On Tuesday night, around five p.m., the two of them—Odile and Jack—are in the break room just before their shift starts. And they are staring at each other suspiciously, Odile peering from behind a diet soda pop can, eating a peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off. And Jack begins to talk first, asking, “So, are you working tonight?”
“Duh,” she says, smiling, with a mouth full of bread.
“I guess so,” he says.
“We all know what’s going on here. You don’t have to be weird about it.”
“What’s going on here?” he asks, smiling.
“I am not going to even dignify that with a response,” she says, smiling again.
“Wait. What do you think’s going on here?” he asks again.
But she doesn’t say a word, only keeps eating her sandwich, smiling.
He is encouraged by her nonanswer for some reason. Maybe she’s interested in me. Perhaps, well, no, but, maybe. And so Jack says: “Are you going to order something to eat tonight? On your break?”
“Well, let me know. I’ll order something too.”
“Fine,” she says, still glancing over the top of her soda pop can. “But I’m paying for my own. We’re not going steady or anything.”
“Okay,” he replies, a little disappointed at what she has said, but not disappointed enough to stop being interested. Because, immediately, he catches himself staring at her again. He catches himself trying to memorize the shape of her eyes and wide face. He watches her get up and leave the break room and then he asks the cloud of air where she has just been sitting why it’s so freaking lovely.
And then he punches in on the time-card machine and walks over to his cubicle and Odile is already answering the phone, and he looks downs and sees she’s taken her off shoes. Which is sort of weird. And when she finishes her call, she leans back in her chair and looks at him, not saying anything at first. She runs her fingers through her hair, arranging her bangs, and then announces: “We are not going to have sex. I want to tell you that right now. I don’t have sex with people I don’t know. It makes it too weird too soon.”
“I wasn’t even thinking that,” he says. “Why would you even say that?” he asks, blushing, feeling the heat of his face reaching his neck.
“I know that look you have. I think I know what you are thinking.”
“We’re adults,” he says quickly. “I’m only here to work. I won’t bother you or anything.”
“Fine,” she says. “Great.”
“Great,” he repeats.
“We’re too good of work friends anyways.”
“I mean, we’re probably too much alike,” she says.
“Yeah, it would be too weird. If things didn’t work out.”
“These things never work out,” she says.
“Exactly,” he says.
“Right,” he adds. “Exactly.”
“And who needs all the weirdness?”
Both of their noses twitch as they peer at each other. She tugs on the corner of her gray cardigan sweater and looks as disappointed as he does and then disappears back behind the gray cubicle wall.
But then at one a.m., in the elevator, on the way down to the lobby, Jack zipping up his coat, Odile fitting her white hat over her head and then buttoning up her green parka, she turns to Jack and asks, “Do you want to get some coffee somewhere?” and Jack says yes faster than he ever has said any single word before. And they find their two bicycles parked opposite each other, and both of them unlock their bikes, and they ride side by side through the bleary downtown snow.
AND AT 1:17 A.M. THAT SAME NIGHT.
They get two cups of coffee at a small diner on Chicago Avenue and begin to plan their violent art movement together. It will be called the Art Terrorists. Or the Art Brutes. Or maybe just the Anti-Rationalists. And they discuss these names, straight-faced, as Odile pours two creams and three sugars into her coffee. And then she looks up at Jack pensively and says: “You know, those are some really weird-looking glasses.” She points to her own face and makes a ghastly expression, as if she has been forced to wear them. “What did you do to them?”
Jack touches the fingers of his left hand to the frames of the black glasses and shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve broken them a few times, I guess. I was wearing them when I had my last bike accident.”
“Oh. Well, I think they’re pretty awesome. In a fucked-up sort of way.”
Jack nods, unsure what that compliment actually means. His glasses have never felt so awkward on his face. He pushes them up against the bridge of his nose. And then he does not know what to say after that. He looks down into his coffee, and then checks his watch, and then looks down at his coffee again.
“So,” he says.
“So,” he repeats.
“I’m kinda seeing someone. I think I ought to let you know.”
