Rule No. 1: Never sleep with a co-worker

TWO RULES IN life, if followed absolutely, will serve you well. First, never serve red wine in your home unless you hate your furniture. Second, never, no matter how unhappy, attracted or inebriated you are, sleep with someone who works in your office. Blots from either of these trespasses cannot be eradicated with Liquid Paper.

I have followed these two rules all my life, until this year when I learned to qualify everything. Red wine can be served with dinner, if your tablecloth is washable, but not in the living room beforehand. And, although it is still lunacy to sleep with a co-worker, it is perfectly fine-even healthy-to maintain a full-bodied office crush.

I fell in love with Howard, the mailroom boy, three weeks after my breakup. Like Proust’s unhappy Swann, I fell upon my love object for arbitrary and inappropriate reasons. Howard was 25 years old, and his IQ was not much higher. But he had huge shoulders and lots of sandy hair and the kind of eyes that turned colors depending on which sweater he wore.

I memorized, in a month’s time, every sweater and pair of Levis in Howard’s wardrobe. I loved Howard for his lack of pigment (my heartbreaker had eyes and hair blacker than anyone could ever imagine), for his sweet and simple manner and for this reason above all: He not only didn’t love me, he hardly knew who I was. Loving Howard would divert me from mourning my lost lover and, better yet, keep me from finding another one.

Of course I didn’t know all this last June; I believed I was really in love with the specific essence of Howard himself. I recited his virtues incessantly to Claire, whose office is three doors past mine. Claire and I have shared everything for years: staplers, typewriter ribbons, humiliating confessions.

“Aren’t his shoulders wonderful?” I asked her while she flipped through her Rolodex.


“Howard’s, of course,” I snapped.

“He’s a boy.”

“Boys have bodies.”

“That’s all they have.”

“It’s enough.”

But it wasn’t enough to know that Howard was beautiful; I imbued him with intelligence, too.

“Howard’s so intuitive,” I’d tell Claire as we poured out morning coffee. The coffee in our office is always some exotic dark roast that costs a lot of money and is brewed meticulously by Duane. Duane is very organized. Sometimes he brings in croissants for everybody, but he always makes sure that each of us pays him back that same day. I don’t eat his croissants. Duane was drinking from a blue coffee mug with a big D on it, pretending not to be eavesdropping. I lowered my voice.

“Really Claire, the right side of Howard’s brain is very well-developed.”

“Isn’t intuitive what you call people who are stupid?” Claire asked.

“He’s not stupid!”

She quickly stepped on my foot, throwing me off balance and spilling my French roast, as Howard approached the coffee pot. He was wearing a green sweater that turned his eyes into two emeralds. And behind those emeralds lived, I was sure, an intuitive and brilliant mind.

“What are you reading, Howard?” the brazen Claire asked. I was struck mute. Howard took the paperback out of his back pocket (I longed to replace it for him) and held up Looking Out for Number One. Claire has a master’s degree in English and never lets you forget it. We all use her as a dictionary; she can spell every word created and knows all about syntax.

“Is it good?” she asked sweetly.

He smiled. His teeth were pearls; his hair was topaz. Howard was Tiffany’s. “Hey, like I’m learning a lot.”

I watched Claire and Duane trying not to laugh and hated them. So he’s reading a narcissistic best-seller, I thought. So what? He’s young. Maybe he still thinks looking out for number one works.

Howard grabbed a croissant, looked through me as if I were Ralph Ellison himself and maneuvered his shoulders through the doorway on his way back to the mail-room. Duane and Claire started snickering the moment he was gone. I wiped coffee off my skirt.

“He doesn’t know I’m alive,” I whispered to Claire.

“He doesn’t know he’s alive,” she advised.

I looked up and saw that Duane’s face wore the look it gets when he’s about to ask me to lunch. I ran back to my office.

DUANE FELL IN love with me right after my breakup, and I know it’s just because I was so visibly unhappy. He’d catch me weeping on the copier, and my tears moved him to lust. I had never considered the salt water of tears an erotic bodily fluid, but Duane did. The unhappier I was, the more he loved me.

