Subject Matter Experts

 

by Laura Jok

Featured Art: “Untitled” by Elizabeth Boch

 

You are twenty-six. Donald Trump is running for president. The company that you consider your current employer sees you as more of a friend. The insurance plan that you bought for yourself is hilarious. There is a hole in your back molar about which you are not thinking, which is growing, about which you are not thinking, and you are in love with a stranger who can always be replaced, should he turn out to be a disappointment. You teach other people how to do their jobs like you are some kind of expert.

A lowly contractor, you design employee training programs for companies too apathetic to do it themselves. You produce modules: scripted lesson plans, slides. You shoot instructional videos, for which you lure desperate actors. When resources are scarce, you narrate the training, play it back and edit. It does not sound like you: more like someone who knows what to do. You fall into this habit of talking to yourself.

The name of your company is an acronym that no longer stands for anything. In India, where the parent company is based, it is illegal to call anything unaffiliated with the government “national.” About this point in particular, the Indian government is exceptionally litigious. The closet between the green room and your cubicle is filled with worn-out fatigues left over from the last contract with the U.S. Army. When the bigwigs are on a call with Mumbai, you rub the fabric between your fingers. It is not synthetic. It is the real thing.

You used to be a promising costume designer: made it to Off-Broadway, became too disaffected to continue. It isn’t that you weren’t as good as you hoped. It is that no one is as good as you imagined.

The subject matter experts provided by the clients dodge your calls and lie to you. One is in the hospital recovering from a massive coronary and is under no circumstances to be disturbed. Another asks that you arrange your content acquisition calls around his daily psychotherapy sessions. A third prefers to communicate by copying and pasting chunks of text from Wikipedia into the bodies of emails. Every SME wants only one thing: to retire. To get rid of you, they need only pretend that what you are asking for does not exist.

Your company is housed in a former factory in Chicago’s Printer’s Row. The cavernous ceilings were designed to accommodate 20-foot vats of molten cheese. The faint curdled smell that issues from the heating vent is probably not your imagination. You cannot take this job seriously enough for its shortcomings to hurt you. What you are asked to do is silly, sometimes impossible, but it is never hard.

You dress for work in 50s cocktail frocks, brightly flowered Latin wedding gowns, Renaissance hoop skirts with more infrastructure than most bridges. The lax company dress code constrains no one but the IT guy, who is a nudist. No one wants the IT guy to be a nudist. Failure of this sort is how one generally ends up at your company. You sit between a newspaperman and a stand-up comedienne, across from a lapsed classicist.

You two started on the same day, the first of September, 2015. You were wearing an 80s pinstriped power suit with shoulder pads, clad head to toe in slate-gray, lightweight irony. He appeared opposite you in a full suit, serious as a groom. You stared into the cubicle glass at each other, transfixed. His stricken eyes were blue-black. You loved him right away, before you knew his name, with pain, as if he were someone that you missed.

“Margot,” you said, introducing yourself. “Margot.”

He could not even look at you. His friend said that her name was Casey. Her face was freckled, her polyblend blouse rumpled, her glittery electric-blue fingernails chewed. “Want to come to coffee with us? It was my idea to invite you,” she insisted. “Noah didn’t even notice that there was someone sitting across from him. I had to say, hey Noah, I think that girl must be new too. Should we should invite her to come with us?”

Noah stood behind her, nodding, expression deaf, a diplomat awaiting translation.

“Me and Noah are old college friends. I helped Noah get this job. I’ve known Noah for forever. We go way, way back, me and Noah.”

You said, “Oh.”

By the time the three of you pushed through your separate compartments of the revolving door, Noah was wearing green-tinted coke-bottle sunglasses that filled you with a sick trepidation that he may be gay. He told his life story, Casey bobbling at his opposite hip like a sidecar, though she already knew the story. It was for you. He was thirty. He had a passion for dead languages and a PhD. He needed a career because he was not cut out to be a professor. What about you? he wanted to know. You were mid-sentence when a woman in Lululemon, pancake makeup, and diamond earrings passed with a labradoodle.

