Episode 9 – Standard Ink

I stood alone in the lobby. Only a few stragglers made a beeline for the door leading to the parking garage. My phone flashed a time of 5:31 PM. Standard Tower emptied like a busted water main at 5 PM every day on the dot. Standard employees couldn’t wait to escape the tower. Normally, I’d already be back at my apartment by now dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and playing Xbox.

I heard an elevator ding, and then, the unmistakable click of heels on the worn tiles in the lobby. A few seconds later, Julie emerged from the elevator alcove and spotted me in the middle of the cavernous lobby standing next to a forlorn planter. She smiled as she walked toward me like she was genuinely glad to see me.

I immediately noticed that she had let her hair down. She looked entirely different that way. From the moment I had met her at the career fair until a couple of hours ago on the tenth floor, I’d only seen her with her hair pinned up in the usual ponytail. When I thought of her, that’s the image that persisted in my mind. I liked that look because, with her hair pulled back, I could fully see her beautiful face, but something about her hair being down made her even more attractive.

I caught my breath as she walked up to me.

“Ready to get a drink?” she asked, smiling.

I almost stuttered, but I managed to keep my composure. “Are we driving?”

“No, let’s just walk. Let’s go to Neeko down the street.”

I’d never been inside Neeko. It was one of those fancy restaurants that tried too hard to be fancy instead of focusing on serving good food. I knew this because I had stopped outside to look at the menu one day, and everything on the menu had some odd name with a frilly, nonsensical description as if someone had written it using a thesaurus to avoid the use of any common words.

We began walking toward the front exit. “I’m glad this day is over,” she said as we walked.

“I feel that way about every day,” I replied. She laughed.

“So, you’ve been here a few months now. What do you think?” she asked as I held the door open for her.

“About what?”

“Standard.”

I thought for a moment. She had given me this opportunity, so I didn’t want to tell her how I really felt because it might sound ungrateful. Besides, this very moment was worth the pain of working for Standard.

“I think a lot has to change at Standard if its going to have a future.” I surprised myself by how serious I sounded.

She considered this and nodded. We walked in silence for a brief moment as if she were pondering my comment.

“That’s why our project is so important,” she said as we diverted our path around a determined couple going the opposite direction. “We need to decide which path to the future to take.”

“Do you think we will?”

“Of course, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. Ev has promised that we’d have the power to change the direction of the company.”

“Ev?”

“Evan. Mr. Rich.”

“You call him ‘Ev’?”

“Ev…Mr. Rich and I have known each other for a long time. I’ve been to his house. I know his wife and his kids. His kids are my age.”

I considered her for a moment. I wasn’t sure how to interpret this new information, but it sounded like Julie was the teacher’s pet. I thought she was in her position because she was extremely capable. That’s certainly how it seemed, but what did I know? I didn’t even have a year of experience under my belt, and truth be told, I had been smitten by her from the very moment I met her. I had developed a very wide blind spot for her.

“Wow, I didn’t realize you were that close to him.”

“He’s a mentor to me.”

We dodged a dude on a Bird scooter as he rolled down the sidewalk and made our way around two large, slow-moving people who seemed out of breath from the exertion of walking.

“He’s a good mentor to have.”

“I’ve worked for him before. I was one of his analysts at Hamlin.”

“What’s Hamlin?”

“It’s an investment bank.” I thought of Steve, the mob boss banker, and imagined Julie working in an office full of Steves.

We came up to the entrance to Neeko. A putrid smell greeted my nose, something fishy. I glanced at the outdoor patio as a waiter delivered food to a packed table on the corner of the patio. Not only was the food overly fancy here, but it smelled bad.

Julie asked to sit on the patio, and the host, a pretentious, perpetually-offended looking fellow, obliged. He wound us through the main dining room out to the patio. When we reached our table, he glided to one end and waved us to our seats like he was asking us to dance. He seemed officious and snotty. “Enjoy!” he said as he scurried away.

“What do you want to drink?” Julie asked.

Before I could answer, our waiter swooped in and introduced himself. He was only slightly less pretentious than the host. Julie informed him that we’d only be drinking. If he was disappointed in the tip potential of our table, he didn’t let on.

“I’ll have a whiskey sour,” Julie said. I ignored the waiter’s stare and scanned the drink menu. Nothing really looked appealing. I’d never been much of a drinker. Even in college, my level of alcohol intake was embarrassingly low. My wild nights in college consisted mainly of all-night Xbox marathons. I scanned the endless list of beers on the menu, none of which looked familiar except for Corona.

“I’ll have a Corona.”

“Very well. I’ll have those right out to you,” the waiter said before he pivoted and disappeared into the crowded restaurant.

Julie leaned in and smiled. “This place is busy for a Thursday night.”

I scanned the packed patio. The crowd was much different than the typical college hangouts I had enjoyed when I was in school, which already seemed like a lifetime ago. Many of the men and women still wore business suits. Some of the men had removed their jackets and loosened their ties. Others had rolled up their sleeves as well.

