I had mostly shrugged off George’s suggestions for lunch at our “favorite place” in the weeks that followed. I dutifully brought my lunch each day and put my lunch bag in a prominent spot on my desk so that he could see it when he came by. He’d act so disappointed when I tapped the bag and told him I had brought my lunch, but he didn’t attempt to convince me to skip the bagged lunch for another trip to Fanny’s. Eventually, he stopped asking when he saw my lunch bag sitting there.
Julie would wander by my cube every once in a while and see how I was doing. Her visits changed my entire day for the better. Sometimes, I’d stare down the corridor hoping to see her coming my way with her big smile and her hair pulled up into the familiar ponytail, but on most days I was disappointed. She was off recruiting or training someone somewhere, and I found myself envious of whoever it was that had her attention. When she did come by to say hello, we’d often walk down to the break room and get some coffee. I hated coffee, especially the muddy water that passed for coffee at Standard Ink, but for Julie I’d pretend I liked anything to spend more time with her.
On an unpromising Tuesday, I had spent the greater part of the morning calling customers trying to push more ink. I had been hung up on, yelled at, and accused of being a scammer, but I did manage to score one big order from a woman with a gravelly voice who asked for my direct number in case she had a problem with the order. I didn’t think she was really concerned about her order because she peppered me with personal questions as I took her order. Before I said goodbye, she told me that her last boyfriend was twenty-something.
“Good morning, Travis.”
I spun around in my chair to see Julie’s beautiful face smiling at me. I forgot all about the rough morning I had been having. I greeted her enthusiastically.
“I’m training a new salesperson here.”
“Two rows over.” Julie nodded toward the other side of me. I looked over that way but no one was visible above the cube walls.
“A new graduate?”
“No, she’s been in Sales for a while.”
“What’s she doing here?”
“Her last company laid her off.”
“Yeah, she has over 30 years of experience in sales.”
“Wow.” The image of this new hire in my head changed dramatically. In the back of my mind, a sense of dread emerged at the thought of doing this job for 30 years. I shook away such awful thoughts.
“Do you want to go to lunch?”
I tried not to look too excited, but in my mind, I was racing in circles like a dog about to go to the park. “Sure,” I said in my best nonchalant voice.
Julie smiled. “Excellent. Are you okay if we go now? Susan had to take an early lunch to see her grandkids.”
“The lady I’m training.”
I nodded and grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair. “Where do you want to go?”
“Top Bread okay?”
I nodded again. I didn’t care where we went as long as I was with her. Even stale bread saddled with sweaty meat couldn’t squelch the excitement I felt around Julie. I could always come back and eat the lunch I had packed.
Julie did most of the talking as we took the elevator down to the lobby. In between training stints, she was working on a project reporting directly to the CEO of Standard Ink. I’d never seen anyone so animated and excited about working at the company. Even George in his perennial upbeat demeanor seemed beaten down by life at Standard.
Only a couple of people stood in front of us in the line at Top Bread since we were about 15 minutes ahead of the usual lunch rush. The guy making the sandwiches looked about my age, and he nodded when I approached the counter as if we had some unspoken greeting between us. He mostly looked at Julie who continued to talk to me as I told him what I wanted on my sandwich. He watched as we moved on down the line. I wanted to tell him to not be so obvious in his staring, but I let it go. After all, I was the one having lunch with her.
After we sat down and unwrapped our sandwiches, Julie finished telling me about the project she was working on with the CEO while I took a solemn bite of my turkey on wheat. The meat tasted like it had been out of the refrigerator for too long, but I ate it anyway.
“Mr. Rich really listens to me. He’s giving me a lot of latitude.”
Julie looked up at me as she took a bite of her sandwich as if she were expecting more from me. I scrambled in my head to think of something to say. To be honest, the project sounded boring, and I hadn’t entirely been paying attention to what she said about it.
“What’s it like working for the CEO?” I said after I swallowed a bite of slimy turkey. I exhaled as if I had just beat a buzzer of some kind.
“It’s great. I mean, I work with the entire Executive team, and they’re all so nice. It’s very different than what I expected.”
I had only seen Mr. Rich, the CEO, in company videos. He looked tired, old, and stern like a school principal or something.
“What’s the purpose of this project?”
“We’re deciding the future of the company.”
