It wasn’t until I saw her that I knew it and then even at that point it hit me and hit me hard. I’d seen her for years knew the face knew the eyes and sometimes the sound of her voice, but we were not friends not even acquaintances just two people moving in the same spaces without ever knowing the other one.
She had the key to the building and I needed it just once, but one time is all it takes.
She worked in the lab. So did I. Opposite ends of the building.
I found her on the phone. She didn’t know I was there looking, listening and trying not to eavesdrop, but doing it anyway and watching her shadow her fingers twisting the long beige curled cord the only parts of her I could see. It sounded like a breakup, but wasn’t or maybe it was an explanation for her recent actions her involvement in what sounded like a questionable date with someone other than her husband. I knew nothing of her and standing on the slick now dark linoleum floor in the hallway leaning against the beige painted walls outside her office wasn’t providing any answers. I couldn’t tear myself away from her low sweet sounds even as the words that came out got stronger and more tense. I liked hearing her speak.
I shuffled my feet my patent leather shoe polished shined black loafers accompanied by gray slacks a white starched button up shirt and a red and black striped tie. Finally, I decided to adjust my tie with two fingers and then I cleared my throat a habit but in this case possibly a necessity.
She hung up almost immediately at least the hallway was quiet now and not full of lilting southern accent echoes. She peered around the corner looked me up and down her eyes stopping on my ID badge. She muttered “Jack, from the other side of the building. Do I know you?” in such a way it sounded like one sentence.
I stared, sputtered, coughed, cleared my throat all those stalling for time techniques you use when you want to get up the nerve to ask someone out, but don’t or do and get nowhere that’s where I was staring at her porcelain skin, black bob haircut, green eyes. I wasn’t thinking colleague I was thinking in terms of school boy school girl antics. It was stupid, but I couldn’t stop myself.
She stared at me looked away and stared some more. Her words still flowed all together in a lilting tongue, but I had no trouble understanding her.
“You heard all that I suppose that’s what I get for taking a personal call here. Really doing more than that here, but you didn’t hear all that, did you? Or did you? It doesn’t matter if you did I don’t care anymore I’m through with him anyway I should be through with him and should’ve been a long time ago I don’t know what I was thinking how I endured it all for so long.” She paused for a moment. Swallowed a few times. Licked her lips. “So Jack from the other side of the building, what exactly do you need? Besides to buy me a drink and not like that because I don’t know you that well and I’m not sure if I want to, but you heard it and you’re here so you can do that, can’t you right?” She played with her hair for second. “Speak up, Jack from the other side of the building what do you need?”
I was stunned – I was more than stunned she was more than direct and usually I didn’t like that in a woman or any kind of female, but in her I liked it. I sputtered. I coughed. I straightened my tie. It was useless. I could hardly speak. She sighed and rolled her eyes at me. She punched me in the arm a light punch, one that was sharp but not one that hurt.
“The key. I need the key to the inner sanctum. You’re the only one that has it that’s here and that’s in town. It’s not something I can email about so I walked over here and–.”
“Eavesdropped. You were eavesdropping. Not just walking Jack. Jack. Walking. From the other side of the building. Okay. Let me shut the door, lock the door, get my purse. We’ll head to the sanctum because I have the key.”
She did have the key she wore it around her neck on a pink lanyard non-standard issue and it was decorated with numbers that must’ve been for service awards or something. I started to ask how long she’d worked in the building the giant gray rectangle with the smoke glass windows the locals referred to as the slab, but she looked at me with those green eyes daring me to speak so I didn’t I just trotted along behind her like the long lost school boy she turned me into. She wore heels and they clacked on the floor and I wondered why a woman as tall as she was even needed them but she wore them well. It was then as I looked at the long black stemmed heels that I reminded myself I was married. Yes, Jack from the other side of the building was married.
While I was reminding myself my inner voice going off like thoughts in the head that pass through when you’re sitting way too long in a doctor’s office waiting on essentially nothing and so that’s what I was waiting on from her nothing no sound no words to lead me in the right direction. At the door to the sanctum, she was equally silent biting her lip and glaring and holding the key so tight she made an impression on her fingertips on her skin. She stopped glaring ended the silence as soon as the lock clicked and the inner door opened.
She stood inside waved me in with one hand and followed behind me the door clanging shut with a thud one I imagined that echoed to the other side of the building where I worked.
She stopped at the light panel, pointed, looked at me and waited until I nodded. The lights flickered on with a soft orange glow and blue hues that cascaded down the shadows bouncing in criss cross patterns.
My mouth was dry and I started towards the section I wanted, after the data I needed, but I couldn’t move completely her hand was on my arm pulling me back a little.
She whispered “Jack from the other side of the building do you have clearance for that is that something you really need do you have your paperwork?”
I sighed, hung my head and dug around in my pockets like an old man in church fumbling with their change except I wasn’t making any noise I was quiet I was earth still outer space quiet.
“Here. You can look if you want.” I still didn’t know her name and I wasn’t able to ask as I was afraid to ask.
She took the papers, glanced at them and let go of my arm. She smiled and I was sold except the smile faded as quickly as it had appeared disappearing into the blue hues of the shadows.
“Get what you need,” she whispered.
I pulled the drive out, dropped it in my coat pocket. She handed my papers back to me. She did look at the slot, the empty blank space only large enough to hold a small hard drive. The space was labeled and she read it, glanced at me and read it again.
“I didn’t know they worked on that on your side of the building” she said all in one breath again no pause and very little enunciation.
I nodded. “Didn’t used to. Got assigned it. What with all the riots and stuff.”
“There’s limits. That’ll do it. Limits on air, space, sustenance, on breathing. Nothing much left.”
“We were supposed to discover more resources. Isn’t happening.”
She pointed to the door. “Jack from the other side of the building, how about that drink?”
“You aren’t afraid?”
She smiled. She laughed. She shook her head. “I’m paid not to be, Jack. So are you.”