hero

 

She lucked out; they offered her a job at the planning department right from the start. The salary was standard, the workload was staggering. Once in a while she took a short break from work, walk over to the huge arched windows and steal a glance at the city below. Far off in the distance, she could see the huge smokestacks of the thermoelectric station, which had been restarted, and further down, coated in smog, the central park with the sprawling façade of the entertainment complex.

There were four of them at the department: a completely bald, chain-smoking old man, a peevish young man who was an aficionado of lewd jokes, a young woman with bleached hair who didn’t get along with the young man although she was vulgar—smutty—in her own way. The likes of her, even if they remain faithful to their husbands, are immoral in their thoughts, in the dance of their eyes, in their ways of life. She belonged to that peculiar breed of philistines who held a job only by dint of being related to the boss, and who was eager to turn the newcomer into a personal companion or a bodyguard of sorts, a person who’d hold her purse in the bathroom, press the elevator button, and compliment her hairdo. Anna often caught the girl’s unblinking, unloving, intent gaze fixed on her; with it, she seemed to be asking—so what, what’s so special about you.

“What’s up, guys, everyone’s hard at work?” It was the director who’d walked in unannounced, as was his habit.

The guys stiffened up. The old man quickly put out the cigarette and jokingly stood at attention. The blonde, pushing her chest up high, started darting around the room, blabbering on. But the director’s attention was directed at Anna; he had taken an early liking to her as soon as she was hired. The director, around forty years old, was an energetic, legendarily indelicate man, a late-comer of the new generation. He built the Future Union corporation from the ground up, expanded it, finding numerous lucrative contracts for it abroad. He ignored the unwritten laws, was versatile, rough, risk-taking, but also very careful. He couldn’t sleep at night. Behind his back, people called him a “hybrid”; those at the top didn’t like him, although they had no choice but to accept his existence.

“How can you call him an executive?” they’d say when they went out after a board meeting, “he sullies the very title of an executive.”

“Nothing but an adventuring!”

“He’s got no self-respect,” another one would chime in. “Yesterday I turned him down in the rudest possible manner, and he still wouldn’t leave. Instead, he said, listen, brother, please do this for me, I know that you’re the only one who can.”

The director couldn’t care less about the others’ opinion of him. No manner how many articles came out tarnishing his name, he refused to retaliate. Now, standing wide in the center of the room, his eyes on the young woman who still looked like a child, he was thinking to himself what he could do with her. A month after that encounter, he placed Anna S. under his direct management, saying jokingly that he wanted to give her a job that wouldn’t hurt her beautiful eyes. He made her in charge of the corporation’s correspondence, but their relationship remained strictly professional; he “didn’t touch her.” He only demanded that she perfect her English and be more detail-oriented when writing.

Working so closely to the boss, she didn’t change her opinion about him; he seemed to be made of some material that was impervious to water. That ungentle, fragrant type was foreign to Anna, and she wasn’t drawn to him. But that would have hardly been an impediment if the omnipotent boss ever decided….  The formal “you” they used offered a barrier; however fragile, it still established some distance between them that the boss stubbornly refused to cross, suspending the young woman in a permanent state of anxiety. The boss had given her time to mature, the way the squeezed grape is left to be for some time, and it was wise move on his part. Anna S. slowly grew accustomed to the idea of the inevitable. Why the inevitable? Why was it inevitable? Simply because a woman always feels it, nothing more, and she has no need to explain or rationalize it. The ostrich-like expressions of being interested in the other person, the conducive surprises, all those come later.  Physical desire ranked last for Anna, who had a young, passionate husband with a constant eagerness for more self-assertion.

Anna belonged to that light-colored type that captures general attention since childhood, stands out from all the other kids playing in the yard; this type is treated differently, with emphatic admiration. People call this pretty this, pretty that. Eventually, her type gets so accustomed to being addressed as “pretty” they get special treatment, with emphatic admiration. They’re referred to as pretty this, pretty that. They get so accustomed to being addressed as “pretty” that they eventually begin to turn their heads every time they hear the word, assuming that somebody’s talking to them. They may not be very pretty, but they have a special charm that allows them to retain an appearance of purity even into their old age.

Anna S. was eventually able to construct a complete picture of her boss. She came to appreciate the fact that he was made for his job. He was wholesome, completely free of inner contradictions and doubts, and didn’t get angry either when he had to lie or when he had to concede a point. After all, one wouldn’t expect an animal tamer to hold a grudge against the wild beast that jumped on him or scratched him up; nor would the trainer ever lose sleep over the beast’s unfavorable opinion of him. A good trainer was endowed with a special intuition that allowed him to sense how and when to tame a specific beast. Anna also had no misgivings about his loyalty or integrity. One day, after she’d waited for a long-long time, the boss approached her suddenly, without a warning, and startled her by offering that she stay after work. “I’ve been longing for you for a while,” and so on, and so forth, he said. Well, there was no so on and so forth, he just told her to stay after work.