“Oh, puppy!” Noah dropped to the ground, petting the animal’s head and telling her that she was beautiful, oblivious as the owner stood off to the side, smile strained.

He was straight.

Company lore held that there was no policy against interoffice relationships because a high-ranking executive was a professional matchmaker. For a fee, he would match you with another employee. You did not know whether to take this as a joke. Turnover was outrageous. Was this a setup? If you became attached, might you stay?

If alcohol is liquid courage, surely coffee is liquid interest. Every morning, Noah sends you a message through Spark, the company IM service, that says, “Coffee?” He stands in his cube, mimes a cup at his lips. You cannot hear each other through the soundproofed partition. Sparks fly.

You type, “Desperately, yes! It’s like Cheers,” you say of the coffee shop. “Where everybody knows your name.”

“And your name,” Noah responds, “is Medium Americano.”

You type, looking into his blue-black eyes: “I feel weird talking to you like this when I can see you. Me, I prefer notes folded into origami cranes. I long for the personal touch.”

When you walk to his side of the office, he is already wearing his coat. On the off-gray walls of his cubicle, he has pinned up Calvin and Hobbes cartoons and Xeroxed heroic passages from Virgil and Milton. He says, “As you can see, I’ve done some decorating.”

“Cozy.”

He takes your hand, turns it palm up, and places a tiny Post-It paper crane in the center of your lifeline.

“For me?” you say. “You’re very talented. Where did you learn to do that?”

“The third grade.”

“What does it say on the inside?”

He blushes. “Nothing.”

You ask, “Is it harder to make them smaller?”

“Much.”

At the pub with the coworkers on Friday night, talk turns to tattoos. You say that you like tattoos. Noah says, “I have tattoos!” struggling his arms out of the sleeves of his shirt.

“Where?”

“My back, ribcage, upper arms. My rule is that it has to be easily covered up by formalwear. A lot of it is epic poetry from my dissertation.”

This is the single most erotic thing that you have ever heard.

“You don’t seem like the type who would have tattoos.”

“People are always saying that.”

Bracing his elbows against his body, he grips the polo shirt from the inside and twists. You glimpse a swatch of Greek letters on his pale bicep. You do not know what they mean.

You both terribly want him and terribly don’t want him to take off his shirt. Something or somebody will come out of this epic encounter greatly diminished. Noah’s body, you can see it through the shed armholes—sturdy but a little soft. Skin stippled, like floured dough.

“Noah!” Casey shrieks. “What are you doing?”

“I wasn’t going to take it off!” he says, too defensive for innocence. “I was just showing her!”

You are laughing because you cannot remember the last time you were astonished.

On Monday morning, Noah is caught on a call, and Casey has had enough coffee to last her a lifetime. You traipse through the groggy morning city with two large carryout coffees, no free hands.

You are somehow not unhappy. Your days are lively with impossibilities. As you enter decorative gourd season, some savvy advisor plunks a baseball cap on Donald Trump so that he might look like a regular guy while he spouts horrors. When you talk to your mother on the phone, she reveals an upsetting new affectation of calling the candidates by their Christian names and trying to walk a mile in each of their shoes. All in all, she sounds confused.

You and Noah work on a huge engineering project—the care and tending of the nuclear powerplant. Via phone conference, the client lectures the team for over two hours about how a picture is worth a thousand words with, if anything, increasing conviction.

Since you have not had a period since August, you go to the OBGYN, who is motherly, knowing, smiling. She mistakes you for someone who is trying. The dentist says of the hole in your molar, “Let’s wait and see if it gets any bigger.” Your SME tells you that he does not have the answers. For Halloween, you dress as Mr. Smee from Peter Pan with a name tag that reads “Mr. SME.”

At five in the morning Chicago time, the SME in Berlin displays a cross-section diagram over WebEx, a side view of a butt weld. He explains that butt-velding is the second most common type of velding in the vorld. You lock eyes with Noah, your mirth a form of telepathy. Nothing this wonderful has happened since the client haughtily informed you that shaft riders are obsolete; pull them out of the training! “Butt weld,” Noah whispers. You whisper, “Side view.” The managers shush you two.

