“It’s Friday night. Please tell me you have reservations at a West Village hot spot.” Jules searched the ceiling for the name of just such a place. “The Little Owl, or somewhere. You should be off somewhere fabulous.”
I made the vague tsk noises I’d perfected since my move from Waitsfield, Vermont, to New York City two years ago. A noise that both dismissed the fact that I was working late—again, and, hopefully—relayed my enthusiasm for all this brilliant, vital work to be done. Where could be more fabulous than right here? Puh-lees.
Besides, the only fabulous place I wanted to go was home to my one room apartment on the Lower East side. From the moment I left home at seven fifteen each morning until well after five o’clock every evening, I longed to be back there. That three hundred square foot space held my whole world, my atlases, books, and maps that were strategically scattered all around, and, most importantly, my prized possession, my obsession really, the hand-drawn, original map of New York that I had been working on every day since I first moved to the city. It was my big dream.
But dreams didn’t pay the rent, and if I wanted to have a hope that anyone would, one day, pay attention to any creation of mine, I first needed to make a name for myself as a cartographer. So, even though my map called to me all day, I forced myself to work long hours at Mappers Inc., often coming in on weekends. It was a weird self-punishment thing. Like when you had to go to the bathroom but would see how many things you could accomplish before you had to run for it or you wouldn’t make it. Gross, I know, but that’s what this self-punishment I did to myself was: gross. Intimately gross.
“Fi?” Jules never called me by my full name. Modern life was so fast paced it necessitated abbreviating everyone’s name to the least number of syllables possible to save time. Mappers Inc. was populated with truncated folks, women called Al, Rob, Mar, and of course Fi. The men responded to Bo, Red, and Al even though their names were Robert, Alfred, and Alfonso. The women? Alison, Roberta, and Marilynn. We were never to call him Mr. Amie. He was obsessed with the whole co-team equality gig. We’re all the same, he’d insist, equals. Except he was the equal who could fire me. He owned Mappers Inc. Owned.
“I never eat out,” I said. A total lie. I ate nearly every meal while standing under the canopy of a food truck. Feeling guilty for the lie, I flashed Jules the thumbs up sign. Just like a thirteen-year old.
He looked at my thumb for a second. “Whatcha working on?”
More guilt. I had just been working on adding a trap street to our digital map of the area—inventing a street, or geographical area which doesn’t actually exist as a way of protecting our copy right of the map—which, in cartographer terms, was akin to putting my signature on the work. My signature, not Mappers Inc.’s signature. I tried to look importantly busy and not so much like Mappers Inc.’s most junior cartographer. His question was unnecessary given the fact that he knew precisely the work of everyone in the office at any given time. This omnipresent knowledge was thanks to the fact that his workspace housed a wall of screens—twenty of them—from which he worked while simultaneously keeping an eye on everything happening on our floor. So he knew I’d been bug-eyed for weeks over a stretch of northern wilderness that ran along the Canadian border from Michigan to Maine.
He came in and stood behind my chair. Real close. “You’re tense.”
Ummm, yeah, I was. And not just because I’d spent the last ten and a half hours fighting with satellite hookups, cloudy skies, and blurred vision, while staring at screen after screen of hundreds of miles of lakes, forests, logging roads, a resort thrown in here and there, and not much else. Nope. I was tense because Jules Amie was standing so stinking close to me I could smell the soft scent of jasmine tea he must have just finished drinking. I always got muddled up when he was in close proximity. Not because of his hunkiness, though he was nothing to sneeze at. Back home, he’d have been the prized pig without competition. He was a little on the short side, but compensated with that urban casual-yet-chic look created by the fact that everything he wore had been ironed by an underpaid Mexican immigrant earlier that morning. His dark hair was always slicked back like he’d just come from someplace glamorously breezy. His eyes were dark, and a tad too close together, but they pierced you with their empathic sincerity, pinned you to the wall with what appeared to be his very real joy at having encountered you.
He put his hands on my shoulders. I pressed a combination of keys and the five screens on my workspace surface—no desks here—went dark. Truth was that what I was working on could wait until Monday. Or the Monday after that. Or whenever.
It was a light touch, quick enough to not fall into the sexual harassment category but, apparently, it was enough to tell him a great deal. “God, Fi, you’re wound tight.”
I didn’t like being touched. Scratch that. I liked it fine, I just wasn’t used to it. New York City wasn’t the place to live if you wanted lots of meaningful human contact. At least it wasn’t for me. Seriously, when was the last time a man touched me? Really touched, not the freakazoid groping on the subway at rush hour, or the ass pinching from that homeless guy in the alley beside my apartment who looked like a refugee from Armageddon, but somehow always smelled like baked bread. It had been a forever since I’d been touched. Two forevers since someone had held me.
Get a grip, Fiona. The boss touches your shoulder for half a second and you’re immediately thinking he’s looking to star in a porno with you. Stop! Must. Stop. Thinking. Weird. Thoughts. I reached under the desk—workspace surface—for my purse, but when I leaned down Jules bent down too, and when I sat up I cracked the back of my head against his chin.
“Oh God, Jules, I’m sorry.” Kill me. Kill me now.