She did. While her coworkers shut their doors and said their goodbyes in their end-of-the-day ritual, she sat rummaging through her drawers for some documents as a pretence. When the last footstep and clicking of a heel died out at the end of the hallway, the entrance door slammed with a bang, as if life, too, had exited the office. A dead silence spread through the building.

In that silence, Anna S nimbly got up, crossed the rug-covered reception area, paused by the double doors, then pushed them open and entered. The boss was busy with his papers. He lifted his head, gave her a situation-appropriate smile, and went back to his work.

Anna S. walked over to the air-conditioner—she was having trouble breathing. She was smiling, laughing lightly at how jittery she was. “What is this, pull yourself together, like that.”

The boss finally left his desk, approached her and tentatively tried to caress her. Then he dropped the idea and simply told her to undress. He quickly folded out the leather couch, threw a sheet over it and, undressing and removing his socks swiftly, he put the girl in his lap.

Anna S. had never experienced anything like this. At first she couldn’t even figure out what the boss wanted of her. He was touching her in his own way, turning her from side to side. Whatever had seemed impossible only a short minute ago, he was doing to her ruthlessly, in uninhibited silence.  Whatever used to be hidden under her skirts, covered by lace, her feminine nudity, was what it was suddenly thrust between his knees, hostage to his whim. Whatever reservations she might have felt—and she had a few, the boss dismissed and erased in a matter of seconds. In turned out that in addition to lacking any kind of finesse, he was a complete stranger to fastidiousness; there was no part of her body, from her head to her toes, that he didn’t touch and lick, the way one would lick a chocolate figurine, and she returned his caresses. “I wasn’t sure we’d be on the same page, but this is great,” he said.

The next morning, hello, good day, and they got straight to work. Everything was the same as usual. Nothing had changed. For a split second, when she first saw the boss and the line of hair on his neck ruffled by the stiff collar of his shirt, her heart shrank from tenderness. But the boss seemed to have completely forgotten about her existence. The following days, too, passed like that. He was preoccupied with balancing the books, and then he went abroad on a work-trip.

Anna S. remained alone in her doubts, in the insult that had been dealt to her, and in her all-encompassing anguish. The images of that evening, even those that didn’t matter at first, became painful, lethal, with wild fluctuations in their significance. She kept reinterpreting every word and every gesture, repeatedly arriving at conflicting conclusions. Could it have been a cruel joke or some form of punishment? She suffered greatly, guessed and second-guessed everything, but in the ended decided to pull herself together: “You want the entire life to be a holiday, doesn’t always work that way.”

When the director returned, the woman in charge of his corporate correspondence greeted him in a new white dotted dress and with hollow eyes. Coldness suited her compact, small profile, but, invisibly, her heart fluttered. Everyone was thrilled because the boss had returned with new, even more profitable contracts, having spread his net even further; he had also opened a regional FU office on the shores of the Adriatic sea, had gotten leaner and darker during his absence. And yet, something gnawed at the director although he wasn’t quite sure what. That inner listlessness set in as his plane was landing. No, even sooner, when a mechanic walked into the cabin, and leaned over to talk to some guy in whisper. What was it that triggered that feeling? Two days later, the boss asked Anna S., “Will you stay after work today?” She did.

The hours she spent with him were sweet. She spent sweet hours. The agitation of missing him and of feeling so insulted earlier made her cry. The boss, a wonderful, sincere man, told her that he’d never felt so good with anyone, but wasn’t in the position to get seriously involved at the expense of neglecting his business. He couldn’t let the place fall apart. Anna should understand that, he said.

“I’ve got so many smart guys here,” he said, “but you know that if I don’t constantly monitor them, nobody will do any work. And the people at the top keep trying to create problems for me. I’m holding this place together completely on my own, I’ve got nobody to rely on.”

None of this was a secret, but because he was saying it with his own lips, whispering it tenderly into her ear, Anna S. fell head over heels for the boss. She fell in love with his rough manners, with his haircut, with the way he conducted his business, with the fine hairs on his arms, with his perfume. When she didn’t see him, she missed him, and her weekends became unbearable. She constantly looked for excuses to enter his office, where she could touch him, brush against him, as if by accident, beg to be kissed. We can’t act like this, behave yourself, chided the boss.