One day, you wear the same red plaid flannel button-up. Everyone in the office who sees you without Noah does a double-take, assuming that you are wearing his shirt.

Although this is a training company, you receive no training. Anwar, your boss, is a new manager with no prior experience developing content.  He edits the project spreadsheet under cover of darkness so that all of your modules are due yesterday. To a meeting of twenty people, he brings a box of five Dunkin Donuts. Noah breaks a jelly roll into four, puts one fragment in his mouth, and passes the box. He works overtime for which he cannot expect to be compensated as a contractor. “Nerd!” you mouth at him, slipping out at four. He gives a shit. It is a touching trait in this place. It will bring him nothing but heartache.

Noncountable nouns, like any entity that cannot be quantified, are beyond Anwar’s purview. In morning meetings, he begs the team for what he calls learnings and sharings. Noah raises his hand, and Anwar pronounces, “Let us now commence with the sharing of Noah!”

Around Thanksgiving, the company asks Noah to go away on an indefinite business trip. You say, “Indefinite business trip: the fuck? Is that a threat?” –but Noah says yes like he always says yes.

“I put in a good word for you, Margot. The Learning Center is in Fort Worth. Aren’t you from the area?”

“Gee,” you say. “Thanks a lot.”

“I’ve never seen Texas before.”

You start laughing.

On Noah’s recommendation, they ask you to go too. They do not offer any more information than they gave him. There will be a pilot of the course that you are designing to teach mechanical engineers how to be mechanical engineers. There will be a train-the-trainer to teach the trainer how to train mechanical engineers to be mechanical engineers. Starting mid-January. With Hans, the German SME of butt-welding renown, and a class of new hires who know nothing. TBD.

“They’re sending us on a long journey with no details?” you say. “How very biblical.”

“Catholic?”

“When I was a kid.”

Noah sneezes, still recovering from that Bernie Sanders rally where he came down with a righteous head cold. Overt political fervor embarrasses you. It is a fixation like hypochondria. There is benign and there is malignant in politics, but no one should like it. Sickos.

Noah says, “I almost became a Catholic priest.”

“No kidding.” Religion did not get ahold of him. There must be a God after all.

Funding for the train-the-trainer is cut. Only one of you can go, and for reasons that escape you, they want it to be you. You walk into Noah’s cubicle, no Spark, no knock. “Take a walk with me.”

You head to the coffee shop, although neither of you wants coffee. It is drizzling. Noah hunches over you, apologetic that he has a hood and not you.

“Tell me,” you say, “off the clock, off the record. How do you really feel about this? Be honest. Do you want to go?”

“Do you?”

“I would be concerned about leaving Beckett for that long.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Schnauzer.” You cannot imagine being without your small neurotic dog, who barks his reassuring false positives at any whiff of intruder.

“It would be a good career move…”

“A career?” you say. “Here?”

“I’ve never left the state of Illinois before and would like the opportunity to see another place…”

“Hah!” you say.

“My lease is up… I don’t have any pets… so that wouldn’t be a problem… Or a girlfriend…”

“That’s not a problem for me either. I mean— you know what I mean.”

“I can’t say I’m thrilled with the idea of leaving my life for a few months. I know myself: I don’t do well with isolation. I guess I’d go to the gym a lot… I could travel… see the Alamo… the Houston Space Center… and they would have to hire me on as a full-time employee…”

You say, “What does the name of our company stand for?”

“Nothing.”

“Exactly. I’m not going.”

“I’ll admit, I’m relieved,” Noah whispers. He is stalling at the fork in the walkway that leads to your opposite cubicles. “Usually when a woman asks me to take a walk, it means I’m in trouble.”

You ask all the questions about Fort Worth: accommodations, rental car, meal stipend, length of commitment, and will it come with a raise or promotion. You ask because Noah will not ask. He takes notes with his head down, as though Anwar is providing answers more substantive than: “This meeting is very high-level, Margot.”

