Ice cream cake. Now that’s love. The melting, sloppy, gooey mess that is two chocolate-cake layers sandwiching a thick layer of cookies ‘n’ cream. Ice cream cake, in all its melting, mouth-watering, diabetes-inflicting glory. Ice cream cake, on a tilted break room table, below a Costco oscillating fan and 99-cents-plus-tax birthday banner hung half-assed with both scotch and duct tape. Now that’s love.
“Julie, I need to talk to you,” my boss called to me from across the dingy break room. Malinda, my boss, is the definition of bourgeois trash. If anyone took the time to notice, they’d see that she wears the same three pants on rotation during the week. If you looked closely on her slightly see-through blouse—one of 8 knit tops (from Ross clearance rack, no doubt) on rotation—you will find a scorched triangular area. It was probably left there by a forgotten iron as she attempted to put her two rough-housing boys on time-out this morning. It’s all over the office how her husband left her, and now she has to take care of those demon-spawn by herself.
I guess I never thought it was true until now. There’s nothing like a burnt blouse to say: I’m newly single, and I’m trying to pull it together. Even now, as I walk over to her, she fidgets with an awkward elbow to cover the scorched blemish. Now that just screams: I got dumped, and I’m in way over my head. I guess that’s what you get for being a career woman and leaving your dead beat husband to raise your kids while he “fosters his writing talent.” All you get in return is a crap job putting in 80-hour work weeks as branch manager of some Middle-of-Who-Cares, Wyoming, credit union; two kids who call you by your first name; a flighty husband who takes off with the first person who actually reads the misogynistic soft porn he thinks is a novel; and melting ice cream cake for the mysteriously hot nerd of a mail boy.
“Julie,” she said, practically dragging me by the elbow over to the corner. “Did I forget to mention in our little pow wow yesterday that today was a special day?”
“No, you mentioned that…” Who uses pow wow any more?
“Oh, I did? Then why is the birthday banner just stuck to the wall with left over duct tape? And where are the streamers and balloons? I told you to spare no expense. You were supposed to go all out for this one!”
“Well, yes, you told me to spare no expense, but you only gave me five bucks, so I…”
“Shh! Keep your voice down,” she scolded, looking around to make sure no one heard. “That is beside the point.”
“You are my secretary, you’re supposed to make it happen!”
So you can profess your undying love for the mail boy? was what I wanted to say; “Yes, Malinda,” was my actual cowardly response.
“Keep this up and… and…” she said shaking a finger at me. Then, with an exasperated yelp, she turned and marched back to the break room. If you looked closely, you could see her multi-colored, leopard-print bra with the tag trying to poke through the barely-there fabric. Why the hell didn’t she just take it off? Too busy thinking of mail-boy Julien sorting her mail with his boy-hands, probably…
Now when I took this job, which I never would have done if my mom hadn’t called me pathetic and then threaten to kick me out “for my own good”—since when is leaving a kid out in the streets to die “for their own good”?
Where was I? Oh, yes… This brain-sucking, monotonous torture they call “real world living.” I am not the person people talk to about their problems. I am not the person people talk to at all, for that matter. I am the non-conscientious unobserver. If the tattered clothes dripping with lack of care and the unwashed, disheveled hair doesn’t say, You don’t want to talk to me, then what else will? (Hmm… When was the last time I washed my hair, anyway?)
How was I supposed to know that being a secretary means floor seats to the circus that is this office? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought I’d make a few copies, answer a few phone calls and then go home to wallow in my own self-hatred; but oh, how wrong I was! Not only do I get to make copies of copies I already made and reattach my ear after it was chewed off by a dissatisfied customer, I also get to swim around in everyone’s emotional and mental feces while being forced to put together a birthday party for the freakin’ mail boy. He’s only been here for two months! I’ve been here two years, and they still call me the weird new girl. Julie! My name is Julie!
Anyway, why I need to know about Dennis’s peanut allergy or Sheila’s Salt Lake vacation or the whole Tammy-Erik-Mike-other-Tammi-Andrew-Andrea-other-Mike love octagon is beyond me. (Swingers parties; attend at your own risk.) There’s some secret secretary credo, isn’t there, about how I’m not supposed to say anything? Well, I can’t take it anymore; this secretary is about to pop!
Take this party, for example, it’s a farce. This kid Julien, he’s a fraud. Don’t let his fresh-faced, boyish features blind you to the fact that today is not even his birthday. If anyone other than me even looked at his application other than being dumbfoundedly mesmerized by his smoldering, blue-eyed stare and over-the-top suspenders, they’d realize that his actual day of birth is not today, but April 19. Never trust mail boys; they’re the only thing worse than secretaries. They hold secrets in their hands and distribute them like candy on Valentine’s Day.