“Okay,” he says, feeling his face crash and twinge in an expression of disappointment he knows he is unable to hide.
“We’re not really talking at the moment. But still.”
“In case you had any ideas.”
“I don’t have any ideas,” he says, the falseness of the words hanging in the air with their dismal tone.
“What about you? Are you seeing anyone?” she asks.
And he thinks and looks down at his empty left hand, his empty ring finger, and says, “No.”
“So, do you want to go to my place and hang out? We can watch a movie. I have almost all of Truffaut’s work on video. Have you ever seen The 400 Blows?”
“You want to go to your place?” he says, the shock of the question nearly knocking the slumpy glasses from his face.
“Sure. Why not?”
And so they do, Jack riding his blue ten-speed behind Odile, watching the way the ends of her dark hair flit out from under her winter cap like wings. And they are riding past the small hillocks of snow and ice and everywhere there is music, the softening key of pink and silver lights.
AT HER APARTMENT.
Jack helps Odile carry her bicycle up the snow-fjorded stairs, each of them taking a wheel. And then he runs down and gets his blue ten-speed. It is almost two a.m. now. And he can see a series of white footprints trailing past the moldy carpeting of the third-floor landing where Odile is searching her parka for her keys. “Just a sec,” she says, and leans up against the door. “We have to be quiet. My roommate works mornings,” and in they go, the apartment sparsely decorated, Jack taking in the garage-sale furnishings-the antique though very modern-looking lamps, the poster of Serge Gainsbourg-and then he parks his bicycle beside hers across from a brass-colored radiator. And the way Odile stands there, watching him take off his wet shoes, it is like they have done this together a million times before, her leaning there, smiling, her face ruddy, cheeks pink from the cold, arms folded across her chest, waiting, not impatient, but waiting, as if the two of them already know each other, and have already spent countless nights together. And he walks across the apartment in his damp gray socks and bumps into the couch and Odile laughs and whispers, “Shhhh,” and it’s like they’re kids, like this is only a game, just some practical joke.
BUT THEN SITTING ON THIS GIRL’S BED.
Instead of beginning to kiss each other savagely, instead of undressing themselves with that random sense of urgency, they sit beside each other quietly, Odile with her legs folded beneath her, Jack with his two feet on the messy floor, articles of clothing and books and vinyl record albums strewn about in a performance piece of absolute messiness, and what Odile does then is take out photo album after photo album, turning the plastic-coated pages, pointing at people Jack does not know.
“This is my dad,” she says. “Before he shaved his beard. Now he looks like a newscaster. He used to be a pretty famous artist. My mom’s an artist too. They do these amazing woodland scenes in oil. Hotels have their stuff all over the country.”
Jack nods, sees the rugged face, the conservative smile.
“This is my mom. This must be back in the ’70s. Or maybe the ’80s. I can’t tell. Look at those earrings.”
And here Jack can see the same neck, the narrow litheness, and he nods.
“Here’s my grandma. She’s probably my favorite person in the world.”
And her grandmother is sitting on top of an older man’s lap, the two of them wearing paper party hats. “That’s one of her boyfriends, Hank. She has three of them. Boyfriends, I mean. And two of them are named Hank.”
“She looks like she knows how to have fun.”
‘“She does. I spent all of my summers with her, growing up. I have five brothers, so in the summer my parents let me go live there with her. She lives just outside Minneapolis. That’s where I’m from. Minneapolis, I mean.”
“You’re from Minneapolis?”
Jack looks at her and smiles, surprised for some reason. “You don’t look like it,” he says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I really don’t know,” he quietly admits. He looks down at the photo album and asks, “Who’s that?” He points to a teenage boy with a long dark mullet.
“That’s my oldest brother. He’s in jail now.”
“Yeah. We don’t hear from him much.”
“Who’s that guy?” Jack asks, pointing to another young man with a mullet, this one with a long scar running down the side of his face.
“That’s Randy. He’s my brother too. He’s the second oldest. He was in a motorcycle accident when he was sixteen and hasn’t been the same since.”
“You have five brothers? And you’re the only girl?”