“When will you have more details?” you press.

“Margot can’t go because she has a pet!” Noah blurts, eyes wild.

Anwar frowns. “Can’t you take your pet with you?”

“No,” you and Noah say at the same time.

“Do the accommodations allow pets?”

“This meeting is very high-level, Margot. How about you, Noah? Do you have any questions or concerns?”

“No.”

“Noah is our first choice to send. Margot, you can be the backup. Maybe you get to go next time?”

“Thank you so very much for this great and mysterious opportunity. I respectfully withdraw from the running.”

After the boss leaves, you shut the conference room door before Noah can follow. “What the hell was that? I told you I didn’t want to go.”

“Hans says we’ll wear high heels together,” Noah says miserably. “I think he means cowboy boots.”

“I think he means high heels.”

Noah leaves for Texas, and Casey buys a French press. Your boots crumble packed snow. The baristas greet you: “Medium Americano!” To secure the plastic lid on your paper cup, you remove one glove. You hold it in the other hand, and it is grotesque, like an amputation.

At four o’clock, Anwar circles your block of cubicles searching for someone to berate. He lingers at Noah’s empty station, thwarted. To preserve the pagination in your training guides, you type the placeholder: “THIS PAGE IS LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK.” Everyone is in a holding pattern because the SME is with Noah, for some reason trying to teach the pilot of the class at the same time that you are trying to design it. Mistakes were made; the project is delayed. The client is livid.

Anwar did not know that a project of this scale would require more than one subject matter expert. If you do not pretend to be busy, he will assign another module that you cannot write without the SME’s input. Noah has not stopped working since he arrived in Fort Worth because he will not rest until his task is complete, and his task is impossible.

You run on the treadmill at the YMCA facing a wall of television screens that frame CNN News at the center: Donald Trump’s ubiquitous smirking mug, with coverage of the local ice storms to his left, and to his right, the East Coast hurricane. You keep running in place.

You call Noah late at night, after he and Hans the SME have thrown their hands up in helpless despair for the day and retreated back to the Holiday Inn.

“Hey,” you say. “Are you okay?”

“We were just looking at one of your modules. To use Hans’ terminology, we were tarting it up and getting it ready for the prom.”

“Jesus. Really? How is it over there?”

“If you saw Chris Christie standing behind Donald Trump last night, that is exactly what I look like right now.”

“That good?”

“I’m really glad it isn’t you. You know: engineers. It’s one big dick measuring contest.”

“Who’s winning?”

“I guarantee you there’s no problem. How are things back at home?” He sounds so pathetic, you cannot tell him.

“You know. Anwar’s been really bitchy about February’s numbers. I think he’s on his critical period.”

“I miss you.”

“Your cube looks nice. I’ve kept it up, collected the mail, shoveled the drive. I’m wasting half my life chasing those goddamn kids off your lawn.”

“I sent you a postcard. Watch for it in the office mail.”

“I can’t remember the last time I got real mail.”

“It’s for everyone.”

“I miss you too.”

You know the client from his comments on your modules, which make it sound like he is physically trapped inside the document: “I’m confused. Lost. How did we get here? Have we seen this before? You’re going to have to help me out. Stopped halfway through. Can’t make it any farther.”

After a month of what you take to be purely rhetorical threats that if you screw up again, he is going to come on over there, the client materializes in the office. His presence, the invaluable face time, will facilitate progress and better communication. He stands behind each developer in each cube and says, “I’m confused. Lost. How did we get here?”

The client wants more technical drawings on your PowerPoints and to make America great again. It surprises you that he supports Trump. You assumed that bullies would be like beta fish, infighting to the death.

The client stands over you and, after a suspenseful interval of pleasantries, unleashes a current of profanities. The pictures that you found on Google without the help of the SME, it turns out, do not illustrate the steps for calibrating company-proprietary machinery. He demands to know where you are getting your information. You promise to work with the SME to correct any inaccuracies.

“You can’t!” the client spits. “Hans is teaching at the Learning Center!”

