Fifth Floor Fun

It started in a bathroom. So I guess it’s only fair that it ended in one as well.

I heard the voices as I approached the door of the ladies’ room shared by all of the fifth floor, where my office was located – friendly sounding voices, laughing jovially, echoing in the tiled room. I pushed the door open cautiously, smiling at the two women just inside.

“Oh, excuse us!” one said – a pretty blonde woman, diminutive, with the kind of obedient bangs that I will never have. “Just having an interdepartmental meeting,” she joked.

Her friend, a grouchy looking woman with a precise black bob, moved grudgingly from the door without meeting my eyes.

As I closed the stall door behind me, wiggling the sticky latch (that particular latch was always tricky, but I liked being in the stall up against the far wall), they left the restroom, finishing up their conversation. I could hear the blonde woman laughing down the hall.

We shared our hallway with only two other nonprofits, and given that one of them, Watson Data, as almost entirely staffed by quiet, IT-type guys, I deduced that the blonde worked in the other office, a legal aid society that worked specifically with single moms. I guessed that a lot of their work involved getting child support payments from absent fathers.

I kept an eye out for the blonde woman, but didn’t see her for a week or more. We were both leaving the building at the same time in the evening and walking to our cars. This time I was bolder – I smiled and said, “Have a great weekend,” and she said, “You too!” and got into her Toyota Corolla and drove off. I noticed she turned left out of the parking lot, whereas I turned right. I wondered in what reaches of the south bay she lived.

Later that week, I was in the café on the bottom level of our building, getting a much-needed cup of coffee before starting my day. The woman came in and, seeing me, smiled.

“Good morning,” she said, and then to the employee behind the counter, “A small almond soy latte, please.” She paid and then leaned against the wall a couple of yards from me. When they called out my extra-large nonfat white mocha, I made a self-derogatory sound at myself, blushing a little bit. She raised one eyebrow at me. “It’s one of those mornings, huh?”

“Yeah – I didn’t sleep much last night,” I said. “I have a two-year-old. He’s in an ‘up all night’ phase.” I saw her eyes flick to my hand – ringless as usual, since between getting myself and Noah out of the house in the mornings, I was always forgetting to put on my wedding ring.

“It’s hard,” she agreed, and I realized suddenly that she was assuming that I was one of those single mothers, the ones she worked with all day. That Noah’s father was out of the picture, or at least out of our home.

I started to correct her, to explain that I just didn’t like to wear my wedding solitaire around my kid, for fear that I’d scratch him with it. How my husband was also up all night long with me, commiserating in the holy terror that is molar teething. How the only reason I had to get Noah ready in the mornings alone, was because my husband started work at 7am.

But before I could speak, they were calling out her latte, and she was turning away from me to collect it. When she turned back, a business card had appeared in her hand, as if by magic.

“Here,” she said, “My name’s Elena. I work at the legal aid society on the 5th floor – down the hall from you, I believe?” She remembered me! I exalted. “I specialize in supporting single moms,” she said. “I admire your strength. It takes a special kind of person to be a single parent.” I took the business card, not quite sure how to respond. Finally I said, “I’m Marie.”

Marie?! That’s not even my name. Why did I give her a fake name?? What’s going on in my head?

“If you ever want to talk,” she continued, “shoot me an email. I’d be happy to chat with you about your situation, and the various options available to you.”

“Um…thank you,” I said, still not sure why I was forging ahead with this weird charade.

She glanced at her watch. “Well – I’d better get up there,” she said, gesturing with her coffee to, I guessed, the fifth floor, and our offices.

I tucked the business card into my pocket. “Thank you,” I said again. “Um…have a nice day.”

“You too!” she said, and headed for the elevator, while I pretended to have a reason to hang back and go up alone.

Back at my desk, her card burned a hole in my pocket. I took it out and laid it on my keyboard, studying the typeface, the company logo, her hyphenated last name. Why hadn’t I set her straight? Just because I thought she seemed nice, like she would probably be a really fun and loyal friend. Because it’d be nice to have someone to meet for coffee. Someone to chat with in the hallway. Because I’d been at this job for seven months now, and still ate lunch alone at my desk every day.

I turned the business card face down and tried to forget about it. But I found myself gazing at my ring finger, which didn’t even bear a wedding ring tan line. No one here knew anything about my personal life. It would be so easy…

And so creepy. I put it out of my head, and turned to organize the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, where I have spent the last seven months tossing things to “deal with later.”

