“It’s not that I’m trying to keep it a secret,” Patty told me. “It’s not clandestine—not exactly.”
The lunchtime crowd hummed in the background as I strained to soak in each word she murmured.
“I mean, I never told anyone about it before today,” Patty said. “I don’t sneak around, but, well, it’s just between him and me.”
“Is he married?” I asked, curious about the relationship.
“No. He plays an open field.” She fidgeted with the ruffle on her floral-patterned blouse; unbuttoned then re-buttoned the cuff of her sleeve, over and over again
“What do you like about him, exactly?”
Patty buried her head in her hands, sighed then twiddled a strand of mousey brown hair. “He’s always there when I need him.” She looked out the window of the cafeteria. Sunshine labored to pierce the haze that had settled over the valley.
“And…” I probed.
“He’s a good listener, funny.” She drifted off to some place far away, probably remembering some fleeting encounter. “Sometimes he’s a little square.”
“Where’d you meet him?”
“At work.” Shuffling through her purse, she extracted a tube of bright pink lipstick and applied it to her lower lip, scrunched her mouth like a toothless old hag and wiped her teeth with a paper napkin.
“Then I know him?”
“Of course, everyone does. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one who’s charmed by him,” she sighed.
In my mind I inventoried the eligible men in our office. Yuck, I thought. She must be desperate.
“Do you spend a lot of time with him?”
“Uh hum.” She speared a string bean from the plate she’d shoved to the side of the Formica table then took a sip of water, using the straw from her ice tea.
“So, what’s he look like?” I persisted, hoping to pinpoint his identity from his description.
“He’s skinny, with large dark eyes. Expressive. Heavy eyebrows. Usually smiling.” Patty returned to her purse, extracted her wallet and grabbed the check. “Let’s see,” she said.
I watched as she estimated the tip and divided the total in two, using her fingers as a calculator. She’s the accountant, I figured, Let her do the math.
In the meantime, I mentally surveyed our co-workers and came up empty. “Come on, Patty. Who is this guy?”
“You’ll have to figure it out yourself. I told you I met him at the office. I didn’t say he worked for us.”
My mind stretched out to agents, vendors, the mailman, our clients.
“Have you had sex?” I decided to be blunt.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Patty stammered. “You know me better than that.”
“Well what do you do when you’re together?”
“Whatever I want. He always asks me first: ‘What would you like to do?’ Always the gentleman.”
“Damn it, Patty. Why’d you have to tell me you have a secret liaison then tease me like this?” I was pissed now. “What’s so special about it anyway?”
“I’m sorry I brought it up, Karen. It’s been gnawing at me. I can’t let him go, but I know it’s never going to go anywhere. Just drop it.” Patty sniffled, dragging a Kleenex out of her battered handbag.
“Okay, but don’t think I won’t be watching you.”
We piled our plates on green plastic trays that reeked of chlorine from the dishwasher. Patty got change for my twenty, divvied up our bill and left a two-dollar tip.
Back in the office, I retreated to my cubicle, but not before I’d scoped out the work area on the pretext of going to the girl’s room.
That afternoon, I glanced up every time the door opened, ushering in a gust of wind and a visitor. No one matched the portrait she’d painted.
Before sealing envelopes, I had to double-check my work because, God knows, I didn’t want to mess with accounts payable, couldn’t afford to lose this miserable job.
The rest of the day crept by. Patty waved at me on her way to the copy machine, a stack of invoices in her right hand. Her black eyes, beady behind coke bottle glasses, taunted me. Giving me a smug smile, she pivoted on her heel. “A woman on a mission,” I said to myself. “May the copier jam.”
Four days later, I figured it out. Placing my cursor on the Office Assistant icon, I left-clicked, needing to refresh my memory on Auto-Formatting. A skinny little guy, with buggy eyes blinked and raised his eyebrows. “What would you like to do?” he asked.