“Yep. Four older, and one younger. The older ones are all a mess. My younger brother, Ike, he’s still in high school. He’s having a hard time of it right now but I think he’s going to be okay. My parents, they kind of didn’t believe in rules. They’re creative-types, you know, hippies, so . . . my family is all a little nuts.”
“Do you miss Minneapolis?”
“Who me? No way. I mean I do. Not the people. But the place. When I was in high school, we used to get drunk and roam around the Skyway. That’s in St. Paul.”
“The Skyway. It’s like this thing. This thing that connects all the buildings downtown because it’s so cold. You can get around without going outside. The Replacements have a song about it.”
“I don’t think I ever heard it.”
“Oh. Well. That’s basically the only thing I miss. The Skyway. That and my parents. And my grandma.”
And she nods, looking down at the red polyvinyl photo album again.
“Hold on a second,” he says, and digs into the pockets of his gray parka. He finds the silver tape recorder in the left pocket, checks to be sure there’s a tape in it, and then points it at her.
Odile looks down at the silver recorder and frowns. “What’s that?”
“It’s for this project I’m working on. Do you mind me asking you a few questions? Imagine you’re a television star and I’m a television reporter.”
“Just this thing. All you have to do is be yourself and just answer the questions.”
“Okay,” she says, rolling her eyes a little.
“Okay, the girl from the office,” he announces directly into the recorder.
“Okay. First name and age.”
“Um, your name, and then your age.”
“Okay,” she says, leaning forward. “Odile, twenty-three.”
“Okay. Shoe size?”
“Seven and a half.”
“What famous person would you be and why?”
“I really don’t like famous people.”
“Okay. Superman’s girlfriend.”
“Okay,” he says. “Do you have any distinguishing features?”
“I have an overbite. And my shoulders are kind of narrow.”
“Okay. What crime have you committed recently?”
She pauses and then says, “I slept with a married man.”
And Jack looks down at the tape recorder, making a surprised expression, eyebrows tilting up. “Really?”
“Really,” she says. “I’m not proud of it. But it just keeps happening.”
“Okay,” he says, feeling his heart sink a little. “Okay. Well. Here’s a tough one: Do you think I have a big forehead?” he asks. “Or is it perfectly proportioned?”
“My forehead. Is it too big? Or is it just large enough to be called handsome?”
“No. It’s okay.”
“It wouldn’t prevent you from going out with me?”
“Duh,” she says.
“Okay. So what do you think of telephone sales?”
“I’ve done it before. For a couple years. I don’t mind it. But I’ve actually been thinking about moving to Greenpoint, in Brooklyn. I have a friend out there and she said I could stay for a while, until I get my own place. Our lease is up at the end of the month and my roommate is a little nuts and so I’m thinking about going to New York. I just don’t know. It’s so big and I don’t want to get swallowed up.”
“Oh,” he says, feeling his heart sink again. He switches off the tape recorder and stares down at it, then shoves it back into his coat. “Well, I’ve never been to New York, but I hear it’s for assholes.”
“Well, that’s what I heard. Cool people don’t live there anymore. They all live here. In Chicago.”
“Yeah, right,” she says, smiling larger than he has seen her smiling before, a dimple peeking out along her left cheek.
And here he smiles, seeing her smile, and pushes his glasses up against the bridge of his nose and says, “I was thinking. Do you mind me asking how you spell your name? Because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
“Odile. O-d-i-l-e. It’s my grandmother’s name. Which is maybe why I like her so much. We’re kind of like twins.”
“It’s a really great name.”
“Really? I don’t know. My brothers, all of them have these really boring names. And for some reason, because I was the only girl, my mom decided to get creative. So . . . I dunno. I used to hate it. I used to get teased about it all the time in grade school.”
“I tried to get my parents to change it. They told me I could if I wanted. So I started signing my name on my papers at school as Jennifer. And sometimes Kelly.”
“So they let you change it?”
“Yeah, I dunno, they were really weird like that. They once took us all to the Empire State Building because one of my brothers was doing a history project about it.”
“That’s really nice.”
“I like them okay.”
“So did you change it back? Your name?”