The conversations were a cacophony of senseless noise that ebbed and flowed under the patio awning. An occasional comment caught my ear out of context leaving me to wonder what conversation it belonged to, but I remained fixated on the woman across from me as she spoke about work. I wanted to get her off the topic of work and learn more about her life outside of Standard Tower. From the moment I had met her, I had wanted to get to know her. Now, I had my chance, but she still carried on like we were sitting in a conference room on the tenth floor.

“What do you do in your free time?” I asked. I realized after I said it that I had deflected the conversation in a totally different direction. Julie seemed to take it in stride. She sat back, narrowing her eyes as she thought about my question.

“I don’t have a lot of free time.” She paused, pondering the question again. I could see the wheels turning in her eyes. “I like to knit.”

“Knit? Like make things?”

“Yeah, you know, blankets, hats, sweaters…”

“Oh, my grandmother knits.” I winced on the inside after I said this.

Julie laughed. “My mom calls it an old lady hobby, but I really enjoy it.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.” I scrambled to repair whatever damage I had done.

Mercifully, the waiter interceded placing our drinks before us in an exaggerated fashion. “May I interest you in any appetizers?”

“No, thanks,” Julie said.

The waiter skittered away flashing a tired smile before he turned around.

“Do you do anything else?” I asked.

“I go to spin class several times a week.”

I nodded, impressed. That explained how she stayed in such good shape.

“What about you? Do you do anything else besides Xbox?”

Suddenly, I felt self-conscious about my game playing like I still slept with a stuffed animal from my childhood. I’d never really felt that way before, but in the glare of her attention, I felt childish and immature. I wished I had something more interesting to say. If I ever wanted to attract a woman like Julie, I knew I needed to be more than some guy who played Xbox. I scrambled to think of something. Anything.

“I’m focusing on my career right now,” I lied.

She nodded as if she believed my answer. Internally, I felt somewhat relieved even if it weren’t true.

“I did the same thing when I was your age. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’m trying to balance things out more. I’m trying to have a life outside work.”

She smiled at me and I noticed that she had twisted a lock of hair around her finger. She played with it subconsciously as she took another sip of her drink. The ice clinked against the glass as she sat it down.

“Do you want another drink?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She flagged down the waiter and asked for two more drinks. Her confident and determined manner mesmerized me. It pulled me into her orbit in a way that I couldn’t explain. I knew I’d do anything for her. I’d even stay in my dreadful role just to be around her.

Just when I thought I was headed down the path of getting to know more about her, she shifted the conversation back to work. As she spoke she gave me this bemused, curious look as if I were a comedian attempting to make her laugh. I felt an unusual current between us that I couldn’t quite explain. Another round of drinks came.  The tenor of the crowd ebbed and flowed on the patio like the ocean tide. It felt like we were frozen in time while the world went on without us. She talked about her early days at Standard and about how Ev had asked her to join him at the company. She could have talked about anything and I would have focused my attention on her just the same.

“You should join the project full time,” she said. “You could be one of my workstream leaders.”

“I don’t even have a year of experience yet,” I replied because I was too surprised to think of anything else to say. Working for Julie would be a dream come through, but I didn’t want to sound too eager.

“It doesn’t matter. Standard needs new blood. There are too many lifers who just want to do what they’ve always done. They’re never going to think beyond today.”

I thought of George, and I couldn’t help but agree. George was just floating along until he reached retirement. If he could ever retire.

“What about Swanson?”

“I’ll take care of him. He’s just a crusty old guy who gets off on being a jerk because he’s been there so long. He’s really part of the problem if you ask me.”

I’d never heard her speak ill of anyone. This was a side of her I hadn’t seen. I leaned into the table as if I were encouraging her to go on. She didn’t take the bait.

“What do you say?” Her smile gleamed at me from across the table. She could have been asking me to do anything, and I would have agreed.

“Sure. When do you want me there?”

“I’ll talk to Swanson tomorrow. I’ll tell him I need you down on the tenth floor on Monday. Inside Sales can easily adjust to losing people. They do it all of the time.”

“I can’t say I’ll miss The Inside.”

Julie gave me a bemused look. “The what?”

“The Inside.” I laughed as if she got the joke.

“That’s what you call it?”

“Not me. Some of my coworkers call it that.”

Julie laughed. “That’s really corny.”

“I know.” I could feel my face flush even though I had attempted to laugh at the absurdity of my team.

The waiter approached the table with the check in a leather-bound portfolio that he discreetly slid onto the table between us. We nodded to him but we continued our conversation and finished the last of our drinks. The patio had mostly emptied leaving just the two of us and another group of four on the opposite side of the patio.

Our conversation hit a lull. I looked at Julie and she smiled. I leaned up to the table to get the check and she must have had the same thought because she reached for it at the same time, and our hands met. Her touch electrified me, and my hand lingered for just a moment too long. Again, I could feel my face flush. I panicked and pulled my hand away with the portfolio.

“My treat,” I said.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to. I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you for inviting me.”

“Thank you for joining me. I needed this.” She smiled at me and I melted in my seat as the waiter appeared and took the check from me. I sat back still electrified by the sensation of our hands touching moments ago. It was silly, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel we had a connection on some level beyond the professional level, or at least that what I hoped.

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