“Hi… Margot…” Anwar replaces the client in your cube, laptop on his hip. “Do you have five minutes for a status check? I am updating the spreadsheet, and you see, your modules are due yesterday.”

“I need the SME.”

“Did you try calling him?”

“I can’t,” you say. “He’s teaching at the Learning Center.”

“How late can you stay tonight?”

“Does it matter?”

“Okay… Margot…” he says in his lugubrious way, shaking his head. You know the same broken modules will be waiting for you in the morning.

Noah calls your desk phone. “I caught a fun typo in one of your modules. The soft skills one about respecting cultural differences: ‘Be aware of local costumes.’”

“I meant local customs.”

“Hans was reading straight off your slides. He stopped and went—you have to imagine this in his accent— ‘No-ah!’—” Noah bellows an Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation. “‘No-ah, is that right?’”

“Sorry.”

“It was great.”

“I need to ask Hans about some images.”

“Get in line. Take a number. Put it on the punch list on the Google Drive.”

“Fine.”

“What am I missing?”

“They onboarded two new Dylans. They both wear flannel. I don’t know which is which and I doubt it really matters.”

“I’m drinking alone right now. Isn’t that a warning sign?” Noah wonders cheerfully. “This is bringing out all my worst tendencies. I stuff it down, and I stuff it down, until it all spills out, and it’s angry teenage Noah all over again. You still there?”

You cannot say anything too specific because the client is watching, motioning for you to get off the phone.

“I’m sorry, but I really do have to go.”

“Okie-dokie then, Margot!” He hangs up.

The heat is malfunctioning again, and you are sweating through today’s costume, inspired by the Regency. The air dries out your throat. The office smells sour. You strip down to corset and chemise. Liz, the younger millennial, minces through the graveyard of decommissioned fax machines in wife beater and skinny jeans with heavy-lidded eyes and pursed lips: the exhausted and angry expression that tells you that she knows that she is sexy. You are surrounded by other women, typing in frazzled ponytails and tank tops: bare backs, bare shoulders, bare necks, bra straps. If you ever have another work day like today, you are going to stand up in the middle of your cubicle, silently remove your clothing, and wait to see what happens.

Protestors bar Donald Trump from entering the city of Chicago on the dismal March day when Noah returns. “Weak men fear strong women,” your sign says. Noah arrives in time to join the group from the office. He carries a poster board that reads, in block-capitals, “LOVE TRUMPS HATE.” You say, “Whose side are you on anyway?”

“Do you see an apostrophe? No. You don’t.” He sounds more annoyed than you expected.

The company did not reward Noah with full-time employment upon his return. Shocker. They claim an indefinite hiring freeze. They task him with fixing the 62 modules that the client “approved with reservation” or “approved with extreme reservation” so that Hans would have something to teach during the pilot. They assign the two youngest employees, Liz and Piper, those interchangeable new college graduates with long straight brown hair, to his triage team. For two weeks, Noah wears the same army-green corduroy jacket, which is crusted with what looks like salt stains. You want to write on his shoulder blades with a fingernail: “Wash me.” You can hear him huffing and sighing, banging the keyboard as he types.

You send him a Spark: “Take a walk with me?” You add, “You are not in trouble.”

“Can we grab a huddle room instead?” he responds. “As long as you don’t mind if I eat my lunch while we talk.”

In the room where you were interviewed, you ask, “What’s wrong? You’re not yourself.” It is a risky move. You have known him to avoid you for a whole day because first thing in the morning, you observed, “You’re happy.”

“I am managing two twenty-two-year-old girls on a developer’s salary,” he complains. “I wish it was you instead. Not because I wish you were suffering. I wish you were on my team. You’re right across from me, and I feel like I never see you anymore. I would prefer that it was you.”

“I know.”

“I don’t know if Anwar knows or cares how awkward this is, but even he is picking up on the tension.”

“Knows what?”

“I guess, in my humiliation, I assumed everyone knew. I threw myself at Liz.”