“Yeah. I don’t know. I guess I realized at some point it didn’t matter what my name was. People still thought I was the same person. And anyways, like I said, I really love my grandma, so I got used to it.”
“I never knew any of my grandparents. They were all dead before I was born.”
“That’s too bad. My grandma, she used to give me a little glass animal every year for my birthday. You know, those little pink glass animals? I still have them. Most of them are broken but I still have about five or six of them.”
“Which is your favorite?”
Odile pauses here, thinking. She stands up and then crosses over to a small desk and lifts up a tiny pink animal, made entirely of glass. She hands it to him.
Jack stares at it, at the odd angles of its joints and limbs, and asks, “What is it supposed to be?”
“A unicorn? Where’s its horn?”
“It’s broken off. It broke when I moved here.”
Jack looks down and sees, on the animal’s head, a small rough circle where the horn was once attached.
“So why’s this one your favorite?”
“I don’t know. I like it better now that it’s broken. It’s kind of down on its luck. It seems more realistic for some reason.”
Jack nods and hands it back to her. Odile sets it down on her desk and then returns to the bed. The two of them sit beside each other on the bed for a long moment, the sound of the radiator in the other room ticking off the seconds of their stilted breaths. Odile hums a little something to herself and then sighs.
“So,” she says.
“So are you really seeing someone right now? Or did you just say that so I wouldn’t try anything?”
Odile nods and then shrugs her shoulders. “I mean, he’s not my boyfriend or anything. We’re just seeing each other. We never talk unless I call. It’s kind of over, I guess.”
“It is. So what about you? You’re not seeing anyone?” she asks.
“No, I’m . . . I’m kind of going through a divorce right now.”
“I’m definitely going through a divorce right now.”
“Wow. How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. Almost twenty-six.”
“And you’re already divorced?”
“Yep. That’s one life goal already crossed off my list. And I feel pretty good about it. Not really. Actually, I feel pretty bad about it.”
“So,” she says, “what happened?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about it some other time. It’s kind of complicated.”
“Okay,” she says. “So do you want to see something amazing?”
“Sure,” he answers, smiling at her giddiness.
She leans over and reaches beneath the bed and pulls out an old-looking comic book, Abstract Adventures in Weirdo World, and hands it to him. Jack smiles and begins to slowly turn the pulpy pages, taking in the weird geometric shapes, the absurd juxtapositions of body parts and animals.
“What is this?” he asks.
“It’s a comic book I found. I got it at a garage sale a couple months ago. It’s by this guy Frank Porter who I never heard of.”
“It’s pretty psychedelic.”
“Yeah, I think this one is from 1974 or so. I went and looked him up in the library. Apparently, he made all these comics just to amuse himself. Because he couldn’t be around people. You can see he was totally into R. Crumb’s style. It’s so trippy and globular-looking. I think this was like a year or so before he stopped making comics. He was only like twenty-four, twenty-five. And then he just gave it up and became a janitor.”
“But he drew hundreds of these comics before he stopped making them, and then, after he died, his sister found all of them. I think he ended up hanging himself. I’m pretty sure this is actually kind of valuable now.”
“Hmmm,” Jack says, inspecting a panel of a triangle with arms, lighting what appears to be a joint.
“It’s funny. I think about him a lot. Like how old people are when they give up, you know? Like before you just accept that your life is going to be the same as everybody else’s. Before you do anything great.”
“I don’t know,” Jack says. “I think about that a lot too.” He flips to another page, seeing a pyramid of silver lines, which upon closer inspection reveal a nude female shape. “These are really weird.”
“I know. And nobody knows about him. He’s kind of my biggest influence. As an artist, I mean. Him and my dad.”
“Yeah, because he works all the time. At first I thought making hotel paintings wasn’t cool. But now I think it’s pretty great. It’s all he does all day. And people actually see what he makes. Even if they are kind of bland. I mean, the other thing is that when I was a kid, my dad had all these art books and everything, lying around, and he would explain them to me. Like Magritte. And Gauguin. I know the reason I want to be an artist is because of my mom and him.”
