Toby didn’t think it’d be a big deal, at first, having Ryan sitting back with them. Kelly’s pretty quiet, in a weird way. Sure, she spends her days answering her cell phone and gossiping with her friends about who did what to whom, but it all blends together into a chattery sort of white noise that’s almost soothing. He kind of misses it, actually, when he’s home at night by himself. Without Kelly’s voice he hears the dripping of the leaky faucet he hasn’t gotten around to fixing, the rusty hum of his ancient refrigerator, the depressing silence of Sasha’s room when she’s with her mother.
Ryan seems quiet too. He’s spoken maybe 50 words to Toby in the two plus years they’ve worked together. Most of them have been hi or bye, and probably the rest of them have been no. So it doesn’t seem like a big deal to have the two of them together in “the Annex,” as Michael insists on calling it. Everyone else calls it “exile.” Except for Toby. He enjoys the Michael-free time and likes to call it “Xanadu,” in reference to the Coleridge poem. Kelly still thinks it’s from the Olivia Newton-John roller-skating movie, though, no matter how many times he’s explained it to her.
He didn’t expect them to fight. But they do. At first it’s infrequent – at the end of a long day, or just after Michael makes Ryan do something embarrassing, like arrange a gorilla-gram for Jan or conduct an informal survey to determine the most romantic restaurant in Scranton (which they also fought about when it turned out Ryan wasn’t asking Kelly in order to take her there). But before long it becomes a steady stream of bickering, so steady that Toby digs his old walkman and the remains of his tape collection out from his hall closet at home and brings them in to drown the two of them out. It doesn’t help too much. So far all he’s achieved is a sense of horror at the tapes he voluntarily paid good money for in the 80s. The Atlanta Rhythm Section? Jesus.
He’s on side two of a Boston album one night when the bickering suddenly escalates, an uncomfortable tableau of domestic misery unfolding on the other side of the cubicle wall. He tugs his headphones off in time to hear Kelly shriek, “Fine! Be that way!” in a tone verging on dogs-only.
“I will!” Ryan retorts, throwing things on his desk with enough force to rattle the partition.
“And I’m not coming over tonight!” she continues hotly. Toby cringes on her behalf, knowing what must be coming.
“GOOD, because you’re UNINVITED.” Ryan’s voice is a feral snarl. “Forever!” he adds, his voice climbing to a new octave as well, and Toby can hear Kelly’s hurt intake of breath. He’s trying to decide whether he should intervene when suddenly Ryan is stomping out of the cubicle and slamming out the door, leaving it to swing fretfully on its hinges long after he’s gone.
He gives her precisely 45 seconds before he stands and walks around the partition. She’s standing in the middle of the cubicle, once arm clutched protectively around her stomach, the other pressed in a fist against her mouth. He sighs, shrugs apologetically and pulls his handkerchief from his pocket to offer her. When she takes it, she starts crying in earnest. He settles against the edge of the desk and she slumps next to him, both hands holding the white cloth against her face. Her arm is warm against his through his shirtsleeve.
They stay there, leaned against the edge of the desk, until her hiccupy sobs dry up and she’s patting at her eyes. His eyes are drawn to her feet. She’s wearing shoes that look like a grown-up version of the mary-janes that Sasha loves to wear. He fleetingly wonders if Kelly clip-clops around in her bathroom wearing the shoes because she likes the way they sound on the tile, just like Sasha does. Probably, he thinks, and it makes him smile to picture it.
“Better?” he asks.
“A little,” she answers, and he pats her knee.
“Hey, let’s go get dinner,” he says. “C’mon, I’ll expense it, we’ll call it an HR meeting.” She doesn’t say anything at first, just snubs at her nose with his handkerchief.
“Okay,” she sniffles.
“This is where you’re taking me to dinner?” Kelly eyes the shabby diner dubiously.
“I know it doesn’t look like much, but they have the best hash browns on the planet,” he promises as he takes her coat and hangs it on the peg at the end of the booth. She slides into her side of the booth and he follows suit.
