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You go to work at 8:30 am under a blue sky serrated by skyscrapers. Your shoulders brush the shoulders of other men on the Hudson line. The city is unfurling into the new, sunlit spring; stretching blindly, sensually, towards the promise of better weather; exuding sweat and car exhaust and the scent of the wet mulch of the corner parks.

There's a new assistant in the Legal pool, just off to your right on the way from Reception to the break room. You aren't sure how long she's actually been there – it might have been days or weeks – but it is today that you first notice her, the slope of her high pale forehead towards her monitor, the anxiously smoothed center part of her honeyed hair. You take the long way around to your office with your coffee, just so you can look again.

She looks like she's twenty-two. You remember being twenty-two, but barely. You hadn't met Jessie yet; you were living with Irene Woods, and you had a cat, Prolix, white with brown and rust-orange patches. Irene took Prolix when she left and renamed her. She'd never liked the name Prolix for a girl.

Apparently, you didn't sign off on one of the docs for the Markson deal on Friday. It wasn't caught, because it was Friday afternoon, and it was 62 degrees out, and the funds went through anyway.

You'll just sign it retroactively. It happens all the time.

And because it happens all the time, you don't need to hear her explanation. Shimoto sent her over with a copy of the doc, and she's chatting about it, and how they'll fix the mistake, and you're staring. She's tapping her pen on the paper lightly, sometimes on the spot she's referring to, that one blank sig block, but other times just to emphasize the syncopated rhythms of her sharp, nervous patter. There's a vague East Coast-y tang to her speech, as if she grew up on Long Island but went to school away from it and got polished up, as if she's stopped saying "hang-ger" or "thing-gy" but still has to think about it.

You sign with a flourish, taking from her the cheap Staples pen she got from Office Supplies rather than the nice one you have on your desk. She has to take a few steps deeper into the room to hand it to you, along with the Markson papers.

At lunch, you don't take a deli sandwich back to your desk the way you usually would. Instead you buy a salad and take it out to one of the corner parks, a block or two away from the office, wedged in the awkward intersection of three streets. There aren't any seats open and you walk by the benches filled with homeless people and mothers with strollers and office workers on lunch break, until you get to an open tree. There you spread your jacket out and sit on it, like it's a real picnic. You entertain thoughts of eating outside every day till October comes around again; you think of yourself as a different kind of man, who would be awake to the city around him, who would insouciantly walk out the office door when he liked.

Secretly, you wonder if she eats outside, too. Maybe not now, since she's new, and wants to make a good impression, but some day later this summer she too will be struck with summer sunlust. She'll emerge from the fluorescent lighting and modular cubicle walls; she'll come outside; she'll sit down, perhaps under this very tree.

She'll look up, and you'll be there, a happy coincidence. Maybe she'll avert her eyes with a lovely infuriating shyness, or maybe she'll be brave and gather up her purse and brown bag and soda can and speak to you. You'll inquire paternally about her tiny apartment in Washington Heights, where she lives with her college friends or her boyfriend. You'll be encouraging about her job, about the company culture; you'll indulge in a little wink about the way the M.D.s such as yourself can be slave-drivers sometimes. You'll mentor her; you'll follow her anywhere, sign anything she asks, following the tap-tap-tap of her pen into a newer, purer life.

After all you're not even sure if she's pretty or just young, if she's sweet or just happy. You didn't even hear her when she introduced herself to you this morning; you don't know her name. You fell inexorably, but primally; it's not attraction or love, but a pain where you are no longer accustomed to feeling pain.

You go home to Jessie that night and see that she, like you, has grown old. In fact, she is older than you; she has the venerability that comes after a serious illness.

She is sleeping, and your coming in does not wake her. After stripping to your briefs, you would normally go straight to the drawer on the top left and pull out a T-shirt and sweatpants. Tonight, the drawer half-open, you stop yourself.

