This guy flung open the glass door and sailed into our office building lobby one morning, just as I was carrying my breakfast tray across from the cafeteria to the elevator, leaving this huge vacuum in his wake which drew nearly everything right off my tray. In my haste to recapture fleeing napkins, jelly packets, butter pats and those pink sweetener packets, I didn’t miss my tea bag until I was upstairs at my desk prying the lid off my steaming Styrofoam cup and answering the phone.
“Good morning, Mr. Harbinger’s office,” I said. … “I’m sorry, he’s away
from his desk. May I take a message?”
I don’t know why a secretary just can’t tell the truth and say he’s probably still at home shaving in the shower right this minute and he’ll be in in an hour or so. I mean, the caller probably has that figured out already—especially when it’s only 8:30 in the morning and practically still dark out. Anyway, having spent nearly a third of my paycheck on my breakfast, I had to find that tea bag.
Back down in the lobby, I slowly surveyed every quadrant of that frothy green vinyl tile floor. Searching out a tea bag over the highest caliber camouflage material known to mankind was taking me so long that I was certain I’d be reported lost at sea, although I much would have preferred being reported home recovering from a hot date. These days, though, a hot date was as elusive for me as a hot cup of tea…. Then, lo, I spotted it—a tiny white raft in that vast green froth.
I stooped to pick it up. Thank goodness no one had stepped on it. My having to buy two tea bags in one morning would have sunk my bank account. Then, as I started to stand up, this idiot tripped over me. Wouldn’t you know it? It was the same guy. And, of course he had just come out of the cafeteria. All kinds of stuff started skidding off his tray. A pat of butter landed right between my shoulder blades. If butter pats were like cats they would always land right side up. They are not.
“Don’t move,” he advised.
“Oh, great,” I thought. “He probably thinks I’ve acquired some sort of superb sea legs and can stand in a semi-stoop for hours while he peels pats of butter off my back.”
“There, I got it!” he exclaimed. You would have thought he had landed Jaws.
I tried to stand up. Why had I quit working out? With all the grace of a mushroom pushing up through a field of hard clay, I made it. I turned and looked up. My eyes collided with a full fleet of flawless whites, anchored at each end by deep dimples set beneath two clear, blue pools.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “Really sorry. I feel terrible. The butter made a grease mark on your blouse. I’ll pay to have it cleaned—or buy you a new one if it won’t come out. Gosh, I feel really awful. How clumsy of me. I am sorry.”
The sun came out from behind the clouds and held, glinting on the little ripples at sea; the winds abated to a balmy breeze.
“My name is Tom. Tom Corrigan. I work up in Market Research.”
“Oh. I’m Mary. Mary Scott.” I wished my name were Nicole or Sabrina or something darkly romantic like that and he’d tumbled over me on a beach on some South Seas island. But here I was, Mary the Mushroom, five-feet-one, staring up at all those dimples and blue eyes at least a foot above me in our office building lobby and I was wearing a great big grease splotch right between my shoulder blades.
I didn’t know what to say. Are you married? sailed to mind. I figured he probably captained a crew of about three wives and ten kids.
“You work in Harbinger’s office, don’t you?” he asked, pressing the elevator button.
“Yes,” I said. The doors slid apart. I backed in. He followed me, frontwards.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, “to see if the stain came out.”
We got to my floor first. The door opened and I backed out, right into Mr. Harbinger. I had been hoping to get back to my desk before he’d gotten out of the shower.
My breakfast the next day went without incident. In fact, the whole day went without incident. Tom never called and neither did any of his wives to see if the stain came out. I was thinking of not even trying to get it out, rather keeping it as a memento. I liked his gentle touch when he was peeling the butter pat off my back. And those dimples—at least two or three on each side. He looked kind and so innocent with those wide blue eyes. Oh, well, if he wasn’t married, he probably had a hot date last night and had forgotten all about me.
By the next afternoon I was thinking he’d been lost at sea. Harbinger sent me on an errand up to the ninth floor so I took the opportunity to cut through Market Research. It was the long way around, but it was a chance to see him without my having a grease stain on my back. He wasn’t there. On my way back I cut through again and he still wasn’t there.