Liz wears Urban Outfitters and the scrunched expression of someone straining to locate the cool kids. Liz speaks in a nasal dialect devoid of vowels. Liz is her full name, the one on her birth certificate. Noah cold-calls on her when he presents his post-pilot sharings in the condescending tone that he must have used when he was trying to be a professor: “Anything to contribute, Elizabeth?”

“Tht’s nt m’nm, N’h!”

You say, “Liz?”

“She talked to me the whole time I was in Texas. It was like she was writing me letters in prison. When I asked her what the hell was going on between us, she shut me down gently. She was nothing but professional.”

You talked to him too, but he made no such assumptions about you.

“What was I thinking? She’s almost ten years younger than me. The worst part is she told me there isn’t anyone else. So basically, she would rather be with nobody than be with me.”

“Is that really so bad? Maybe she likes being alone.”

“I’m such an idiot.”

“Unrequited love is the most courageous kind.”

Noah stirs his lunch with a plastic spoon: three sad blackberries floating in a wet cement of oatmeal. He says, “You’re sweet.”

Outside the purple-curtained storefront of Psychic Spiritual Healing, a woman dressed in a black power suit reaches out to you, her chubby wristfuls of chunky charm bracelets jangling.

“My daughter, you are giving off a powerful energy. Step into my cellar. Let me give you a full reading in exchange for a small gift of fifty dollars. At first sight, I had strong feelings about you.”

“Sorry, I’m on my work break.”

She shouts at your back: “This is not about your work break! This is about how you are giving so much and getting nothing in return!”

Bystanders are staring. You stop short, whirl around. “You could say that of anyone.” You keep walking. You could say that of losers, and you are not a loser.

“Stop! Wait! I know you! You give so much!”

“You don’t know me,” you shout back.

You ask Noah to lunch. He says yes but never commits to a time. You want to treat him to celebrate his promotion to full-time employee, which was what he wanted. He sits on your desk beside your computer and whines: “I’m committed now. To Anwar, to this awful project. I feel so stuck. I stress-puked twice this morning because I snapped at the client.”

“You have insurance,” you say. “That’s a good thing.”

“I get excellent coverage.”

“Will you marry me?”

“Any preexisting conditions?”

“I’m serious. You don’t understand. I am a silly woman who lives in self-inflicted poverty. I was not raised to understand the value of a dollar.”

“Money,” he explains, “can be exchanged for goods and services.”

“How about Tuesday at noon at the non-GMO café on the corner? My treat.”

On Tuesday afternoon, there is a pizza party to honor a senior manager who, as a reward for her thirty years of service, is being uprooted to the branch in godforsaken Charlotte. Noah feels that you should make an appearance. The entire office crowds, shoulder to shoulder, in the conference room, clutching greasy paper plates overladen with pizza, red Solo cups filled with Pepsi, and plastic forkfuls of yellow cake. Noah is trying to mingle. He gets caught between conversations, trapped in the far corner. He scans the crowd with fearful blue-black eyes. The room is too full for either of you to move.

Somebody puts the leftovers in the company fridge, which smells like warm metal and cheese and fish. The goodbye cake, that big dumb sugary sponge, absorbs everything.

Now that it is established that nothing will happen between you, Noah and you settle into something like domesticity. He belches at his desk without even trying to hide it. You wear sweaty gym clothes and cry, wiping your streaming nose on your forearm.

He still pounds on his keyboard and shouts, “Jesus Christ!” at his computer monitor then tilts his forehead up to see if you are coming to comfort him. By now, you know better and so should he. “Shut up,” you hear him whispering to himself. “Shut up, shut up…”

You quit. In July, you give your two weeks’ notice—your only plan escape—and then you find a gig clothing a Lincoln Park experimental theatre troupe. You come to the office for the duration dressed as a flapper, which is what you wanted to be when you grew up. You have the pleasure of snapping your elbow-length gloves as you listen to Anwar struggle to determine what motivates you for the first time in his managerial career. He begs. If you stay, he will give you anything you want. If you leave, he will look responsible.