At 5:55, right before I turned off my computer, I typed out a quick email – Would love to get coffee sometime and chat, here’s my contact info – and hit send, before I could rethink my actions.

It was a busy weekend and I hardly even thought about Elena and my Great Deception. I was kept too busy answering Noah’s unending questions about the world, and in the evenings, watching Downton Abbey with my oh-so-patient husband.

But Monday morning, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an email from efiskrobbins at the legal aid society down the hall.

Wonderful! she had written. How about Tuesday afternoon? I can provide the coffee and we can meet in my office. All my best, Elena

I was half sick with the knowledge that what I was doing was just weird, if not downright wrong. But I was half giddy at the prospect of a social engagement in my future. Both halves conspired to make me feel like throwing up, immediately.

The next afternoon, I arrived (ringless and armed with multiple wallet-sized photos of my son) at Elena’s office. She welcomed me in and offered me coffee, which I accepted even though I don’t drink plain coffee. Then she turned, holding up a small tray with several single-serving packets of flavorings. “I never drink coffee black,” she said, and I selected peppermint. She poured an almond one into her cup and I experienced a brief pang of buyer’s remorse as the buttery almond scent reached me.

Then she began talking. She gave me a quick description of her specific job at the company, and then skillfully segued into a deliberately casual chat about motherhood.

“You have children?” I asked.

“One,” she said, and turned a picture frame on her desk toward me. A blond boy grinned out from the frame, holding a soccer ball tucked under one arm. “Kenny. He’s nine.”

“Oh wow.” I couldn’t help myself. She smiled.

“Kenny was a surprise,” she said, “But the best surprise I’ve ever gotten. I haven’t spoken to his father in seven years, but I will always be grateful to the man for giving me my son.” She looked at me meaningfully. “Is your son’s father still around?”

“I…don’t know if I’m ready to talk about that yet,” I said, which was 99% true, but not in the way she thought I meant. I sipped my peppermint coffee, which was delightful.

She nodded in understanding. “Of course. Well, is there any particular question you wanted to ask? Any specific resources you are looking for?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Could we maybe just…talk for a bit?”

“Of course.” I was trying to come up with a good conversation topic when she said, “Parenting is insanely hard, isn’t it?”

This was something I could certainly agree with, so I did, wholeheartedly. We traded a few mommy stories.

Then she said, “I remember when Kenny was a toddler, I would hide in the bathroom sometimes.” She smiled at the memory. “Even though I knew he would have wrought some new havoc on our home when I came out…it was still worth it for the five minutes of alone time.”

I had done the same thing from time to time. “Sometimes I imprison him in the crib, or the high chair,” I admitted.

“Enjoy it, before he outgrows those things,” she said.

“I can’t imagine him having the freedom to get out of bed whenever he wants,” I said. “We – I will never sleep.” A near miss, but she hadn’t seemed to notice.

“Once they start acquiring independence, it’s a slippery slope.”

“You must be deep in that, with a nine year old,” I said, and went to take a drink from my cup. Somehow I misjudged the amount left, however, and a healthy dollop of peppermint-flavored coffee ended up on my favorite plum-colored button down shirt (the one I thought was the most flattering).

“Oh!” I said, drawing Elena’s attention toward my clumsiness. She passed me a handful of napkins while I spluttered an apology, which she waved off.

“It seems to have mostly landed on you,” she said in her own apologetic tone.

I dabbed up the worst of the spill, but the moment was broken, and besides, I wanted to change and rinse out my shirt.

“I should probably go,” I said reluctantly. “I have a change of clothes in the car—” She nodded. “Thank you for the coffee.”

“You’re so welcome!” she said. “And please let me know if you’d ever like to talk more.”

“I will,” I said, standing and moving toward the door.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, and I turned back around. “The name on your email – it wasn’t Marie.”

I felt a cold wave wash over me. I hadn’t even thought...

“It’s…my middle name,” I said. “I use my first name in official professional matters, but my middle name otherwise.”

She nodded. “Makes sense. I use my mother’s hyphenated last name professionally, because I think it sounds more reliable.”

“It sounds very reliable,” I said, and still holding the sodden napkins to my shirt, I took my leave.

A couple days later, in the late afternoon, I had to call Noah’s day care center to let them know that he had a doctor’s appointment coming up, and so he’d be getting picked up early. I was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk along the parking lot, because I hate being left on hold. Finally someone picked up.

Quickly I reminded her of who I was, and gave her the rundown. “My husband will be picking him up around 3pm on Friday,” I said, and as I finished the sentence I looked up and realized that Elena was standing four feet from me, a smile stuck on her face. She was clearly planning on giving me a little wave hello and then going in, but I saw the puzzlement spread over her features at hearing me reference “my husband.”