You consider waking Jessie up, but what would be the point. You and she are not spontaneous lovers; what has rekindled after her remission is a gentle and deliberate physical intimacy, once every couple of weeks or so. She'd know that the impulse had nothing to do with her, and she'd ask you about it. Shame brushes you with a feather-light and impotent touch.

When you slide into bed, the sheets feel different than the coarse T-shirt you usually wear. They slide against your legs and torso, cooler than a woman's skin, if not as soft. You put your hand on Jessie's rounded belly, and it rises when she breathes in, firm against your palm.

You realize: The relief that she's breathing will never go away.

Before you fall asleep, you think about redoing the kitchen in a bright, country-kitchen kind of way. Or maybe something a little seventies-inspired, perhaps a turquoise and rust-red kind of thing. You're not sure how Jessie would feel about that. She likes a modern, streamlined feel to the house; the rest of it is done in stark whites, blacks, mahoganies, some deep reds.

Besides if you start construction, Tara might not want to come home that summer. It's an oft-raised topic of conversation between you, with Jessie on the attack: If we put Caesar down, Tara won't want to come home this summer. She'll get a job on campus and live in Berkeley. If we don't fix the hot tub, Tara won't be as excited to come home this summer.

In your dreams you meet the girl, the assistant. You meet her, not walled-in by the gray concrete of Rector Street and surrounded by the trappings of your job, but in the outdoors, where she meets you, fresh and rosy, and then vanishes. Come back, my darling.

Jessie turns over and shakes you.

"Ted, Ted," she says.

"My darling,” you were saying. You open your eyes to the dark spectres; you seal your lips against your ravings.

What's going on, she starts asking, who are you dreaming about, what made you wail like that. Her lips are sticky and dry, and you know what it would be like to kiss them, and the warm mustiness of bed is so thick that it finally chases away the ephemera of your pastoral dream. Meanwhile Jessie keeps at you, and it comes down to this—"What's her name?"

You shake your head. "You're crazy, Jess. There's no one. No name."

"You were saying something," she insists. "M-something. Is it Melissa? Michelle?"

"No, no," you say.

She operates under the theory that whatever you won't tell her, you won't in fact lie to her face.

"Margaret? Marcia? Maggie? Melinda? Madeleine? Monica?"

"No, no," you say.

"Marla? Marlena?"

She's so persistent. You know that's because of you. You've started out selfish many times, but you always let her bargain this way. It's just that now you have no name to barter, no matter how many guesses she tries.

As she falls back asleep she mumbles, "Madeleine?" but you don't even say "No." She's forgotten she already tried that one.

Then Jessie gets sick again, and you leave work for months. You forget all about the beautiful assistant and you forget about your plans to eat lunch in the park and you direct the formidable power of your memory towards doctors' names and nutrition plans and hospital payment plans and surgery schedules and the long, long odds Jessie's given for survival at every new step.

When it's over (when you have buried your wife under the ground behind a church on Staten Island, when you have watched your daughter board a plane back to Ohio and you have patted Caesar's head and warned him that he'll be alone a lot more now, when you have seen a therapist and confessed to him your sad and stilted thoughts of self-blame, when you've hired the most modern of architects to design the house out of all recognition) you go back to work.

You see the assistant around all the time now, and you give up trying to reawaken the intimations that seeing her once gave you. Sickness left Jessie old before taking her altogether; Jessie, in leaving, has made you old. Eventually, in the course of your professional duties, you discover that the assistant's name all along was Madeleine.



Kristen's fiction has recently appeared in Unlikely 2.0. She has written several children's e-books for MeeGenius!, an educational website and app.


I wrote this story because I dreamed it, and it made me sad, and because I am generally tempted to write a story from the point of view that I don't much sympathize with. Since it was a story about love and inspiration struggling to survive, I drew on my brief foray into office life on Wall Street for some of the gorier details about the sterility of my protagonist's daily existence.





 





  


Copyright 2009