At the back of Anwar’s head, his hair is thin and his skull looks concave. Pate: word like a blunt instrument. These days, your eyes fix on the parts of people that are the weakest:

Donald Trump’s corpse-white crepe-paper eyelids. Noah’s soft belly.

“Where are you go-ing?” Noah sneaks up on you. You hide your seam ripper under a manila folder. “I heard the news. Please don’t go!” Those aggrieved eyes clash with his smile. You are assaulted by his breath: vomit, coffee.

“I’m not going anywhere,” you say. “Not yet.”

“Can I at least take you to lunch? That place you like?”

You settle on tomorrow and then return to typing up a status email for management, a new requirement for the end of every day. You are to state what you intended to do and then say what you did.

As you walk to lunch under the insistent summer sun, the two of you turn heads because you make so much fucking sense. The dark, handsome, bespectacled couple. In your imagination of their imaginations, witnesses give you at least three advanced degrees between the two of you and a luxury condo in a freshly gentrified pocket of Rogers Park, with a record player and a couple of children with last names for first names.

Noah wears plaid pants and a sky-blue polo of soft-looking cotton redolent of dryer sheets. You want to rub your nose in it. He powers off his phone. He cleared his afternoon by delegating his work to Liz, who is slated to leave for Fort Worth next week, to finish what he started. When you wished her luck, she glowered and said, “Thnx.”

You sit on wicker patio furniture drinking iced tea while Noah studies the menu. Frowning, he says, “I don’t know what I want.”

You giggle. “What?” he says, clueless and grinning. “What did I say?”

You shake your head. “Nothing.”

“I like your boots,” he says, looking at your legs.

“High heels,” you correct because they are cowboy boots.

“Back to designing costumes?”

You suppose so.

He asks about your new job and listens. He makes you laugh with his impression of Betsy from HR, the way she says her own name in a julepy Southern drawl. He is gifted at voices. He does Anwar, and he does the client. He does a Trump, a Sanders, and a Clinton. He does you. You have no idea whether that one is any good.

He finishes his burger and looks at his empty plate with remorse. “Aw man,” he says. “I wish I had that burger again.” He says, “Don’t be a stranger, okay? As far as I’m concerned, you will always be coffee and drinks emeritus.” He says, “I’m happy for you, really. Happy for you. If someone asked me to imagine a designer, how would she look, how would she walk and talk and dress, I would describe you.”

“I’m a nerd. I’m not fit to do anything else.”

“You’re a subject matter expert,” he says, eyes devoted, out of focus.

When, months later, lunchtime in late October, waiting outside the office for Noah, you run into the client, you will not recognize him. He will be fat and gray and squint as you pass. Confused. Lost. How did we get here? He will turn to Anwar, confer in an undertone, then cry, “Margot!” and detain you in a handshake. It will last too long. A shake, followed by a squeeze, and then he will refuse to let go until you stare back into his eyes. You think he must intend intimidation, but when you look into his puffy face, it becomes possible for you to see the interior of his home, furniture wooden and mottled with whorls and rings, brown-upholstered and reclining, the solitary place where he sits drinking scotch and assigning blame. When Noah joins you, the client teases, assuming that you are, as they say, seeing each other. Noah will not correct him.

November 9th 2016. It is a weekday morning but the streets are silent, and there are only a few day-old doughnuts for sale at the little German bakery and lots of crumbling sugar cookies shaped like the faces of the candidates, funny yesterday. On the major news networks, the polling experts are defensive. No one could have predicted the unprecedented turnout of so-called uneducated voters. They lay dormant for years, agnostic with bitterness.

You phone your mother. When you cannot find comfort, you settle for a fight.

“All I’m saying, Margaret, is walk in someone else’s shoes. Imagine what Donald must look like to someone vulnerable. What about those factory workers whose jobs went overseas? I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying— don’t you hang—”

You call Noah. He takes a half-day off work, unable to face the celebrating client. You go to a new hotspot, Noah’s idea, that sets you on the defensive at first sight. It works so hard to prove its authenticity by being dusty and dingy. Chandeliers stalactite from the ceiling and molten candelabras warp across tabletops. The beer menus are yellowed, washed in acid, ripped on purpose. The back wall beckons you with shelves of antique books that, on further inspection, turn out to be Tom Clancy hardbacks in terrible condition, stripped of jackets: pale flabby pulp.