I had lunch with him only one time, crying onto my warm cabbage salad while he told me how exquisite I was. Two black trails of mascara crept down my face as he spoke.

“You’ve been deeply hurt,” he said. I saw his hand twitching by the salt shaker. I knew it was heading for my own hand, which I promptly wrapped around a wine glass.

“Who hasn’t?” I said. It occurred to me that Duane hadn’t; otherwise, he wouldn’t say anything so idiotic.

“You’re so brave,” he continued.

“I’m not brave. I’m not exquisite. I’m terrified of the future, I loathe the present and if I think about the past longer than 20 seconds, I have an anxiety attack.”

This declaration sent Duane into a frenzy. He grabbed my hand, looked into my bloodshot eyes and said, “Let’s have dinner tonight.”

IT WAS THAT very afternoon that I came to love Howard. Having decided I loved him, I then set about crossing his golden path at every opportunity. It’s the same at 34 as it is at 16, except you’re not chewing bubble gum, and your skin looks better. During my high school junior year, I broke both legs Monday through Friday getting across campus after third period so I could run into Jeff Nelson after his civics class. Do you think he ever noticed? Do you think Howard noticed that I stopped going out to lunch because I found out he spends every noon hour watching “All My Children” in the office lounge?

I started buying those soap opera newsletters so I could keep track of the plot line. I took my brown-bag lunch to the lounge every day and sat a respectable distance from Howard, whose eyes were always glued to the set.

I tried to initiate conversation during commercials. “Hey, Erica Kane sure looks out for number one all right, hey what?”

“She’s so beautiful,” he gushed.

Great, I thought. Duane loves me because I’m vulnerable and powerless, I love Howard because he’s too stupid to hurt me and Howard loves Erica because she isn’t real. It’s like an ancient Egyptian painting where everyone stands in profile-each person looking ahead to his love object, no one ever turning around to unite with his suitor. I thought of the end of Swann in Love:

To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!

Terrific, I thought. Proust goes to Cairo.

But even thinking about Proust did not keep me from loving Howard. I grew obsessed with his every body part; his earlobes, his forearms when I was lucky enough to see him with his sleeves pushed up, his eyebrows. If he would just kiss me once, I thought, I could stand anything. The sexual tension lifted my spirits; it kept me well-dressed and immersed in expensive perfume for six months.

But as great as I looked and smelled, all I’d acquired after three weeks of watching “All My Children” was a new addiction. I decided it was time to ask Jamie, my supervisor, the pivotal question. He always knew the answer.

“Does watching soaps mean you’re gay?” I asked.

“No, going to the opera does,” he quipped. Jamie is entertaining and beautiful, and if Howard were gay, Jamie would know it because Howard would probably be in love with him. Scores of men are. Maybe scores of deluded women, too-talk about crazy obsession.

“Howard’s not gay,” Jamie assured me. “He’s not that creative.”

Why is everyone so mean to him? I thought. “Do you know if he has a girlfriend?” I pleaded. I’d never seen one around.

“Who cares? He’s affable protoplasm.”

Yes, to everyone but me. If only he’d get sick so I could nurse him back to health. Maybe I could introduce him to literature-replace his how-to books with some John Donne love poetry. Maybe I could feed him.

I tried that. I brought triple-creme brie and fresh pears to the TV lounge, displaying my offerings and thinking of the eating scene in the movie Tom Jones. Howard declined all of it. “I’m a peanut butter guy,” he mumbled. His mouth was glued together, so I knew it was true. Peanut butter! Such youth, such innocence.

Claire promised that if I made her lunch every day she’d buzz me on my com line whenever she saw Howard approaching my office. “Adonis is in the immediate area,” she’d say when I picked up the phone. I’d quickly grab the nearest sheet of paper, race to the copier and try to fall in step with him. “How are you, Howard?” I’d ask.

“Okay,” he’d reply.

Toward fall I was whining uncontrollably. “Why doesn’t Howard love me?” I’d ask Claire every afternoon during coffee break.

She grew so tired of the question that she started answering, “He does love you.”