By the third day I was running errands via the lobby and the cafeteria as well as Market Research. He seemed to have blown away like my elusive tea bag.
It was 4:15 when I got back from my last tour of the frothy green tiles and Market Research. Resting on top of the letter I had left half finished on my desk was a big, flat box tied in blue ribbon, the color of his eyes. I detached the little envelope.
“Mary,” it said. Just plain “Mary.” Not Nicole, not Sabrina, not even Mary, Darling. “Mary.” I opened it. “Mary—” it said again. But I liked the large, open handwriting:
Was unexpectedly called out of town to San
Francisco. Picked this up while there.
Again, I am sorry for the inconvenience I
caused you. Hope this is the right size
and color. If not, let me know.
Carefully slipping off the ribbon, I removed the lid and lifted the tissue. There lay a silky, soft rosy pink blouse. I ran to the bathroom and tried it on. My best color and it fit perfectly. I took it off and folded it neatly back into the box. Before I knew what I was doing, I was at my desk dialing his extension. The phone rang once and a voice said, “Tom Corrigan.” I hung up. I had almost invited him to dinner. Where would I put his wives and kids? My apartment just wasn’t that roomy. Neither was my lifestyle.
I dialed again. “Tom Corrigan.”
“Hi, Tom. This is Mary. Mary Scott. The one with the—uh—just wanted to say thank you for the blouse—” The words shot from my unsuspecting mouth like a barrage of bullets fired from a Uzi. “It’s absolutely beautiful and it fits perfectly— I already tried it on— Did your wife get to go with you on the trip?” I took a deep breath.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
He laughed. I felt like I had a grease splotch on my back all over again.
“No, she didn’t. I’m not married. But I’m glad you like the blouse, Mary. I was afraid you might not, not knowing you and your tastes very well….”
The door was open and I leaped through.
“I want to have you for dinner,” I said. The words arced in my throat and sloshed out across the wire like a tsunami in the storm of the millennium.
Silence on the other end. Then, was that a chuckle or a choke?
My teeth began to chatter.
“What’s that clicking noise?” he asked.
I turned the receiver so the voice end pointed up in the air. My chattering teeth sounded like a sinking sailor sending out a frantic SOS. I had to save the ship.
“C-clicking noise …?” I took a deep breath.
“You sound far away,” he said. “Is something wrong with your phone?”
I turned the receiver around. “Is that better?”
“I’d like to cook dinner for you Saturday,” I said.
“Yes, at my place.” My voice sounded small, like the mouse inviting the cat into the den.
“I have plans this Saturday,” he said.
I knew it, I just knew it. Buy her the blouse and throw her overboard. Why would a thoughtful, handsome guy with waves of dimples and eyes blue as the high seas on a cloudless day want to have dinner with a mushroom named Mary? I wished I had lied about my name. Maybe he wouldn’t have noticed my asymmetric body, my crooked nose, or my jagged hairline.
“But I’ll take a rain check. What about next Saturday?”
“What?” Maybe my hearing was faulty, too.
“What about next Saturday?”
It was set then. Waiting that long would be like waiting for a bus to Venus, but at least he was coming. And it gave me time to go on a diet.
So, everyday for a week I ate one large strawberry for lunch. My other meals were not much more elaborate. Not that I could have eaten more anyway.
My teeth still chattered from time to time, and Mr. Harbinger kept giving me strange looks.
By Saturday my teeth chattered like rapid-fire teletype transmission of the latest global catastrophe. If I lost any more weight my bones would rattle. I didn’t know what he liked to eat. I could have asked him, but I had stayed away from the cafeteria and Market Research all week, partly because I wasn’t eating—my chattering teeth would have pulverized even beef jerky instantaneously—and partly because I didn’t want him to see me with my teeth chattering.
I decided to bake him my special chicken recipe. I figured that was safe. Most people like chicken. He was coming at 7. By 6:30 the chicken and a couple of sweet potatoes were in the double ovens. The last slice of cucumber slipped neatly from my knife and settled into the salad. Covering the bowl with plastic wrap, I slid it into the refrigerator.