“What about their waffles?” she asks, flipping through the menu. “Are they the best on the planet?”
“Probably not the planet. But in the county, definitely.”
“Okay then,” she says, and closes her menu as if it’s settled. “Waffles and hash browns it is.” The waitress stops by to get their orders – Denver omelet and black coffee for him; waffles, hash browns, iced tea, no lemon, orange slice, extra ice for her. Once they’re alone again, Kelly reaches out and grabs the salt shaker and begins sliding it back and forth across the tabletop between her palms, going farther each time, until he thinks she’s going to shoot it right off the edge of the table. It makes a dull swooshing sound against the laminate and for a minute they both watch it – left, right, back, forth – like they’re hypnotized.
“So you’re probably wondering why I don’t break up with him,” she says all of a sudden. He blinks, breaking the spell of the salt shaker. She’s still looking down but he can see her peeking up at him a little under her eyelashes.
“He’s not always like that,” she insists. “He can be really nice and sweet-”
“When no one else is around?” Toby interrupts, and she has the grace to look sheepish.
“Well, he can be.” Her eyes dart up to his, as if daring him to contradict her. “And, I mean, he’s totally cute and funny and he has this thing he does when we’re in bed that-” Toby clears his throat violently, hoping to forestall that particular conversational tack. She wrinkles her nose.
“Sorry. Anyway, he can be really awesome.” Toby makes a disbelieving snort and she levels him with her best withering glare. “You’re just going to have to take my word on that,” she says flatly. The waitress appears with their drinks and they fall silent. Kelly smiles at her and then grabs a fistful of sweetener packets, shaking them vigorously and emptying them into her iced tea. The powder floats on top of the ice in a white mound before she stirs it in. It makes him feel kind of ill just looking at it, so he focuses on her fingers instead. Her hands are tiny and thin, like she could slip out of handcuffs or ropes if she needed to. When her hands disappear under the table, he remembers what they’d been talking about.
“So if he’s so awesome, why all the fighting?” She sighs and looks down again.
“I don’t know, there are just things he doesn’t get about me.” She looks intently at her iced tea as she pokes her straw at the melting ice cubes. “And, you know. He gets kind of mean about things he doesn’t understand, I guess. Like, the other day we had a fight about thrift stores.”
“Thrift stores,” he repeats. “How on earth could anyone fight about thrift stores?”
“Because I won’t go in them.” She hunches her shoulders around her ears and leans down to chew on the end of her straw.
“And that would be…why, again?”
“Thrift stores depress me,” she says. “Thrift stores and those piñatas.”
He feels like he just walked into a different conversation. “Piñatas?” he echoes.
“You know, like those piñatas people sell of cartoon characters and stuff? Like, some guy makes them in his garage and he’s never seen Spongebob Squarepants, but he knows kids like it and he’s trying to feed his family, so he cuts a picture out of a magazine and makes a bunch of piñatas and they’re yellow and square and the eyes are kind of beady and crossed and some kid has that piñata for his birthday and he’s all excited that it’s Spongebob and he doesn’t realize it’s kind of junky and sad until he hears the cool kids joking about how it looks homemade and then he feels bad because he has the kind of life where he gets jazzed about a cracked-out-looking Spongebob piñata that his parents bought at a crappy little hole-in-the-wall grocery store and the piñata is so sad and earnest that it makes me depressed, you know? Does that seem crazy?”
“Wow,” he says. “I…kind of know what you mean, actually. It is sort of poignant.” She’s as surprised to hear it as he is to say it. “It still seems crazy, though,” he adds, and she laughs.
“Anyway, thrift stores depress me. All those unwanted things that people have given up or gotten tired of, lined up on shelves under unflattering lighting, all lonely and abandoned.” She twists her napkin between her fingers. Shreds of it flutter down to form a drift on the table underneath her hands. “Like, you see a mug that says “I love you Daddy” in fingerpaints? That’s fucking sad, man.” He nods. He can’t imagine giving away anything Sasha made for him. They’re quiet for a minute, each staring blindly in front of them.