And I was so brain-damaged that I’d perk up and say, “Really? How do you know?”

Finally, in early December, she took me to lunch and said, as gently as she could: “You say you’re upset because the mailroom boy doesn’t love you. But the real reason you’re upset is that no one loves you right now, and you’re afraid no one ever will again.”

Sometimes Claire can be so obnoxious, and mostly because she is always right. Howard’s inattention was a fabricated hurt I could bear; the inattention of the universe was another matter altogether. Like most people, I’m indignant when I’m not in love and astonished when I am. I just wasn’t ready to face the void quite yet, and I proved it by asking, “Why does his hair look like corn silk?”

ALONG WITH THE coffee and croissants, Duane likes to organize the office Christmas party. He is as fanatic about his eggnog as he is about his French roast, and he insists on making it from scratch. Our party is usually pretty festive. Jamie plays the piano, and Claire and I drink too much, declare eternal friendship and harmonize on carols. There is peace in the conference room and goodwill toward secretaries for a good four hours. Every year it seems that my second life rule-the one about not sleeping with co-workers-is violated by at least two or more drunken people, and I know they are always sorry.

Claire and I bought $30 worth of pate and stuck sprigs of holly into each slab. I looked for a place to hang the mistletoe, wanting only to tape it to my head and then lock Howard and myself in the mailroom. Knowing I couldn’t do this depressed me (Christmas wasn’t depressing enough?), and I asked Duane for more of his comforting homemade eggnog.

He poured me a huge glass and kissed me on the cheek, probably because I was so exquisite and brave. How could he still like me? I thought. I almost made a point of being mean to him. But then I recalled the power of negative stimulus-the meaner you are to people, the better they seem to like it. Just ask Proust.

Howard was wearing a red ski sweater; like a 6-foot ruby, he glittered by the piano where Jamie was pounding out “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and Claire was singing off-key. Duane had his arm around her.

Christmas carols always make me cry. “I wish I’d brought my Phil Spector Christmas album,” I said. “Those Crystals could really wail on ’Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’”

“Who are the Crystals?” Howard asked.

I couldn’t believe he was addressing me.

“They sang ’Da Doo Ron Ron.’”

“They sang what?”

I started singing to my love object-not the sweet strains I’d imagined whispering into his ear in intimate moments, but:

I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still,

Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron;

Somebody told me that his name was Bill,

Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron.

“Shut up!” Claire yelped from the piano bench. “We’re singing carols!”

“I don’t know that song,” said Howard.

And he didn’t want to know that song or about the glory of rock ’n’ roll in general, or how horrible it was when John Lennon died or anything about me whatsoever. He had already ambled off to the food table, passing up our pate for the crunchy peanut butter he’d brought in himself. Peanut butter over paté? I loved this guy?

AND I SWEAR, right there with an egg-nog mustache on my face, I stopped loving Howard. Restored sanity was my Christmas present to myself; I was finally prepared to have no one to love.

I wanted to tell Claire the good news immediately, but she was necking with Duane. Necking with Duane? This was intolerable.

“It’s time for us to go,” I said, joining them on the piano bench and trying to shove Duane off the other end.

Claire looked at me with glazed eyes. “I’m not ready,” she slurred.

“You’re exquisite and brave,” Duane told me, struggling to keep his seat. Well, of course. Duane still loved me for imaginary reasons but would take Claire home if he could manage it. “Love the one you’re with,” as some expedient hippies used to sing. Give me the Crystals anytime.

I dragged Claire out of the office, drove her home and put her to bed with a pitcher of water and a bottle of aspirin next to her clock radio. Then I went home and toasted my new-found liberation with a glass of red wine in my living room. I toasted the end of obsession, the wonderful function of obsession, the Christmas spirit, the Crystals and Marcel Proust.

I didn’t spill a drop of Zinfandel on my white couch-which proves, I guess, that one actually can break that first basic rule. As for the second rule, the one about not consummating office crushes, I still have faith in its wisdom. The joy of unrequited love is that it stays unrequited. Someday Duane will understand this and forgive me, I am sure.

Joy to the World. Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron.


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