April 19. Thinking about it now, that was the last day anyone saw the illustrious Mr. Wilbur Portusach, our company executive. He waltzed into staff meeting that day especially chipper. My mother always believed that happy people are all in on some conspiracy—part of some deformed “stick it to the man” mentality she picked up after living in one of those political communes when she was a teenager. While I still think she’s crazy, Mr. P’s broadening smiles seemed suspect to me. Sure enough, as easily as he sauntered out of the conference room that day, he casually sauntered out of town and was never heard from again. No one knew where he was, if he was alive or not. Not his business partners, not his employees, not even his maid—the only other person that lived in his Xanadu, his palace-shrine dedicated to himself and his accomplishments.
No one seemed to care that he had vanished. I know this because I looked; it seemed like I was the only one who did. They all told me the same thing; that he left each of the people in his life with a gift that was meant to compensate for his absence. For instance, to his business partner Bill Rand—the guy he played chess with every Thursday night—he left Paolo Boi’s personal chess set. (This Paolo Boi guy was apparently a pretty good chess player back in the 16th century.) To his only remaining relative—a Kevin Gateley of Boston—Mr. P gave a bound collection of the whole Portusach genealogy. It was a fitting gift since the Kevin Gateley of Boston happened to be a genealogist himself—driven to it by his search for his own biological family.
What he gave his maid was the most surprising of all. To Miss Aimee Simsuangco of Cagayan, Philippines, Mr. P left not only his 60-acre estate, fully staffed with housekeepers and gardeners and such, but also all his shares in the company. Risky move for Portusach to give his entire fortune to an immigrant from a third world country, maybe; but thus far she’s only used the money to send her sons to the best boarding school in the world, move the rest of her family into the mansion and set them up with jobs, and charter private jets between her office and exotic vacations with her children.
In the midst of my investigation, I asked her if she knew where he was. Her response hasn’t made sense to me until recently. She told me that he was in a place that did not matter, but it was a place everyone seeks to find. Her blasted answer has stumped me for the last couple months until that day last week when I finally moved out of my house. I was moving a box of crap from my crap car into my new crappier-than-normal-crappy apartment, still hearing echoes of my mother’s sad “see you laters” and “come over for dinners” when I noticed a white fedora across the street.
It seemed so out of place, that fedora. The man beneath it had snow-white hair and a fresh-from-the-tropics tan. He sat alone at the outdoor cafe looking off into the distance. He wore no oversized coat for the winter that was fast approaching, only a worn leather jacket, faded jeans and loafers. There was a degected-looking lady just on the other side of the glass holding a baby haphazardly on her lap. The baby was reaching toward the man.
The man didn’t belong there somehow. He seemed out of place. He exuded some kind of radiance that was so abrupt that it visually kicked you in the face with its luminance. All the others drudged about, dragging their feet and listlessly swinging their arms as they passed. He was the hole in a black-out curtain streaming hot, fiery sunlight into a dark room. But even though he seemed misplaced, his face was so familiar to me.
In just the instant that I decided the search was useless, the man caught sight of the baby. The baby, a perfect reflection of its lifeless surroundings, froze knowing it was caught. Not knowing what else to do, the baby did something really strange. He lifted his chubby little hand and placed it right on the window near the man’s nose. I could see his reflection in the glass now; I could see his whole face. I gasped in horror and surprise. If I didn’t know any better, I would say it was that crazy Portusach, only thinner and much more tan, like he’d just spent 6 months lying on a beach sipping from those coconut drinks. To my surprise, Portusach smiled, and the sun seemed to burst into more light. It was too much to bear, I looked away.
When I mustered the curiosity to look back, I witnessed the strangest thing. I could not look at Portusach’s blinding optimism and turned to the baby instead, except it didn’t look like the same baby. The kids’ once blank stare was somehow transformed into something so alive. There was something thriving and bright inside that baby that was trying to get out. Joy. Pure and extreme joy exuded from every pore on his face, like life shot back into a stillborn corpse. I couldn’t understand it. I thought I was going insane. Portusach had lifted his hand and placed his against the baby’s, and I realized the kid was somehow a reflection of what the old man was doing on the other side of the glass. The baby was the moon, shining reflected Portusach sun rays onto the dark, dank earth. Crazy old Portusach was laughing, a sight even harder to bear than his smile. It was like the sun bursting into a thousand more stars in one huge fiery, violent swoop. Just then, at the brink of my madness, when I could take no more, the baby laughed too.