In the dim pseudo-historical light of the faux-dive bar you wallow in the sadness of people who believed that they were living in one world when it turned out to be another. The two of you sit on the same side of a booth by the door. Over Noah’s shoulder, mounted HD flat screens flicker a spastic blue. They flash from recaps of the Cubs winning the World Series to the latest in sports, scrolling columns of scores.

“We ran a weak candidate.” Noah is blue in the face. He belches, loses himself in the smaller screen of his smartphone, finger scrolling. “What can you do?”

“Nice attitude, white man,” you say. “The electorate could defect.”

“If you tear down your democratic structure to get rid of one person, then you’ve torn down your democratic structure to get rid of one person.”

“Will it not have been worth it?”

“Shut up, Margot. Will you stop talking for once in your goddamn life?”

He exhales through his nostrils, hands trembling. The sickness smell is not only his breath. It is in his clothes, his hair, his skin. It’s him—forever standing behind the men in charge with a nauseous expression, more astonished than anyone at what he has just done.

You do shut up: scrabble to curate one possible version of this story for the cocktail parties of your future: “When I was in my mid-twenties, my life fell apart and I stopped making art, but if that hadn’t happened, I never would have met my husband. If after Election Day, we hadn’t felt so sad and afraid, we never would have reached for each other. Isn’t that right, babe?” More than you have ever wanted love, you crave coherence. This is what you are unwilling to give up.

Near tears, staring into his lap, Noah asks you gently, “Do you want a civil war, Margot?” because he has no idea where you are, does he: in a city still congratulating itself on winning the world, in a hole-in-the-wall where the bartender cuts in to offer, “Another Bitter Woman?”—the name of his choice IPA—and this will keep happening until no one is laughing. You are smashed, together, between bookshelves stuffed with variations on the narrative of disappointed suburban husband foils plot to kill the president. You know where you are. You are sitting next to the last innocent man in the world. He is beautiful and confused. Sooner or later, the two of you on the same side of this sticky booth must figure out what to do about each other, and there is no choice but to do it here, in this world: this one.

It isn’t too late to move to Canada! It is not too late for you to really learn how to be an engineer, or say, “I can’t,” and move back in with your parents. You have plenty of time to meet somebody with excellent benefits who worships you, or get sick and tired, adopt another pet, date nobody or date whoever or keep on waiting. Is there something wrong with everyone? It is too soon to tell. It is never too late to tell the beloved to go fuck himself. It is never too late to fuck the beloved. It is too soon for you to stop trying. It is never too late to realize that the world is too far gone to save. It is never too late to come of age. Hell, it is never too late to kill yourself. Better to wait until you are really sure. You will never be sure. You are the only person who can tell you what to do.

In those early days at your former workplace, where you return in memory, there is a ton of light, like an overexposed photo. Your side of the office faces the rising sun. You sweat in your glut of illumination and pull the blinds while the opposite side of the office dresses for winter. A handsome workplace proximity associate stands in his cube, drinking from a cup that isn’t there, mouthing, “Coffee?” at you.

You have two choices. You are going to pick one or the other, even though you know better.

“Sure,” you sigh, gazing at your innocent man. “That’s what I want.” In the bar, under the table, you reach for his hand. “You?”

“I don’t know.” Noah still cannot meet your eyes, but to your surprise, he clasps your hand, strokes your calloused, creative fingers with gratitude—relief!— because you are about to tell him what he wanted.

 

 

 


Laura Jok is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she served as fiction editor for Gulf Coast. Her fiction has received awards from Glimmer Train and appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewThe Florida ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewNimrod International JournalChicago Quarterly Review, and Juked. Her critical work is forthcoming in James Joyce Quarterly.

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