He rubbed his chin and grinned at me as if I’d handed him a bouquet of flowers. He wasn’t coming on to me. I’d learned this through trial and error. For my first few months at Mappers Inc., Jules doted on me. I became convinced that all he thought about all day was ever improving ways to seduce me. He’d chat to me while standing in the doorway of my office—workspace—leaning against the jamb like a Calvin Kline underwear model. When I arrived at work windswept, my curly hair flying around my head like a brillo-pad, he’d tell me I looked gorgeous. Once on a cold January day, I stupidly wore the bulky cable-knit sweater my mom had made me for Christmas, and he said I looked earthy. It took several months, but I came to realize he hadn’t been flirting, or singling me out. He was just one of those Harvard extroverts who oozed the kind of hyper-friendliness that made introverts like me cringe. He treated everyone with the same laser-beam affection. After a while, I started to like him, but I’d never learned how to relax around him.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. The back of my head pulsed with pain where it had connected with his chin. And his hand was still on my shoulder. I stood up and performed my subway jerk-and-step move: a quick tip of the shoulder to dislodge the hand, while simultaneously sidestepping out of reach. Since I moved from Vermont to New York, I’d invented a hundred ways to physically distance myself from people.
I grabbed my coat, purse, and hand-knitted mittens—hey, it was October—and headed for the elevators. “Goodnight,” I waved at him. Actually waved. When would I stop being an incurable doffus? When?
“Fi?” he said in that fake casual way that made my heart pound hard. Something was coming I could feel it. For a hysterical second a line from a song in A Chorus Line blasted in my head, “Oh God, I need this job. Please God I need this job.”
Jules said, “Have you started mapping Vermont?”
Perfectly legitimate question. Mappers Inc. developed animation software, which ran in conjunction with digital map images of geographical locations around the world. So, you’d be able to Google Earth a place, say Paris, zoom in to street level, and the animation software would move objects in the image to create the immersive sensation that you were really standing at the intersection of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Rue de Rennes while traffic flew by, and birds sang from their perches on the roof of the Place Pablo-Picasso. Or, you could click down into Eastern Europe and watch old men with caved in faces lead ox carts through the muddy streets of rural Lithuania and nearly smell the manure left behind. But the software was full of glitches. I knew this because Jules’s workspace was down the hall from mine and I could hear him swearing at his wall of screens. He was like God, staring at the earth, cursing all the glitches. Even the unexciting bits of map that I was working on, rural Vermont, would eventually get the animation treatment. Except Mr. Twenty-Computer-Screens knew exactly which patch of northern Vermont I was working on. So, why would he ask? Had I been working too slowly? Too fast? Perhaps it was only because he was originally from Vermont, like me, and he took special interest in his home state.
Respond, Fiona, I told myself. Say something. But I’d already hesitated and that tiny gap before answering was all the answer he seemed to need.
“Go home,” he said as he strolled toward me. “And don’t come back—”
“Please don’t fire me.” I was begging. Immediately begging. I had a horror of being fired and forced to pack up my closet of an apartment into my junker car and head back to Waitsfield, Vermont, where Mom and Dad would embrace me, their eyes moist with the unspoken phrase, ‘We told you so.’ It was all so inevitable. I lived in horror of it. Failure was my stalker.
“Don’t come back,” Jules went on, “for a week at least.”
“Huh?” Brilliant, Fiona. Keep up that kind of savvy and there would be a Nobel Prize in your future for sure.
“You need a vacation.” His eyes flickered down to my black skirt, black tights, and sensible walking shoes, all of which had traces of golden hair on them. His eyes lingered on my legs, clad in the tights so expensive I had literally heard my mother scream in my head when I bought them. The shoes? I’d slipped off my Louis Vuitton knock-offs in favor of my broken-in twenty-five dollar walking shoes about an hour ago. They made my feet look like matching loaves of bread, but they were So. Comfortable.
“I have a dog,” I blurted. I meant to explain the stray hairs, but it came out as if I were suffering from Tourette Syndrome.
Jules, smooth as always, didn’t miss a beat. “Love dogs.”
“Mooch,” I stuttered.
I twitched with self-consciousness. “I call him Mooch.” He was a golden lab I’d had since I was a teen. I couldn’t bear to leave him behind in Vermont. Turned out, he’d made the adjustment to New York better than I had.
“Take a week.” Jules pointed with mock severity. “Don’t show your face around here until the 21st—at the earliest.” He turned and walked away. “And Fi?” He called without looking back. “Enjoy.”
I stood in the lobby in that awkward moment between making a fast getaway and waiting for the impossibly slow elevator. Around me, the office gleamed. White. Chrome. Spotless. Modern. Ultra-modern, the kind you’d see in magazines. I wiggled my toes inside their ugly shoes. I meant for the black clothes to make me look NYC sophisticated, the opposite of the nerdy girl from the sticks who loved maps and dogs and little else.
Must. Try. Harder.
A week off work. In October. Why hadn’t he made me take a week off in July? A week to rethink my wardrobe. A week to rethink Fiona Stuart. Reinvent her—again. Smart, capable, professional Fiona.
When I finally arrived home, I changed into my favorite pair of stretch pants, and grey Mappers Inc. sweatshirt, leashed Mooch, grabbed my map, and went for a long walk.
I could work on polished New York Fiona tomorrow.