Entries: September 2004


Jan is going over the production schedule, his words spilling out at maximum velocity. He’s well-versed in the intricacies of project management. It’s his passion, so there’s no need for him to search for words, no witty asides to pad the monologue. Further, he knows how to speak like an adult, with an even staccato cadence and an impressive vocabulary by any measure. He makes preemptive oblique references to counterpoints I might raise without breaking the flow, and raises a single eyebrow as he riffs on a matrix of potential implications. The man is a maestro of the salient point, a rhetorical surgeon.

But Jan still eats like a starved rat—so I judge by the daily saliva symphony that winds its way down the hall into my cubicle—and all I can focus on at this moment is the glistening post-lunch rivulet clinging to his beard. When I first experienced it I thought the volume and clarity of Jan’s gustatory prowess might have something to do with the acoustic peculiarities of our office, which was converted originally from an industrial loading station. Perhaps the concrete walls of the past century worked in concert with the 21st century floor-to-ceiling frosted glass partitions to act like a massive inner ear, with myself at the focal point.

No matter how articulate Jan is, it’s impossible for me to take him seriously when I can still hear the juicy click of his last gulp ringing in my ears—it’s all I can do to block the thought of the sloshing of his gastric contents. I know that I tend to focus to the point of obsession, but it wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t lick his apple after each bite to keep it from dripping. I witnessed as much as I passed by his office in search of a fire hatchet with which to behead him. So horrified was I that I lost my way and ended up wandering around somewhere in Human Resources, I don’t even know where. The image haunts me to this day—there are some things you cannot unlearn.

It’s not just Jan, I don’t want to listen to anyone feeding. I don’t appreciate constant reminder that there are metabolic processes occurring in the multicolored jelly-bags just beneath our sallow flesh. It’s bad enough suddenly becoming aware of someone’s tongue flicking against their yellow teeth like a trout on warped pier boards, let alone encountering the bouquet of banana still seasoning the mucous of their throat.

I remember being a prisoner in my high-chair, sitting in helpless thrall as my great grandfather ate vast bowls of apple sauce, his molars clashing together like the Symplegades between each spoonful. Was such merciless gnashing strictly necessary? What demons chittered in his ears? But no, his face was always kind, and his eyes distant. He was a man at peace from all outward appearances, yet just beneath his sinewy cheeks his jaws worked that applesauce like pumice. My own teeth were still new to me then, my precious, pointy little rice grain teeth, and the sound of my elder’s eroded enamel slabs squeaking against each other through liquefied fruit was a thousand mouse feet on my spine.

The imprint of that formative experience left me prohibitively sensitive to the aural implications of consumption. Still, as I’ve attempted to mask Jan’s oblivious lip-smacking assaults with loud music, or synchronous stapler-mashing, or cricket-like corduroy agitation, the very knowledge of the feeding keeps me on edge. I am beset by twitchy, nose-whistling beasties, yellow-toothed rats scratch scratch scratching at my cubicle walls. I see them for who they are—it takes more than khaki slacks and a necktie to veil biology’s horrid truths. Worse, thanks to the slavering vermin in the next office, I’ve lost my own appetite.

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We’ve gathered in the cafeteria area.

Despite the fact that no one is enthusiastic about holding the meeting, the meeting happens anyway, as if of its own will. What sort of world is it where events can take place that satisfy neither need nor desire? Only diseases are more insistent, in my estimation. But such is not a good way to begin a meeting if I have any intention of outlasting it. I must keep up appearances, feigning engagement so as not to draw attention to myself. For my colleagues a meeting is the measure of work rather than a distraction from it. Their currency is a blue square on the schedule grid.

As time passes I’ve managed to contribute a few salient points, and quietly disengage to seek the sustenance of thought. At the other end of the cafeteria an employee unfamiliar to me has sauntered into view, an older man. Cup in hand, he’s heading toward the water cooler, really taking his time. In fact I think it’s safe to say that he’s shuffling. Too many meetings, I suspect. Having finally reached his destination, he holds the cup under the spout and depresses the lever… and promptly drops the cup on the floor.

Immediately I refocus on the meeting, posing as guy-at-a-meeting guy so as not to be caught witnessing the show. But the shuffler is fully engaged in retrieving the cup. He holds it back under the spout and presses the lever again. I listen to the meeting, but secretly I’m thinking about multiple sclerosis. People with MS drop things at the beginning. Maybe I’ve just witnessed the onset of what will eventually be a debilitating malady. In a few years this guy will be helpless with MS—or Parkinson’s disease, maybe.