In my bedroom I dressed before the full-length mirror. I put on the new blouse he’d given me. I congratulated myself for sticking to my diet and him for choosing the right color. I took no chances getting dressed before making the dinner. I could just picture myself greeting him at the door all slathered in melted butter and cucumber seeds.
I still had to apply my makeup. I looked at the clock—6:45. What if he was early? I’d probably have to answer the door with a bag over my head or something. No way would I let him see me without my makeup. I switched on the radio. “Deh—sssperado—” crooned plaintively over the airwaves at me.
“Oh, jeez,” I muttered. My hands trembled so much I had jaggedly colored in two-thirds of each eyelid with my eyeliner. I had to wash it off and start over. I reset the lights on my makeup mirror to “night.” I looked pretty good, I thought. I wished the whole world were always on night setting, or at least that they’d put in night setting bulbs at work instead of those horrible fluorescent jobs that make you look so green and consumptive all the time.
Of mirrors, my friend Nancy advised, “Just glance.” Maybe if I positioned myself obliquely in front of him he’d have to just glance at me.
A voice on the radio announced it was time for the 7:00 news. Then it happened. The knock at the door.
I picked up my hairbrush for one last dash at my hair. The brush shot across the room. Somehow I made it to the door without stumbling over the furniture. It must have taken me ten minutes to open it, though. The latch got stuck, then my hands kept slipping off the knob just as I’d get it turned almost all the way. Either everything in my apartment had suddenly gotten clammy, or it was my hands. The door sticks, too. Suddenly it swung wide and I lurched back about six feet, the door almost flattening my face like that of a girl posed against a fake scenic backdrop in a framed old photo on the wall.
“What on earth were you doing in there?” My upstairs neighbor Jenny had come to return the skirt she’d borrowed from me last week. “Mmm, smells good in here. Oh, I forgot. Tom’s coming to dinner tonight. Wow, you look great. Is that the blouse he gave you? It’s beautiful.” She paused, and then, “Wait— come here, over here in the light. Your face is redder on one side than the other. Looks as if you’ve got more blush on that side.” She pointed at my left cheek.
I rubbed it. “How’s that?”
“A little more,” she said. “There. That’s perfect. Well…have fun, Sweetie.” She gave me a quick hug, thrust my skirt into my arms, turned and ran upstairs.
I looked at the clock—7:15. He’d forgotten.
A knock. This time the grace with which I opened the door nearly bowled me over. He stood outside on the little patio looking in through the screen door at me, and for an instant all time swayed in some kind of delicate fibrous suspension.
He smiled. I reached for the latch and opened the door. He entered, brushing past me, then turning, handing me a dozen pink roses and a bottle of white merlot. Why does the passage of time enhance men’s looks? I set out the wine glasses and he poured while I placed the roses in a vase on the table. Then I remembered the dinner in the oven. He selected some music while I went into the kitchen to get things ready.
I opened the first oven door. The chicken looked gorgeous, baked to perfection. I opened the second door. One of the sweet potatoes had exploded and hung like Spanish moss all over the oven. I would rather have greeted him at the door stained with grease and draped in cucumber seeds than this. Quickly, I shut the oven door, setting the good potato on his plate.
He lit the candles for me and we sat down to eat.
“I’m dieting,” I said when he asked me where my potato was. I probably would have choked on it anyway.
I was glad he had brought the wine. I guzzled down the first glass so fast that for a moment he thought he’d forgotten to pour me some. But it kept my hands from shaking so much and knocking things all over the place.
By the end of dinner my trembling had subsided and my teeth didn’t chatter even once the whole evening. I could just imagine them clanking wildly against the wine glass. When he’d finished eating, he laid his napkin beside his plate, pushed the plate back a little, and leaning back in his chair, studied me. It wasn’t the first time that evening he’d gazed at me. From time to time I’d rub my cheek, thinking maybe I still hadn’t gotten the excess blush off.
“That blouse—” he began.
Oh, no. The buttons were undone.
“The color—you’re so— the color—becomes you. You have nice hair.”
The buttons weren’t undone.
“You look—your eyes— you looked—before, that morning in the lobby—you
He was coming undone.