“Maybe you shouldn’t think of them as unwanted,” he suggests finally. “Maybe…maybe you should think they’re getting a second chance. That they’re just waiting for the right person to come along and take them home where they really belong.”
She looks up, searches his eyes. It’s hard for him not to look away. He feels like she can see into his brain.
“Maybe,” she says thoughtfully. “I never thought of it that way.” He opens his mouth to say something, without knowing what he wants to say, but the waitress comes then and briskly sets their plates onto the table.
“Waffles and hash browns...aaaaand the Denver omelet. You two need anything else?”
“Extra butter,” Kelly says. “And Tabasco, if you’ve got it.”
“Sure thing, hon.”
“Tabasco?” Toby asks once she’s gone. “On waffles?”
“No, silly, for the hash browns.”
“I’m Indian, it’s like a requirement to make everything spicy.”
“So what about eBay?” he asks. Her eyebrows knit immediately in confusion.
“Do…I put Tabasco sauce on eBay?” she asks, confused. The waitress arrives then with the Tabasco and he pauses, smiles awkwardly.
“No, I mean does eBay depress you?” he continues when she leaves.
“Oh!” Kelly’s face clears. “No, since everything’s still at home and isn’t sad and lonely on a thrift store shelf.” She pours Tabasco liberally on her hash browns, following it up with a sneeze-inducing amount of pepper. “It’s more like transfer of ownership than abandonment.”
He nods thoughtfully. “That makes sense.”
“I know.” She winks at him and he laughs.
He’s not sure how they ended up at some club downtown. It’s barely a club, really. The only thing keeping it from being a bar are the velvet banquettes and the specialty martinis named after tropical islands that cost $12 a pop. He looks blearily around at the empty glasses scattered across their table. By his calculations, he’s a hundred and twenty bucks or so in the hole, since the tab’s open on his credit card. It makes him uncomfortable to let women pay. It’s not how his mother raised him. But he tries to be open-minded when the women he dates object and insist on paying for their own.
Kelly didn’t put up a fuss at all, though. He finds that both charming and a tiny bit annoying, most likely because he didn’t realize she could drink him under the table when he offered. But there she is, sloshing around a glass full of something pink, her fifth, and biting her cherry off the stem with her teeth. His tie feels like it’s choking him. He wiggles it loose with his finger and throws it onto the table where it immediately soaks up the liquor splashed across the surface.
“Toby,” she chastises. “You’ll ruin it!” She collects the tie and stuffs it into her purse.
“So anyway,” she continues. “I told him it was just a toothbrush, right? No big deal for me to keep a toothbrush at his place, it doesn’t make us married, right? And what’s so wrong with married anyway? But he didn’t like that and then he threw my toothbrush back in my bag and god, he can be such a pain sometimes, you know?” Toby nods dizzily. Those pink things were strong. She pauses to take a dainty sip of her drink that somehow manages to empty it by half. His eyes follow the glass up to her mouth and back down to the table. How is she not drunk? And how come he never noticed how cute she is before? He shakes his head. That last drink was a bad idea. He shouldn’t be wondering what it’d be like to kiss her.
“He’d be sorry if I dumped his ass, that’s for sure,” she declares, popping the cherry stem into her mouth. That won’t taste very good, he thinks, but then he realizes she’s tying it into a knot like on that weird TV show from years ago with the dead girl. Her lips purse and she looks up at the ceiling like she’s trying to remember something. He feels his guts tighten, watching her mouth work, and suddenly he’s glad for the cover of the table. The HR handbook never covered explaining a hard-on to your employees. Then she’s triumphantly extracting the cherry stem from her mouth, holding it out to him to display the tiny knot.
“He’d definitely miss me,” she declares.
“I bet,” he chokes out.
They share a cab back to her house and he insists on walking her to the door.
“You’re such a gentleman,” she coos, hooking her arm in his. Of course, she’s supporting him more than the other way around. He leans against her heavily while she digs for her keys. If his head lolls against the side of her neck, it’s because he’s drunk, not because he wants to see what her hair smells like. Lilacs, though. It smells like lilacs. He thinks about going back to his house alone. Nothing in his house smells like lilacs.