The woman at the day care had finished talking. “Okay, thanks. Bye,” I said into the phone, and then hung up.

I thought for a second that Elena might not call me out on it, but then she said, “Your husband?” She looked at my hand, which was still bare.

“I…yeah,” I said, feeling like a dam breaking down - relief, and simultaneous destruction. “I don’t always wear my ring. With a toddler…” I trailed off.

“You lied to me?” she asked. She didn’t look hurt, just mostly bewildered at this point.

“It was an accident,” I said. “I mean, no, I didn’t actually say I was a single mom. You just assumed—”

“But why would you do that? Let me assume?”

“I don’t know,” I said miserably. “I guess I…wanted a work friend.”

“A what?”

“A work friend. Someone to hang out with during the day. I don’t really socialize with any of my coworkers, and—”

“So you thought we’d be friends if we were both single moms?”

“I mean, I didn’t know you were a single mom right away…”

She stared at me. “That’s kind of weird, you know?”

“I know.” I decided to take a chance. “But isn’t it also kind of flattering? Like, I just thought you looked like a fun person.”

“I don’t know…I think it’s just weird.”

I sighed. “I knew it was, but I couldn’t help it.”

“Okay.” She tipped her head to the side, studying me. “Don’t email me anymore,” she said.

“Okay.” I was so embarrassed.

She turned toward the building, and got about four or five steps before she turned back. “Marie’s not your name.”

I shook my head. She turned away again to go inside, and I heard her mutter something to herself. It might not have been the word “freak,” but it sure sounded like it.

This was humiliating. At least no one else knew about it, except maybe it would have been better if someone had, because then they could at least console me that it wasn’t all bad. They could tell me stories about how Elena was a bad employee, a bad friend, a bad mother.

Actually, I wasn’t sure if that would have made me feel better.

I went inside, rode the elevator to the fifth floor, and locked myself in the handicapped stall of the women’s restroom. I thought if I was going to cry – or throw up, because it felt like I could go either way – this was the place to do it. While I was standing in there, waiting to see which visceral reaction my body would choose, I heard a toilet flush in another stall, and someone walked to the sink. At the same time, the bathroom door opened, and someone came in.

“Oh, hi Elena,” I heard a voice say. The woman at the sink.

“Clarice. You will not guess what just happened.”

This was just like the nightmare you have in middle school.

Elena continued. “That woman I talked to the other day?”

“The sloppy one?” Clarice asked.

Hold up. The what? Just because I spilled my coffee? I stayed quiet, hidden in my stall. I didn’t dare to move a muscle.

“Yeah, the one who spilled coffee all over my new chair—” I did not! “—and then didn’t even help me clean it up. Well, it turns out she’s married. And she told me a fake name.”

“Eww! Why?”

“She wanted to be friends with me or something. After just seeing me around the building.”

“That is some Fatal Attraction type behavior there. You’d better be careful.” Clarice had finished washing her hands and was drying them now with a paper towel. “Do you need me to walk you back to the office?” she joked.

“Don’t worry,” Elena said, “I have my rape whistle with me.”

They laughed, the friendly kind of laughter that had made me think she would be a good friend in the first place. I heard the bathroom door open and close, and Clarice went out. Elena went into the stall furthest from me, and I heard the lock clunk.

“Dammit,” she said to herself. I opened my stall door and walked out. “Hello?” she called. “Is someone in here?”

“It’s me,” I said, and she didn’t respond right away. “Not-Marie,” I reminded her.

“Hi,” she said at last. Then, “You were here the whole time?”

“Yup.”

“Well, look…” She sounded unsure. “Maybe I shouldn’t have been gossiping. But you can’t deny that what you did was weird.”

“I didn’t try to deny it,” I said.

“Well…look, I’m sorry, I guess,” she said, sounding suddenly really frustrated. “The lock on this door just came off in my hand. So could you please let me out?”

“Hmmm…” I said. “I think…no.”

“What?”

“I said, nah.” I peered in at her through the crack around the door, while she gaped at me. You’re just not supposed to look in on people like that – it felt extra weird, but I kind of liked it. “It’s about five. I think I’m going to go home early.” I headed for the bathroom door.

“You have to be kidding,” she said angrily, and I said, “Nope.” This would probably mean finding a new job, but it wasn’t like there was much holding me here anyway.

On my way out the door, I turned off the light, plunging the room into still and stunned darkness.