In spite of my diagnosis, he’s managed to fill the cup this time. So far so good—until the cup slips to the floor again, spilling water all over the yellow linoleum. “Damn,” says cup-dropper under his breath. I sneak glances at my coworkers, but no one else has noticed. This meeting is particularly resistant to interruption, not so different from the new drug-resistant virus strains. Perhaps meetings are becoming stronger over time, and eventually we’ll come face to face with the meeting that never ends. If so, then we only have ourselves to blame. The thought of it makes me uncomfortable, and I shift on my chair, sitting on my left leg.

Meanwhile, cup-dropper considers the situation for a moment before retrieving the unruly cup again. For a moment he stands still, mirrored in the pool of water he’s created, the vision of a modern day Tantalus. I see it as an unlikely office still-life: Befuddled Puddle Man in Business Casual. But he is resolute now, and holds the cup under the spout yet again.

Cup-dropper has again successfully filled his cup, and, taking more care this time, brings it up from under the spout to take a sip, thus breaking the tortuous cycle. But still there remains the matter of the pool he’s standing in. Now that he’s completed his task he appears to be a bit self conscious about the look of things. Certainly the evidence underfoot is incriminating. He’s looking from side to side, leaning to see into the main kitchen area. Is he looking for help? Or perhaps paper towels? But as he takes a few cautious steps away from the cooler it dawns on me that he is in fact looking for witnesses. Am I naive? Surely this middle-aged man—by all outward appearances a grown-up—wouldn’t shirk responsibility. He couldn’t just flee a crime scene.

But sure enough, he’s now several feet away from the water cooler, appreciating one of the employee art submissions that adorn the cafeteria walls. I know that he’s appreciating the photograph about as much as I’m appreciating my meeting. What he’s really doing is dissociating slowly. He’s now at that point where he could still own up to the mess if confronted, but in a moment he will have crossed the culpability threshold. Like a chameleon, he is changing subtly from the puddle-making man to the art-appreciating man.

As the evidence becomes ever more circumstantial, I imagine jumping over the table and tackling my art-appreciating coworker. “Confess!” I would shout, my teeth poised just over his jugular. And he would know exactly what I wanted. Still, only I would know that my motivation was less about altruism than salvation from a campaign of one hour soul-sucking sessions.

Only fifty minutes to go now.

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“How about… mustard? Mayo? And… lettuce?” As if I’m not sure the woman behind the counter has even heard of them. But of course she has. I’ve been ordering exactly the same sandwich here for just shy of four years. Some people study the menu each time they visit a familiar restaurant, but I order only one selection from any given restaurant. The first time I visit an eatery I figure out which item best suits me, and then lock it in. Because of this, ordering no longer requires thought, which would seem to be of great advantage to the introvert grown wary of human interaction. However, once again there are subtle yet vexing expectations relating to social conduct that foil simplicity. The wait staff isn’t aware that my dialogue is pre-scripted, so for them I must pretend to study the menu every time.

In truth I know what I want for lunch before I tear myself from the restraints each morning. If it weren’t for my deep-seated fear of being brusque, I could deliver my order as I rolled through the front door, and pay the bill accurately before my ass hit the naugehyde booth seat. Instead, out of politeness, I feign thoughtful consideration, punctuated by bouts of almost troubled soul-searching. “Is there sourdough bread here?” Who can know, really?

My self-imposed hesitation stems from my guilt over taking advantage of the service class. That, along with the knowledge that someone’s fingers will soon be touching items that I intend to slide across the back of my tongue. For this I make the extra effort to look the deli lady in the eyes, and to bow after each garnish is acknowledged. See how humble? But it’s all I can do to keep from weeping under the pressure.

Is politeness really politeness when it’s an act? But then again, maybe politeness is always an act—a conscious detour of contrition to offset the inevitable cold interaction. Fair enough: you do a little dance before you make a little love.

But deep down there is a secret battle happening between my self-righteous misanthropic side and my regular stranded-alien-on-this-planet side. “Order them around like slaves,” says the misanthrope. “You are better than they are, and they know it, and you like it.”

I cringe reflexively, and the lady behind the counter thinks I’ve changed my mind about the lettuce. “Oh, no, sorry, I still do want the lettuce.” Bow.

But the misanthrope is on a roll. “That’s right. Now demand the goods, then show her your fist and nod real slow.” Molars clenched, I muzzle the voices.

I aim, always, for a tone somewhere between urbane and supplicant, but it’s a delicate balance. If I think I’ve ordered without enough caution or sensitivity, I will sometimes feign ignorance over how to pay. “Oh, over there? I didn’t even see the register!” Once I even forced myself to trip just to gain sympathy, as if to say, “See? Things really aren’t any better on this side. We are starving, hapless fools, slaves to our own fears of secret superiority.”

I may be over-reacting, but I have yet to find a single razor blade in a sandwich.

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