She pushes the door open and they stagger inside, his shoulder colliding uncomfortably with the door frame. It’s a narrow hallway. The lights are off and he can only see half of her face in the streetlight from outside.
“Thanks, Toby,” she says. “I owe you.”
“Don’t worry about the drinks,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. It arcs a little too widely and he almost knocks over a table lamp.
“Not just the drinks,” she says after she pushes the lamp a little farther away from his hands. “For…you know, for everything.” He nods, shrugs.
“Things with Ryan will get better,” he assures her, even though he believes no such thing. She nods, her eyebrows dipping down in the middle of her forehead.
“I guess I just don’t see why marrying me and having babies would be so bad,” she says softly, curling her fingers around her keys. She looks so sad when she says it. Her chin dips and she looks like she might cry and before he knows it he’s falling at her clumsily, pushing her body against the wall and covering her mouth with his. She stiffens for a moment, her hands coming up to his chest as her keys fall to the floor with a jangling sound, but she doesn’t push. Instead her hands curl and take hold of the lapels of his jacket and her mouth opens under his.
It’s the liquor percolating in his stomach that makes him touch his tongue to hers, that brings his hands up against his volition to steal under the waistband of her skirt and slide across the silky skin of her hips. She’s softer than anything he’s ever felt before. When he presses his fingertips into her hips, the flesh there gives just a little. It’s kind of a strange sensation. His ex-wife didn’t yield at all: she aerobicized and toned everything and stood her ground at all times. But Kelly is soft and dark and she smells like flowers.
She makes a little noise; like a kitten, almost. The cab honks impatiently outside the half-open door. Suddenly he realizes he’s her HR person and that this is the worst idea he’s had in a very long time. When he pulls away, her eyes are closed and her lips look full and bruised.
“Don’t say you’re sorry, whatever you do,” she interrupts, her eyes popping open. He nods slowly. The cab honks again, longer this time.
“I better go.”
“Okay.” Her fingers are still curled in his jacket. He looks down at them and she blushes, releasing the fabric and stepping back. She seems to not know what to do with her hands now, and she rubs them absently on her thighs.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” he says, one foot over the threshold of her front door, one still inside. She smiles, just a little.
He manages to get back to the cab without falling over. He tells the driver his address and when the cab pulls away from the curb, he looks back and sees Kelly in her still-open doorway, silhouetted against the light she must have just turned on. He watches her until the cab turns the corner.
He’s an hour late the next morning. He was out the door before he remembered that his car was parked at a bar downtown – for a second he thought someone had stolen it from his driveway. When the cab driver had asked for the name of the bar, he couldn’t even remember, so they had to drive around for a while, the driver getting more disgruntled with every block.
Even so, he’s not ready when he finally gets to the office. He’s never had to sit in a cubicle next to someone he threw himself at the night before. Kind of a novel experience, and one he doesn’t want to have. But it’s either facing Kelly or having Michael find him lurking in the break room, so he fills the biggest cup he can find with water, grabs a bottle of aspirin, and pushes open the door to the back of the office.
They’re both working quietly, facing away from each other. Kelly’s on the phone, curling the cord around her fingertip. She looks up, smiles briefly before returning her attention to her monitor. Toby’s not sure if he’s glad it’s all smoothed over, or disappointed.
When he opens his email, there’s a message from her and he gets nervous all over again. Might as well get it over with, he thinks, and opens it.
“Okay, so you will never guess what happened,” it says in a curvy, feminine font. “Ryan came to pick me up this morning and he was all suspicious about where I was last night, right? And then your tie fell out of my purse and he got all jealous and we were fighting and he told me that I could keep my stupid toothbrush at his house and now he’s all nice and everything and he says maybe we can go to his parents’ house for dinner this weekend! Isn’t that amazing?”
He reads it twice more. It’s perfect, really. Everything worked out for the best. At least that’s what he tells himself. He thinks about replying to it, but instead he closes the window and forces himself to wade through all his other emails before selecting it and clicking ‘delete.’