatter than Martin’s, despite his being so much older,
fifteen or forty-five years, though she had only briefly glimpsed
Martin’s soft stomach through his unzipped and partly pulled
down pants) against her clitoris, and she thought of a dolphin,
as if she was still in an ocean, and how it butted against you
or something when it liked you and you swam with it; he (or maybe
just his erection) was like a strong and slippery dolphin, rock
hard but really responsive, and making that little chirping radar
sound, which she now realized was coming from her own open mouth.
good, it’s good,” she said, and again she hadn’t
meant to say anything at all.
Then, suddenly, he stopped moving, obviously could move no more
without ending everything, which meant that she was on, it was
up to her; and instinctively she wrapped around him, from the
inside and outside: outside with her arms—and inside she
had never known she had such flexibility, like when you realize
you can bend a finger back all the way without breaking it, only
this was better, had never known that she could be tender with
a grown man, not just her baby sister or her old kitty cat Monkey,
kissing and kissing them—she was passionate, that’s
what she was, and why had it been embarrassing to say before now?
coming with him felt like (she could not stop comparing things;
it made her feel safer to do it, put things in perspective so
she wouldn’t feel she had entered an environment alien and
disorienting—it was still her own life, she had not gone
insane, you know?) coming with him felt like that trick where
the magician pulls out a tablecloth and all the plates stay put:
and she was the tablecloth, the table, and the plates. And he
came, too, immediately after, or actually during, though she suspected
he’d started a little ahead of her, could feel him doing
that pulsing that of course, came from his heart and had been
weaker in her hand when it came from Martin; and Owen’s
sound was bigger: Martin’s was like air going out of a balloon
and Owen’s was like one bursting, a whole float in, say,
the Puerto Rican Day Parade: or he was a terrorist exploding himself
along with everything else, and she had made him into one; and
that was so exciting that it made her come again, or maybe it
was just the end of her first orgasm, an aftershock, like they
say there are in earthquakes.
can’t stop,” she said, and perhaps that was another
trick, because she wanted it to continue and thought saying that
might be the spell to make it so.
Then he placed his lips against her temple, where her hair was
wet and slightly stuck to the area above her ear. Would he say
he loved her? She didn’t think he did; she didn’t
love him; she didn’t fool herself; she wasn’t a baby.
Maybe she wanted him to say it so she could feel superior, could
feel less than he and so more in control. (She had read once that
the young are more powerful in young-old affairs, because, well,
they live longer. But what about her uncle’s second wife
who was twenty years younger and who died first? Who was more
powerful then? Her uncle, obviously, who was still alive.) Soon
she didn’t care about creating distance: she found herself
kissing him, too, his cheek, which was not unshaven but getting
there, with the night coming on; things were changing, growing
all the time, and now she knew it, this was proof.
Her boss had wanted to work for her, and that was what he had
done; he had not been lying, been, what was the word, rhetorical:
and that made her want to serve him—not serve, that was
subordinate and not what she meant—to give to him, to know
what he knew, to get pleasure by giving pleasure, to feel the
connection or current, the wet finger in the spilled liquid that
was then stuck into a socket, only good and shocking, not bad.
took him into her mouth, even though he protested, weakly, that
this was not for him but only for her, tried to insist and sincerely,
not coyly, not to get what he pretended not to want. But she wouldn’t
listen and soon, her breasts intentionally squashed against his
leg, she kissed at the gray pubic hairs she had not noticed on
him before (and which, for reasons she could not articulate, excited
her in a new and discombobulating way), and it was only seconds
after she started, sort of forced him to experience it, had hardly
moved her mouth on him, was just getting ready to do her stuff,
or figure out what stuff would do the trick for him, that he came,
and more than melting in her mouth (as crass girls in college
called it), seemed to completely disappear, his head tilting back,
his eyes closing, his arms laid flat, his hands opening, as if
going under in that ocean again—or, better, being pushed
off a cliff by coming; it almost scared her: she suddenly knew
how lonely he had been and yet he hadn’t used it against
her but for her, had wanted to deny himself until she wouldn’t
let him any more (or was the denial his way of getting over the
guilt of sleeping with a young girl who was his employee? If he
got nothing, in other words, what had he done wrong? He would
be a kind of sex saint).
then she didn’t care what was his way to explain it to himself,
was just glad that she had given him this, given him something—God
knows she gave him nothing at the job—and soon he seemed
to reappear, to float up to the surface again and exist, and she
moved to lie against him, and he buried his face in her sweaty
neck, maybe ashamed of how much he had shown of himself, uneasy
about how much she knew him now, though she liked knowing him—he
knew her, so why not?—secretly wanted to know him more,
to know everything, even though she suspected that it would be
impossible, would probably never happen, that this was as close
as they would ever get, this instant, this afternoon.
Isabel didn’t see Owen often after this. Only once did they
meet in his house, when his wife was away. While Isabel was there,
the door to the bedroom stayed closed, and she could imagine how
its dark (was it oak?) wood might have to him a vexing and mysterious
power—intergalactic or timeless or whatever it had been
in the film—if always in that position. They used a den
but mostly stayed in the bathroom, where he washed her slowly
in the shower, aroused as he always was by fulfilling a function,
being employed, even if the need was one he had created in her,
for she did need him now, or wanted him, had had trouble waiting
for him, anyway, from the time they entered his home. Otherwise,
they met in his office whenever they could, for he had obligations,
and—without saying so, without saying much of anything—they
both regarded their time together as a gift, could not be greedy
for more, just had to be grateful.