This wasn’t one of those cases when an innocent, experienced person fall in love because of a physical encounter, rather, it was a spoilt woman losing her way out of a cul-de-sac of someone’s indifference. In other words, the boss ignored the unwritten laws of love as well. Their rare meetings, those brief moments when she felt united with him in body and soul, added to her agitation instead of providing some consolation. She felt particularly unnerved by the uncertainty, the constant waiting.  It was like that fox from the fairytale that had said, if I know when you’re coming, I’ll be happy in advance. The boss’s offers for her to stay after work were always unexpected, and they always coincided with her reaching such depths of despair that it seemed that she was almost ready to turn him down. Or, at least, so it seemed. Was there a connection between the two? The boss fascinated her as a force that offered confidence and stability in life. But she only felt this way when he was close to her, by her side. Far from him, Anna S. was plagued with doubts: did he love her or not, and did she love him? She needed love as a justification for her behavior. There were times when she felt that she couldn’t go on living without that love; there were other times, when she would get angry and hateful, and convince herself that he was but her toy. These swings went from one extreme to the other. If they ever stopped, her feelings would have frozen at zero. That is to say, she would have realized that this was mere lust, a trivial office romance.

“A woman who has a husband and strays deserves to be shot,” blurted out the treasurer, a propos of nothing.

They were all having lunch together. The accountant told a joke; someone else said doesn’t our boss dress well, and the secretary added, not just well but also fast. Here is where the treasurer hurled it in, like with a whip, “A woman…” An uncomfortable silence ensued. It seemed to Anna S. that she should say something:

“And you, you’ve divorced your husband…”

“Yes, so what?”

“It means that you…. You’ve orphaned your children and feel like you have a right to…”

“You know what,” the assistant attacker her, while unsuccessfully trying to peel an egg, “another person’s family is a closed book, if you don’t know anything, just stay out of it.”

They really knew what was going on. And the bleached blonde was acting differently, kissing up to Anna. She would probably tell the boss’s wife.

And then, in conversation, the boss said, see, you’ve dropped your guard, and now everybody’s noticed it.

“I would prefer not to love at all than to pretend that I don’t! I….”

“There she goes again,” the boss drawled out indifferently, “enough already.”

So that’s how it is! This is where they stand! No, he certainly doesn’t love her. This man is incapable of loving anyone. Anna S. thought about it long and hard: this was a humiliating affair, to say nothing of the risks it entailed. No matter how you looked at it, it was completely useless. What does she need it for? The other day they were invited to a party, and she met a log of decent, nice young men there. But for as long as the boss had his paws on here, she couldn’t even think of being interested in other men; even her husband had become intolerable to her. It was as if he’d marked her with his scent to keep the others out, like in the animal kingdom. It was ridiculous! She needed to put an end to the affair, even if it meant quitting her job. Absolutely! As soon as she came to a decision, she felt at peace with herself, and her courage rose up again. She strutted in her nightgown in front of the mirror, admiring herself and singing, “Isabel, oh Isabel, mon amour…” She went to bed late and slept well. In the morning, she entered the office with a light heart.

Seeing the boss just reaffirmed her in her conviction that he was still the same unpolished, strange man as before. He didn’t belong to her world, he couldn’t have been the man for her. And his fingers, they really did look like little penises, and that no longer excited her, and in general….. Everyone could sense this new development, except for the boss, who remained oblivious as always.

But that no longer mattered.

She held out. When he finally approached her, no, I don’t want to, she said, for such and such reasons, and I ask that you respect these boundaries.

The boss flushed; his tanned face got darker. He smiled, of course, you’re right. Yes, as you wish. He gave a short laugh and slapped his palm on the table. Anna S. was on her way out, one minute, he said, what about today, just today, could you…?

“Sure,” laughed the woman, “I’d thought about it.”

And, because they were standing so close to each other, within kissing distance, they gravitated forward, and their lips interlocked in a long, throbbing kiss.

“I’ll treat you like a queen,” said the boss. “Off you go.”

With him, too, her love and sentiments proved to be useless, just like they had with her husband. How was it that these men managed to make it look like they had to be forced to do what they should’ve done with pleasure. Was it so that they could steal her share of pleasure as well? She learned that pleasure, much like everything else in the world, shrinks when split with someone else.

It so happened, that FU, too, split up shortly thereafter. The end seemed to arrive unexpectedly. And they kept hoping against hope until the last minute. The central branch and a couple of the field offices were auctioned off.

The peevish employee of the planning department, who’d recently taken to wearing ties, two jokes about the company’s fate. “Do you know what FU stands for? Fatal Upshot. The name itself predicted its inevitable doom.” The second witticism was an obscenity, the same initials decoded in a different way. This guy knew what a terrible thing unemployment was, and what it meant to stand in line for ration tickets in the push-and-shove of storefronts. And it wasn’t just him; others, too, were facing a similar future.

The new director, pushing fifty, an energetic man with eyes that were colored a bluish-green or a yellowish-gray, depending on the weather, walked in and saw the woman in a white dotted dress. He contemplated….

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