I sat up straight. “That’s a big project.”
“Yes, it is, and I’m a part of it. You should be a part of it.”
“I’m just a peon in Inside Sales. I’m not sure they want my opinion.”
“You’re exactly who they need to hear from. This company has been mired in its past for so long that no one notices. We need fresh voices to help determine how we survive another hundred years.”
I loved her enthusiasm, but the truth was that I didn’t care if Standard Ink survived or not. I didn’t like my job, and if I could ever muster the enthusiasm, I’d look for another one. I did like the regular paycheck though.
“You should join the team.”
“What about my job?”
“You’d still do your regular job. This would be in addition to your current job.”
“So I’d do more work and still get paid the same?”
“When you say it like that it sounds unflattering.”
“Maybe because it is unflattering.”
Julie seemed hurt by my cynicism. “We’re deciding the future of the company. There will be many opportunities in that future, and if we’re leading it, then some of those opportunities will open for us.”
I sort of understood what she was saying, but it seemed like too much work for a payoff that was so uncertain, but I nodded my understanding anyway, and she seemed to take this as some acknowledgement on my part. We ate in silence for a few minutes before she spoke again.
“What do you do for fun?”
Finally, a subject that I wanted to discuss. “I play video games.” I smiled at her.
I wiped the smile off my face. “Pretty much.”
“Okay,” she said diverting her eyes to her sandwich as she took another bite. I had a sense that she was not impressed, and for a moment I felt a flush of embarrassment wash across my face. I had played video games since I was a little kid. It had been the one thing I enjoyed no matter what, but somewhere along the way it became the only thing I did, and in that moment with Julie, I realized that it didn’t impress her in the least. I wanted to impress her.
“How do I get on this project?”
“The project you’re on, how do I join it?”
She put her half-eaten sandwich back down on its wrapper and gave me a studious look. I caught a whiff of the roast beef and wanted to gag, but I kept that to myself.
“You need to let your manager know you’re interested, and I will talk to the project leader about adding you. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Yeah. It’ll be great to have you on the team.” She smiled at me as if I had paid her a big compliment or something. I reflexively smiled back despite my reservations about doing more work for the same paycheck. Then, I thought the project would get me off the phone for a few hours a week, and that made me unusually happy.
Julie finished her sandwich before I could choke down the remains of mine, so I listened while she talked about an art exhibit she had seen the previous weekend. She only mentioned a girlfriend of hers, so I remained hopeful that she was unattached. She had not referred to a boyfriend in any of our interactions. As she spoke, I wondered what she would look like with her hair down. Every single time I had seen her, she had it pulled back in a tight ponytail.
“What?” she asked, looking at me quizzically. I must have been giving her a strange look or something. I shrugged and shook my head. “You look like you have a question on your lips.”
“No. I’m just listening.” She smiled at me again and we looked at each other until it became uncomfortable after a second or two.
“You ready to get back to work?” She gathered up her trash and put it on her tray.
She laughed as she stood up and I followed her to the trashcan near the door. The sandwich shop had grown crowded around us. The line to order snaked out the door. I scanned the anonymous faces that faded to beige in the line. No one looked particularly happy to be at lunch. The din of conversations seemed muted and depressed. Julie and I weaved among the people near the door to leave. It felt like we were swimming upstream in the rush of the lunch crowd.
We took the elevator up to my floor. When the doors slid shut, Julie turned to me. “I’ll talk to Mr. Rich about adding you. He’s looking for young talent to join the team. If he says yes, then the project leader will reach out to Mr. Swanson.”
“Okay. I doubt Swanson knows who I am.”
“Of course he does.”
“I’ve never even met him.” Swanson was the Inside Sales manager. He was four levels above me. I’d only seen a glimpse of him when I walked by his corner office once in my first week when I got lost trying to find the one printer the whole floor shared.
“He knows who works for him. Besides, he’ll tell your manager, and we’ll go from there.”
By the time we reached the corridor that led back to my cube, Julie turned to me. “It’ll be great to work together. I’m looking forward to it.” Her enthusiasm was almost as impressive as her smile. A sense of gloom descended on me as I bid her farewell. I’d rather spend the day working with Julie on some boring project than spend another minute at my desk on the phone, but I managed to say goodbye to her and trudge back to my desk. Another day. Another week.