Isabel barely spoke to Martin now. Her duties seemed less stultifying,
filled as they were with subtext, the numbers on her screen changed
into symbols of longing found on another planet or formed in the
future and fascinating; but Martin seemed even more frustrated.
Isabel could hear him sighing from where he sat, and she believed
it was both for her benefit and a genuine expression of dismay.
She was sorry for him but not guilty, no matter how much she thought
she ought to be.
One dusk, both were alone in the elevator going down, though she
usually avoided exiting the building with him. They rode in silence
until, a few floors from the lobby, Martin spoke a rare completed
know that you go with him,” he said.
Isabel started, and the little bell rang as they hit the ground
floor, seeming to underline his remark. She didn’t respond,
only walked quickly ahead and away from him; but she knew that
things were different, had entered a new phase, she could feel
it, and he had made it happen.
The next day in the office, Martin kept on talking to her—not
even whispering as others went by—in this same clear voice
he had either always had or acquired for the occasion, feeling
he had no alternative.
don’t you tell me about doing it with him?” he said.
Isabel didn’t answer, just kept looking as if interested
at her screen, though she knew it was absurd to try and fool him
in this way.
want to hear about you and him,” he said, and his voice
conveyed at once the sincere needs to please himself and punish
her, which was new; before he may have been selfish but not unkind.
Isabel turned to see him, and he didn’t avoid her, kept
staring at her, as he had been the whole time. Her response was
reflexive, though this reflex was also new.
won’t,” she said, and saw him appear shocked, not
because she had officially ended something between them, she didn’t
think, but because he was being denied something obviously available:
brand-new information that would no doubt be exciting and could
have been given to him easily, as if newspapers were being thrown
from a boy’s bike onto everybody’s lawn but his in
the days when that’s how people got current events.
As Isabel pushed by him to leave early (being privileged by her
association with Owen, she did not need to explain herself), she
realized that Martin had always thought her stories were true,
and this made her feel differently about him, though in what way
she wasn’t sure.
For a few days, to Isabel’s relief, they sat in virtual
silence. Finally, Martin addressed her on their way into a meeting,
among a crowd in which it would be hard for her to reply.
told her,” he said.
do you mean?” She was made to whisper back. “Who?”
wife. About you and him. I left a message on their machine.”
Isabel stopped, bumped by another employee trying to get past.
Waiting to be alone with him in the hall, she reached out and
grabbed Martin, got hold of his shirt, which she nearly ripped
and which he yanked back, annoyed, so she wouldn’t. They
stood there staring at each other, Isabel nearly shaking with
rage both at him and her own inarticulateness; it was as if, with
a few words, he had taken everything away.
Martin didn’t look triumphant; he seemed shaken, even shocked
by her reaction, then grew apologetic and stammered, reverting
to his old, unsocialized self.
had to do something,” he said, at last: a way to explain.
* * * *
This was right before the weekend. On Monday, Isabel arrived late,
and Martin was already there. He sat faced away, his complexion
pale, his chin in his palm, the computer screen before him blank.
Was he sick again, she wondered? Or just afraid to acknowledge
Soon she noticed a general absence of people around. When she
looked out in the hall, many doors were shut, others open to reveal
no one and a briefcase or bag hastily, even indifferently tossed
in a corner or on a chair. It was like a science fiction film
in which a plague breaks out—or a bomb drops—that
kills people but not things. She wondered if a meeting had been
called without her knowing; but now that she knew Owen, she was
always in the loop.
Isabel walked out and, after a few steps, began passing others.
All were either heading toward Owen’s office or returning
from having been there. There was a feeling of people drifting
to and from a crime scene or a free outdoor concert at which some
were turned away. Isabel could not remember there ever being this
kind of purposeful movement in the office, such urgency, concern
and curiosity. Had the company been sold? Owen been fired? One
woman was in tears. Isabel heard someone say, “I can’t
believe it,” and another, “they found him in his house,”
and a third, somewhat snottily, “I would have thought it
would have been his wife.”
Isabel began running through the hall, her feeling of fear in
action, and soon was nearly flying. She knew that if Owen’s
door was closed, it would be bad news—or would it be if
his door was open and people were in his office crying the way
she was not yet allowing herself to cry?
she was running faster than anyone ever should inside, with too
much speed to be contained in the office, as if she were about
to burst out of it at any instant, and it was true: she would
be, in a way, exploded into life by death as soon as she rounded
the corner at the end of the hall.
Klavan is author of the novels, "The Cutting
Room" and "The Shooting Script," published in 2004
and 2005 by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award for "Mrs.
White," written under a pseudonym. Last year, his story,
"Hole in the Ground," was published in Cafe Irreal and
his story, "What the Wind Blew In," was published in
SN Review. His story, "Long Story Short," is currently
in Foliate Oak and his story, "The Unexpected Guest,"
is forthcoming in Gargoyle. His graphic novels, "Germantown"
and "The Fielding Course," co-written with Susan Kim,
will be published by First Second Books in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics
to "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard
Theater in New York. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet,"
is included in "Best American Short Plays 2000-2001,"
and his one-act, "Simprov," will soon be published in
The Alaska Quarterly.His web site is LaurenceKlavan.com.
Dead End Job
© 2010 by Laurence Klavan