“That’s pretty cool. My father’s a shrink. We didn’t have any art books lying around when I was a kid. The only cool thing we had growing up was the DSM, which lists all the things that can go wrong with your head. That and The Joy of Sex. But I don’t think either one of my parents ever opened it. They got divorced when I was like five or so. And then she got remarried. To another shrink, this guy David. He’s pretty great actually. I kind think of him as my actual father. He’s the person I call if, you know, I’m ever in trouble.”
“That’s nice you get along with him.”
“Yeah. But then my mom divorced him too, when I was like eight or nine. And then she married some dentist. But we still talk. My first stepdad, David, and me.”
“My parents are so weird. They’re still like teenagers around each other. They still like holding hands. They still smoke a lot of dope, though.”
“Yeah.” And then they both look down at their feet for a few seconds before Odile asks, “So, do you want to see this thing I’ve been working on?”
Odile stands up suddenly and snatches a small green pad from her bureau and then hands it to him. “It’s this notebook I’ve been putting all my ideas in. They’re more concepts of projects than actual projects. Kind of like Yoko Ono.”
Jack nods and flips through it. There are small pencil sketches, quick drawings, and lists. On one of the lined pages it says, Dress like a ghost on the bus. Beneath that it says, Buy some parakeets and turn them loose in front of a playground, or, Act out a scene from a famous movie on the subway, or, Create a banner for some nonexistent event, or, Put on a puppet show in a hospital emergency waiting room.
“These are really great,” Jack says, smiling.
“Yeah, I dunno. One day I’m going to do them all. Right now I’m just coming up with different ideas. I feel like . . . people in this city . . . nothing surprises them anymore. When you live here, there’s just too much going on around you, so you don’t see any of it. It’s hard to get people’s attention. Unless it’s something bad, like a murder or natural disaster or something. Because nobody in this city is surprised by anything.”
Jack nods and looks away for a moment.
It’s late, it’s begun to finally feel late. The streetlamps outside the window have started to shine in a way that suggests that the sun is only an hour or so away from coming up. Odile yawns, covering her mouth with the back of her hand in a polite fashion that Jack thinks is really pretty adorable.
“I guess I should get going.”
“You can stay. If you like. I mean, not to fool around. Just to sleep. Like I said, I don’t sleep with people unless I know them pretty well.”
Jack thinks about how cold it is outside, of his bicycle, and the snow, and then sees this girl and her narrow but warm bed, and says, “Okay. If you don’t mind.”
Odile nods and then pulls off her gray sweater, and she has a soft white T-shirt underneath, which traces the angular shape of her thin frame, and she is unbuttoning her pants but without standing up, which Jack finds pretty fascinating, and then this girl, this person he barely even knows, is in her white underwear, which Jack cannot help but stare at, and she is diving under the blankets, and Jack does not know what to do with himself, and so he unbuttons his shirt and decides to leave his pants on, and he begins to climb under the blankets, and she looks at him and says, “You can take off your pants,” and he nods, and turns around, and wonders what kind of underwear he has on, and he is secretly glad they are boxers, and relatively clean, and he feels an erection beginning to come on, and so he hurries beneath the comforter and sheets, and she turns away from him then, facing the wall, and there is her shoulder, and the shiny strap of her nude-colored bra, and freckle after freckle along her long neck, and he does not know if he should say something or do something else, and so ceases to think, only lies there, and in the absence of thought he listens to the girl breathing, and she turns her head toward him a little and says, “Goodnight,” and they sleep like that together for the first time without really touching each other, but the feeling is enough, at least for now, the inexplicable thrill of someone being beside you in a strange bed, and all that it might mean.
Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is a winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and was a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of six novels and two short story collections including Office Girl, Hairstyles of the Damned, The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, and Demons in the Spring. His short fiction has been published in One Story, McSweeney’s, Swink, LIT, TriQuarterly, Other Voices, Gulf Coast, and broadcast on NPR. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Magazine. He is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
Adapted from Office Girl by Joe Meno. Copyright © 2012 by Joe Meno. With the permission of the publisher, Akashic Books.