“You looked very pretty then.” He leaned forward, easing in close, slowly, like a schooner coming into dock. “Now, you look … beautiful.” He unfurled this word with care, like a length of white satin.
I grabbed for the ropes. And, had I leaned much more forward I would have fallen in and drowned in those vast blue pools. Or rather, more likely I would have drowned in the little yellow pools of melted butter and cucumber seeds in my plate.
I got up and cleared away the dishes. He helped. As he moved close to me in the kitchen I felt his gentle strength. A sudden desire to turn off all the lights surged over me. I scraped the chicken bones into the trash.
He didn’t just bring the dishes into the kitchen and leave them strewn all over the counter. He methodically cleaned everything off and put things away. Cleaning up after meals was never that easy for me. I’d usually just stand there and stare at things awhile, not knowing where to start.
I was standing at the sink, my back to him, when I heard the fatal squeak: the oven door. The warm rose color crept from my blouse up over my ears and deep into my hairline.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“I just can never do things right,” I blurted. “Every time I want things to be wonderful and perfect, everything goes wrong. Why can’t I be beautiful and together and romantic? You’d never see this happening to Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts—”
“May-rr-yyy—” he drew out my name slowly … easing the satin sail up the mast. “Don’t think that way. You are beautiful and romantic—and what’s more, you’re human.”
He gathered up all the little pieces of me into those words and held me tenderly in the warm pools of his gaze. The potato image dissipated; my trepidations ebbed, revealing the unique creature beneath the surface, the real, and yes, sublime Mary.
We talked and our conversation rose and fell and rose again like a schooner on a softly swelling and rolling sea.
The candle flames flickered like beacons in the night.
As we shared our stories and thoughts, I found myself telling him things that I wouldn’t tell Jenny or my best friend Kate—well, maybe Kate. He listened, he really listened to what I had to say, supporting me in ways no one else could.
Other guys delighted in me most when they were telling all the stories. The minute I’d begin talking they’d smile patronizingly, letting me get out about half a paragraph, then they’d dart ahead full throttle, leaving me bobbing wildly in their wakes. But when Tom smiled it was through the pleasure of our discovering new harbors within each other.
I made us some tea. I held the cup in both my hands, savoring the warm liquid, drifting at anchor somewhere among the coves of his dimples and the blue pools of his eyes. From somewhere deep within me a small emotion swelled up and out, growing bigger and bigger, like a genie from a magic lamp: I like him. I mean, I really like him.
Without warning, he turned and looked at the clock. Darn, I had forgotten to turn its face to the wall.
“It’s three o’clock,” he tolled.
I must have knocked the plug out of the wall when I vacuumed this afternoon….
“Three a.m. I’d better leave so you can get some sleep.”
He stood by the door. I stood next to him. Neither of us spoke. I looked up at him. He looked down at the doorknob. I looked down at the floor. I looked back up at him. He moved closer. A small suction sound, a vacuum being released. I stepped back. The door swung wide. He was standing outside on the patio thanking me for the evening. The screen door stood firmly latched between us. A gentle mist hung in the air. The yellow light from above the door tumbled down the screen in broad, amorphous patches. He hesitated. I waited. He stood in a kind of gauzy, yellow halo, like a distant boat in a swath of light thrown by a channel buoy across the still waters of a turning tide. In a moment I flung myself through the screen and into his arms. In my dreams. He turned and melted into the darkness. Somewhere on the street I heard an engine turn over and then drone away into the night.
“Come back,” I pleaded into the sudden sharp hollowness of the room, “please come back.” A mockingbird chirped twice as if to dispel the damp night air, then winged its way to some unknown perch. I was a long time sinking into sleep.
The ringing phone startled me. I opened my eyes. Early sunlight eddied about my room steeping it in soft gold.
It’s Harbinger. It’s Monday. I’ve overslept. “Hello?”
I knew the voice. The day grew brighter. Circles of warm sunlight draped the walls and chest-of-drawers like doubloons and created a golden archepelago across the floor.
“There’s a yacht where they serve great omelettes while you cruise around the harbor. How ’bout some breakfast?”
He’d returned to port.
– The End –